Are the Chiefs Set For a Free Fall Like the 2009 Broncos?

DENVER - NOVEMBER 14: Head coach Todd Haley of the Kansas City Chiefs walks off the field following the Chiefs 49-29 loss to the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on November 14 2010 in Denver Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

It was bound to happen. The Chiefs were bound to get blown out one of these games. Now the wheels have fallen completely off the bandwagon.

Let me remind everyone of two critical points. Write them down. Study them hard. Pop quiz yourself. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

  • This is the first game the Chiefs lost in convincing fashion. The fact that it happened 9 games into the season isn't a bad thing
  • The Chiefs all season long have been an average, non-playoff team cloaked in exquisite robes

Did you take notes? If you didn't, read the above points again.

Enough of this ridiculous talk about the Chiefs falling out. Enough ridiculous talk or comments about Todd Haley coaching for his job. Enough ridiculous comments about Todd Haley losing his team. Long story short, this is a team that still has talent gaps that has been largely overachieving all season long. Despite that, yesterday was the first game all season where they were never really in a position to win. That means the problem isn't with the team or the coach; the problem is with the unrealistic expectations put on this team as a result of finally winning games.

I'll explain more after the jump.

Easy schedules are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's been a great ride to watch the Chiefs win games and reignite conversations that the Chiefs could be primed for a playoff run. Given the remaining schedule, there is definitely truth to those claims. They could back their way into the playoffs. The problem is, a few wins can often encourage people to take their eyes off the prize. Because the Chiefs were "so close" to being a playoff contender, we fans convinced ourselves that Randy Moss was the last missing piece to this puzzle. Yeah, we actually had that conversation. Remember that?

If there's anything we've learned the last two weeks it's that the Chiefs are more than a superstar away from being a legit playoff contender. That's soberingly bad news for some, but it's also news that I hope will keep people grounded after losses like these. That's not a bad thing. What the Chiefs have shown this season is that they are competitors and overachievers. They won their first five games by playing beyond their talent level. Even in a blowout loss, you had to like the fire and determination the offense showed to play as if a 35-point game was actually within reach. I railed on Dwayne Bowe quite a bit for his key drop last week, but last week might have been a turning point for me. I don't care if it was garbage time. I've heard some people complain that he was celebrating meaningless Touchdowns or padding his stats. Who cares? What impressed me more was the way Bowe was throwing his body everywhere, taking a few heavy shots, bouncing up only to take another shot, all in meaningless minutes. The guy played every single meaningless 4th quarter snap as if it were the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. You can't even get Randy Moss to play with that much intensity in a close game, let alone a blowout.  If Bowe can show that kind of focus and determination all season long on a consistent basis, we might have the makings of a superstar.

However, the truth is, the Chiefs were also exposed in several ways. Well, "exposed" isn't the right word to use. It's more appropriate to say that the Chiefs showed their true colors in certain ways that only started to come to light when they started losing games.  Some can be fixed this season and some can be fixed after the season. We just have to remind ourselves that we're not out of the rebuild just yet and that we only had so many opportunities last offseason to fix the multiple problems that existed. Here are some of those things that really stood out to me:

  • Depth: When a good team like the Steelers loses a player to injury, they have a player on the bench that could probably compete for a starting position on most teams. That's what happens when you consistently make good personnel decisions via free agency or the draft. When the Chiefs lose players, they have to draw from a much shallower pool of talent. That's not uncommon for a team just starting to find their groove from a personnel standpoint. You can't build a 53-player deep roster in just 2-3 years. The Chiefs really suffered from losing Kendrick Lewis and Jon McGraw and it's a big reason why the Chiefs got annihilated in the deep passing game. I wonder if we are also starting to see some small signs of fatigue.
  • Matt Cassel: I know the general sentiment is that Matt Cassel had a pretty good game against Denver. Not from my perspective. I don't care what his final numbers say or how well he passed against a prevent defense. What Cassel did in the second half validates what I already like about Cassel as a player and a person: he's a warrior who plays with a great deal of passion. The problem is, Cassel proved yet again that he's difficult to rely on when the team needs him most. Yet again, Cassel was extremely ineffective on 3rd downs. He single-handedly killed the first 4 drives by throwing one pass 5 yards over Charles' head, overthrowing an open Chambers, taking a coverage sack instead of throwing the ball away (forcing a longer 52-yard missed field goal), and then fumbling the ball and giving the Broncos an easy 7 points. Here's why I bring Cassel up: the Chiefs have gotten away with brutally slow starts and horrible finishes on offense all season long, largely because the defense has bailed them out. Cassel is a 50% passer in the first quarter and a 41.7% passer in the 4th Quarter when the game is within 7 points. Yikes. As the Chiefs play tougher teams, particularly in the playoffs, the Chiefs aren't going anywhere if they take a full quarter to get going and if they are that lackluster late in a close game. If this is Cassel's team, he needs to demonstrate leadership by proving to the team that he can produce when they need him the most. To me, at 14-0, the defense was crying for help. At 21-0, the defense was begging for help. In those situations, of course the defense is to blame, but a true leader does not miss the kinds of plays Cassel missed.   
  • Clear Gaps at Skill Positions: I don't think the Chiefs have overly glaring holes at key positions like Nose Tackle and a pass rushing OLB outside of Tamba Hali, but they are glaring enough to limit the Chiefs from reaching their full potential. The Chiefs got swallowed up in the pass rush against Denver and are still several players away from being where they need to be. Once again, for a team trying to build through the draft, you expect to have a few gaps. As the Chiefs continue to draft better and start using their money on marquee free agents, those gaps will disappear. It's something that will limit the Chiefs in 2010, but it's not something that concerns me beyond 2010.
  • Imperfections and Mistakes: I mentioned it last week when the Chiefs lost to the Raiders. Of course no team wants to make stupid mistakes, but overachieving teams like the Chiefs absolutely cannot afford to make those mistakes. They are going to win games through flawless execution of the gameplan, sound fundamentals, and mistake-free football. The Chiefs played less mistake-free than what we saw in Oakland, but this is still not the disciplined team we saw play against San Diego.

The Chiefs could ride their easy schedule into the playoffs, but they're going to do so through overachievement and in spite of their flaws. So let's enjoy the ride: if they sneak into the playoffs, that's an added bonus. If they miss the playoffs by a few games, then they are what they were supposed to be. Either way, neither scenario should drive Chiefs' fans into a panic (even though it inevitably will).   

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