DENVER, CO - JANUARY 01: Linebacker Justin Houston #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates after sacking quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Chiefs defeated the Broncos 7-3. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
A simple mind will examine an NFL season with a three game regression from the one prior to it and stamp it with a mark of disappointment, but nothing is that easy in football.
Today, the stakes are much different, as the Chiefs will witness the playoffs from the comforts of their couches, and the win total dipped to just seven. But not all was lost during the 2011 campaign.
The Chiefs played with a deck stacked tall against them for nearly the entire season due to injuries to three uber-critical young players: RB Jamaal Charles, S Eric Berry and TE Tony Moeaki. Injuries are as much a part of football as first downs these days, but the string of season-ending blows to star players suffered by the Chiefs was unparalleled in the NFL this year. Throw in the mid-season injury to QB Matt Cassel, and you can understand why so many Chiefs fans were left to play the "what if?" game throughout the year.
A head coaching change took place too, and another one could soon follow. Todd Haley was ousted, and Romeo Crennel was inserted as the interim man for the job. Crennel orchestrated two wins in his three tries as the head coach, including a stunning upset of the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers and a season-ending win over the hated Broncos.
Crennel has the unabashed support of his players, and it was clear they responded to his promotion with inspired play. Other names have been floated as possible full-time replacements for Haley, but Crennel appears to hold the inside track on the job.
There’s no timetable for the decision to be made, but Chiefs fans are hoping for an as-soon-as-possible announcement to afford the new head coach ample time to fully stock his cabinet of assistant coaches. Depending on who is appointed the new head coach, there could be a number of decisions to be made regarding his staff. Reports indicate that current offensive coordinator Bill Muir will head to retirement, and if Crennel takes the lead job, that will mean both coordinator spots need to be filled.
The truth of the Chiefs’ situation right now is that much of it is filled with speculation and rumors. There’s much that those on the outside don’t know, but plenty that we saw from to suggest 2012 will bring better days.
Training camp is yet nearly seven months away, but here are 5 keys to the Kansas City Chiefs’ off-season:
1. Find the Right Leader: At the forefront of any sustained success in the NFL is a quality head coach, and one that the players believe in. Romeo Crennel, albeit in a three game stretch, seemed to be the kind of man the players believed in. RAC isn't the only choice to become the next head coach for the Chiefs - other quality candidates may have already been/will be interviewed - but as far as candidates that we know are in the running, Crennel qualifies as a front-running choice. Whomever the head coach is, it's apparent he needs to develop his message and program early to build on the momentum created at the end of the 2011 season. The Chiefs will be in the mix for the AFC West championship next year, and finding the right head coach will be the ultimate tone-setter on that quest.
2. Cassel or Orton: Probably the most complicated question for the Chiefs heading into 2012 is how to handle the starting quarterback position. Matt Cassel is one of the franchise's prominent investments, and let's not forget the way he played during the 2010 season. Kyle Orton, meanwhile, injected life into a hapless offense this season as the replacement for an injured Cassel and struggling (that's being kind) Tyler Palko. It was clear that the players respected Orton, as did Romeo Crennel. The Chiefs probably cannot afford to keep both players, and Cassel is the only one right now with a contract. The question becomes whether the Chiefs attempt to trade or unload Cassel in favor of Orton, or stay on course with Cassel and let Orton be on his way. As much as some want to suggest Orton is the right choice based off of his three game sample size, it's naïve to not properly examine both players' complete body of work. A decision may not be made until closer to the commencement of free agency, but it's a situation all eyes will follow closely.
3. Pass Rush Development: Tamba Hali was rightfully elected to the Pro Bowl in 2011, and Chiefs fans are hopeful it is the first of many due selections of his career. The role Hali has on the Chiefs' defense is undeniable - he's the first player any quarterback spots before the snap, and a guy whose physical ability can overcome any scheme an offense devises to stop him. What is imperative for the Chiefs this offseason is to build on the complimentary pass rush that was kick started by impressive rookie backer Justin Houston. Houston had 5.5 sacks on the season, including 1.5 in the season finale, and an improved Houston would mean a vaunted pass rush. The Chiefs already have a strong secondary which will vastly improve with Eric Berry's return, and LB Derrick Johnson improves their pass defense exponentially. If the Chiefs can further develop the pass rush, that will render them an incredibly difficult defense to pass against, and a nightmare for opponents to play. With Berry back in the fold, the Chiefs may look to blitz more in 2012, and pressure could be a focal point of this defense. Should Houston materialize into the double-digit sacker some foresee him to be, watch out.
4. Veteran Presence on Offense: Casey Wiegmann may well retire, and veteran RB Thomas Jones may well be on the way out in Kansas City (his contract has expired), and that means the Chiefs will once again find themselves with a heckuva young offensive huddle. There are holes on offense that need to be filled - with a veteran or otherwise - but the Chiefs must maintain some leadership by bringing in an experienced player who can continue to further the maturation process within the huddle. It's too early in the process of free agency to identify idyllic candidates, but Jones and Wiegmann had very much the impact two years ago that they will need again this off-season.
5. Prioritize Free Agents: Two players that everyone knows will be free agents this off-season are Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Carr. Depending on what school of thought you're from, you likely have a preferred order of which potential contract the Chiefs tend to first - assuming they're interested in keeping both. The logical starting point is Carr, as he's blossomed into more than just a complimentary piece to Brandon Flowers - he's a stud. Carr may be the Chiefs' physically strongest player pound-for-pound, and he improved as a lateral athlete this season, leading to another strong effort in the passes defensed department. There are a few remaining holes in his game that must be addressed, but you love to see players evolve from a year-to-year basis, and Carr is a prime example of just that. Bowe has certainly grown from the first day he arrived at 1 Arrowhead Drive, and the Chiefs must make a decision on a receiver who may carry a hefty price tag. We've seen enough receivers fall short on expectations after signing expensive contracts to know that there is some risk involved, but Bowe is a player whose importance to the Chiefs' offense is understood. Beyond Bowe and Carr, the Chiefs must continue to look into the next tier of free agents (note: the decision on Kyle Orton falls into a different free agent category in my eyes), and how they can improve on building the "right 53."
2011 didn't end the way that Chiefs fans may have wanted, but this team is an early contender to bounce back and be amongst the league's most improved next season. Count on the Chiefs playing for an AFC West title in 2012.