The time has arrived. The pretend games are over. Starting Sunday, there will be no more, "it's only preseason" argument to make regarding a good or bad performance by the Chiefs (although that will undoubtedly be replaced with, "it's only one game"). It's time to find out what we've got.
On paper, we all see a pretty strong roster. Of course, unless they plan on using that paper to inflict thousands of tiny wounds to the Falcons on Sunday, how the Chiefs look on paper doesn't matter even a little bit. What version of the Chiefs will show up? I. Don't. Know.
I wouldn't be shocked if the Chiefs beat Atlanta by double digits while rushing for over 200 yards and having the ball for 40 out of the 60 minutes. I also wouldn't be shocked if the Chiefs get the living crap kicked out of them. I just don't know what to expect. So absent any meaningful insight on my part, I might as well chart a course to the Super Bowl, right? Right! I figure it's only fair, after looking at the worst case scenario for the Chiefs a few months ago.
What would it REASONABLY take for the Chiefs to make it to the Super Bowl and win this year (besides, yanno, outscoring opponents enough time to do so)? And no, I'm not going to use the "Matt Cassel morphs into Aaron Rodgers" shortcut copout to get there. I'm not that lazy (blatant lie).
Can a reasonable scenario be imagined in which the Chiefs win the Super Bowl this year? Let's figure it out.Step 1: The Running Game
We'll have to have a great running team to win the Super Bowl. There is absolutely no question about this. Is this something we can reasonably imagine occurring? Absolutely, and it doesn't even require much imagination. That's why I started here, so we can feel warm and fuzzy right out of the gate.
Preseason stats aren't all that useful (and also really difficult to find in total), but it's what we've got right now. Fortunately, Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis operated pretty much exclusively against 1st team defenses, so it's not as TOTALLY useless as, say, the stats of a 4th string RB that people are in love with because he ran through giant holes against scrub defenses (sorry Nate Eachus. Off topic: I just angered half of AP with one statement. We love us some "Rudy" here, don't we?).
Hillis rushed 17 times for 97 yards this preseason, averaging 5.7 YPC. JC rushed 15 times for 73 yards, averaging 4.9 YPC. Hillis also had the types of runs that evoked images of 2010 for him, as seen here. JC, for his part, showed here that he's lost none of what makes him a special player. Both guys look primed to be studs in their own right. It's very, very easy to imagine the Chiefs rushing for over 5 yards a pop over the course of the season with those two toting the rock.
The first drive against Green Bay showed what our running game can do. We started on our own 29 yard line. Six running plays later, we were at the Packers 37 yard line. Of course, the Chiefs then inserted Eachus/Draughn (I'm assuming to see how they'd do against first teamers) and the drive died. I don't expect Brian Daboll to be so kind to opposing defenses in the regular season.
Jon Asamoah is still not a great run blocker, but he's looked markedly better at it than he did last season. Rodney Hudson has already shown he's a considerable upgrade over Mr. Iron Man Casey Wiegmann when it comes to run blocking. Eric Winston is a phenomenal run blocker, and Branden Albert is more than sufficient in that area as well.
People are looking to 2010 as the "goal" for these Chiefs, but I see this team as having potential to do more. There's a better offensive line, a far superior No. 2 running back, and more offensive weapons to keep defenses from throwing 8-9 men in the box. I see a chance for a truly special running team, and that's what it'll take to get us to the Big Game. Along with that...
Step 2: The Passing Game
People say Matt Cassel needs to return to 2010 form for the Chiefs to be successful. I disagree. We're going to need more than than what he gave us that year, especially when it comes to completion percentage (58.2 that year) and YPA (6.92). We need something more similar to 2008 Matt Cassel, when he completed 63.4% of his passes at 7.16 YPA. It goes beyond just stats, though.
Clay Wendler made an excellent point that drives where you're throwing the ball only 4-5 yards in the air are not sustainable over the course of a game/season. I agree, especially if you're attempting to dominate via the run. You must force defenses to play intermediate and deep routes. Cassel is not going to be great throwing the ball deep. he's just not. However, he HAS shown the ability to stick intermediate passes. If he does this consistently (key word: consistent. As in, not just against bad teams), the Chiefs will be fine.
People say that Cassel couldn't get it done against good teams when when teams stacked the box in 2010, and they're mostly right. However, his available receiving group is massively upgraded from 2010. Dwayne Bowe remains the same, as does Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki. However, Dex is now being used at one position, and by God it just looks like it might work. Additionally, Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, and Kevin Boss are large upgrades over the "other guys" in 2010. On PAPER, stacking the box would seem to give the Chiefs dream one-on-one matchups to exploit.
For the Chiefs to actually win the Super Bowl, Matt Cassel must be able to make defenses pay for stacking the box. He doesn't have to be an All-Pro, just a quarterback who takes advantage of a good situation. Can he do it? No idea. That's why this is a much more tenuous imagining.
Cassel has put up this stat line in the preseason...38/59 (64.4%) for 386 yards (6.54 YPA), 2 TD's, 1 INT.
Granted, that's more impressive than he's ever been in preseason. But that YPA is still concerning. However... even Cassel's most staunch critic pointed out that Cassel's worst game (the SEA game, where his YPA average was under 5) featured some pretty bad letdowns by his teammates. So I'm gonna go ahead and say it IS reasonable to think that Cassel can be efficient enough to make teams pay for stacking the box, which will be enough with a dominant running game to get to the promised land.
Step 3: The Defense
This is a more "bleh" area right now. The defense has not looked good, and that's saying it with an incredible amount of kindness. Granted, Brandon Flowers has been hurt, but c'mon, man. The showings we saw against St. Louis and Seattle were downright embarrassing at times.
All that aside for now, what would we need from the defense in order to win the Super Bowl? Long story short, two specific things. The first one is short and sweet: we need Eric Berry to return to the form he was in late in the 2010 season. Like now. The next point is the one I'll talk about more extensively... we need to improve the pass rush.
In a pass-oriented league this is essential, especially if you're planning on getting early leads and grinding out wins. The good news is that (in our little scenario) we've got a dominant run game to keep opposing quarterbacks on the sideline for long stretches, hopefully throwing them off their rhythm and giving the defense an "edge." However, even with that edge it's tough to imagine the team morphing into a great pass rushing team, when last year there were only 29 sacks (ugh).
How can I realistically argue that the sack numbers will increase significantly? I'm glad you asked! I'll make three different arguments why it can happen
First, Justin Houston is going to be going after the quarterback a lot more often. Last year, through the first 9 games, Houston rushed the passer 56 times. Over the last 7 games, he rushed the passer 151 times. For those of you who aren't math majors, that's a much bigger number. And he produced at a pretty high level over those last 7 games, racking up (per PFF) 6 sacks, 2 hits, 11 hurries, and 3 batted passes.
Translate that to a full season and you've got (if we round the numbers) 14 sacks, 4 hits, 25 hurries, and 7 batted passes. Nice...
And of course, with the emergence of Houston as a full time pass rushing threat, everyone else's job gets a little bit easier. A domino effect, if you will.
Second, the defensive line is likely going to provide more help in the pass rushing department. Why? Because Allen Bailey has a year under his belt. Because Dontari Poe will provide more than the zero pass rush (if not much... but anything is better than zero, right?) the nose tackles have gien as of late. And because I believe that Tyson Jackson will take yet another step and develop at least a little pass rushing ability (I believe this based on his improvement as a player every year).
This is probably the biggest problem area, as our base defense just doesn't get much pressure from the defensive line, and even with some improvement (which may or my not happen) will still be a weak link. However, IF (and again, this is our little hypothetical we're living in) the Chiefs are working with a dominant run game and decent passing attack, the Chiefs will be working with a lead more often. This will allow the Chiefs to operate out of the nickel defense more often as teams have to pass to catch up, which will allow us to keep our pass rushers on the field when it's time to rush the passer.
The Colts showed for years that if you operate with the lead, it makes life easier on pass rushers, as they can just pin their ears back and go after the quarterback with aplomb (I can't believe it's taken me more than two years to get that word in one of these). Combine all this, I expect the defensive line to provide more help rushing the passer.
Third, The return of Eric Berry puts the Chiefs in the position of having two excellent blitzing defensive backs. I fully expect RAC to take advantage of this and use them to keep quarterbacks off their game as they try and anticipate a defensive back flying into the backfield.
Throw all three of these things together and I believe our pass rush COULD reasonably take a very large step forward this year. Thus completing the final step in Super Bowl success for the Chiefs.
Will all this happen? Uh...
Probably not, honestly. I'm an optimistic guy, but it's tough for me to imagine things falling into place for us like this. However, one can REASONABLY argue that they will. And if they do, I genuinely believe it would be enough for a Super Bowl victory.
I have an ugly feeling that I'll be looking at this a few months from now and laughing at my stupid homerism. But a guy can dream, and I think this dream just barely falls into the realm of possible.