And so it begins. For (at least) three weeks, Romeo Crennel takes the reigns as the head coach in Kansas City, as he works to salvage a season that, to-date, has been highlighted by streaky play, injuries, and of course the firing of Todd Haley.
It's not an easy task, and a visit from the Green Bay Packers in his first test is about as far from a favor as Crennel could imagine. But let's not just focus on how or why things will play out in the next three games, let's step back and examine exactly whom the Chiefs have tabbed as their interim head coach.
A life-long coach, Crennel was brought aboard in 2010 to the Chiefs after the firing of previous coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Crennel brings NFL head coaching experience and an abundance of Super Bowl pedigree, having won five rings in his various coaching stops prior to Kansas City. Many know "RAC" best for his time as the defensive coordinator in New England, where he teamed up with former Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Bill Belichick to form the most recognizable coaching trio from the past decade.
There's a lot more to Crennel than a resume can tell you, and it doesn't take long to understand the layers of Crennel after meeting him. He's the type of coach that shows up to work with a decisive and clear plan in mind of what needs to be accomplished, and few can contest that he has the respect and admiration of all of his coaching peers, and certainly his players too.
RAC has an exceptional ability to communicate to players, regardless of whether they are stars or rookies, linemen or skill players. Players want to play hard for him because they understand he dedicates his all to putting them in the best position to win come Sunday.
He is not without flaw, and his struggles in Cleveland as their head coach are well-documented. Crennel failed to establish consistency at the quarterback position in Cleveland, and that's just about the first task of his as the new Kansas City boss. Many were refreshed (and relieved) to hear that Kyle Orton will start on Sunday if healthy (Ricky Stanzi will play if Orton cannot); that means the end of the Tyler Palko era, and that should equate to more offensive efficiency.
Will the quarterback and head coaching change be enough to spark the Chiefs past the perfect Green Bay Packers this Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium?
We'll discuss all of that and more in this week's 5 keys to a Kansas City Chiefs' victory:
1. Be technicians defensively: Listen, there's no formula for stopping the Green Bay Packers offense, at least not that we've seen in 2011. They've shredded athletic defenses, physical defenses, and everything in between. It's a passing-based offense navigated by the best player in all of football -- Aaron Rodgers -- and it's complimented by a serviceable running game that can wear you down. Rather than suggesting the Chiefs have some sort of personnel advantage they must exploit, let's break this down to the most fundamental of principles: execute the defense called by Crennel. That starts with being technically sound. The linemen must fit, the linebackers must fit, hit, and run, the secondary must jam and play with leverage, and everyone must tackle and know their assignments at all times. The Packers are going to score points, likely even on consecutive drives, but the Chiefs must play physical and technical from start to finish. No team has superior personnel on defense to the Packers offense, but on any given Sunday a team can rise to the occasion and execute better than their opponent. We'll see if the Chiefs have that in them.
2. Establish all levels of the passing game: So it looks like Kyle Orton will start on Sunday, with the aforementioned variable being the health of his finger. That's a good thing for the Chiefs, because as Crennel articulated on Wednesday, although Tyler Palko is a good teammate who does what you ask of him, he hasn't put the ball in the end zone enough. Orton is experienced, capable, and the kind of guy that can control your offensive huddle with confidence. One major difference between Orton and Palko is the ability of Orton to make all the throws on the football field with some precision. Certainly his finger could limit him, but with Orton you can open the playbook and integrate the passing game in a variety of ways. The Chiefs can still lean on their middle-of-the-field passing game, but they can also take shots down the field, and work the sidelines with Orton. The Packers' secondary gives up a ton of yards, and although there are talented individual pieces (Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, notably), it's a group that can be exposed. By using the entire dimensions of the field and running all levels of patterns, the Chiefs may be able to do against the Packers what so many others have in 2011: approach 300 yards passing.
3. Punt return game: If there's such thing as a weak link for the Packers, it's their punt team. P Tim Masthay hasn't had a lot of work (punting only 51 times thus far), and he hasn't been entirely productive in limited opportunities. The Packers are dead last in average punting, 30th in net punting, and have placed just 16 punts inside the 20 (3rd lowest total in the NFL). Beyond that, you may remember Week 1 of the NFL season, when the human water bug, Darren Sproles, returned a punt 72 yards for a score against the Pack. The Chiefs have been strong all season in returning punts, and this week would be as ideal of a time as ever to break one and take it to the house. Javier Arenas has to rank somewhere near the top of the league in number of punt returns that are just a block away from scoring, and Sunday may prove to be his best chance to finally find the end zone.
4. Force Rodgers left: A year ago, some asserted that the Packers biggest weakness was their offensive line, and specifically the protection of Aaron Rodgers. Well, the group has fared better in 2011, allowing 33 sacks, which puts them in the middle tier of the league. That being said, Rodgers also saves his team from more sacks because of his escapability. Rodgers isn't a speed demon, but he has excellent in pocket mobility and superb footwork. Rodgers can throw on the run with incredible accuracy, but (like almost any right handed quarterback), Rodgers is less competent when moving to his left. The Chiefs should be able to generate pressure, and although the Packers receiving core is outstanding, it's not a group that creates extensive separation, which often equates to long, extended plays for them to get open. Forcing Rodgers out of the pocket, and specifically to his left, can cut off nearly half of the field, and should set the Chiefs up in much better position to defend what might be the league's best passing offense.
5. Play loose, spirited, and fearless: Just think for a second about what a loss would mean for either team on Sunday. For the Chiefs, they move to 5-9, but that's precisely what the world is expecting. It wouldn't likely make or break Crennel's candidacy for the full time head coaching gig, and we likely wouldn't learn much more about this team than we already know. As for the Packers, a loss would immediately send Cheese Heads into a tailspin, and areas of deficiency that had previously been masked by all the wins would come into the spotlight. Being 13-0 is a tremendous position to be in -- any team would take it -- but it also bears a tremendous amount of pressure. So, what to make of all this? The Chiefs need to seize the opportunity to play loose, play spirited, and play fearless, because no one outside of their locker room is expecting anything from them. They need to play with passion and intelligence, and embrace the challenge. The NFL is a quirky league, and anything can happen come Sunday at noon. The Chiefs have a chance to break (and make) history. Time will tell if they're up to it.