Kansas City sports fans will be well acquainted with the reality of a youth movement. The hundreds of thousands of fans who attended the Royals celebratory parade did so, in part, because it provided an exhale, a relief from year after year (after year after year) of cellar-dwelling teams. It can be a slow process watching a young develop.
For the last few years, the Chiefs have endured a youth movement of their own (to a much lesser degree). Despite the presence of impact veteran players on both sides of the ball, they've also been among the NFL's youngest roster in each of the last four seasons. The Chiefs were the 8th youngest team in the league in 2012 and 2013. Last season they brought it all the way to 3rd youngest, and this year they were 6th on that list.
It's a raw ranking that doesn't take into account starters versus reserves, but it's a telling stat nonetheless -- one that tells fans that it might be a while before you see the team at their best. Andy Reid has preached the same truths, week in and week out, whether in OTAs, training camp or the regular season: that it's just about getting the reps, the game experience, for each of these players hand-picked by John Dorsey's staff.
This season is showing a glimmer of that reality. An offensive line will gel together, given enough snaps. A secondary will play more instinctual as a unit, given enough reps. A coach or coordinator will learn how the maximize the talents of his depth chart, given enough time. This Chiefs season has showed the roller coaster that such development takes, with games in which the potential was there to beat anyone in the NFL and yet lacked the... well, whatever the something is that allows a team to compete for all 60 minutes. At least, that's how Reid and Alex Smith have been phrasing it to the media.
This, of course, bodes well for the Chiefs not only this season but next. Marcus Peters is an impact cornerback, and Mitch Morse has been called this year's best rookie o-lineman, so imagine what a complete offseason and full year of experience will bring their way. Eric Fisher has turned a corner. We've all watched players like Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard blossom into solid NFL players, and others like Justin Houston become downright unstoppable. The future for the Chiefs should remain bright for some time, and certainly for 2016.
But what about the veteran players, the ones who were likely tabbed to only stick around for another year. To be honest, I was just happy to see Derrick Johnson return to the field at all this season, and I thought playing in Week 1 might be the highlight of his year. Instead, what I've seen is a beast of a tackler using his athleticism and his wealth of experience as the heart of a defense to continue to captain his unit.
The same can be said of Eric Berry, except that one seemed even more strained. EB's return to the secondary is the single best story of the NFL season, not just the Chiefs, but I never expected anything close to this performance. Hell, I didn't expect any performance. Instead, we're seeing the top-of-the-draft, All-Pro level safety we forgot he was before we were all reminded of his humanity (and of ours). To see him in beastly form on the field is a beautiful thing to behold, especially knowing the full story.
And what about Tamba Hali, a man terrorizing quarterbacks almost as well as anyone in the NFL. Hali is tied for 5th in the NFL with 20 quarterback pressures (Justin Houston has 32 and the next best player, Aaron Lynch, has 24), to go with his 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. In a season in which many of us thought he might be more of a mentor for a younger player like Dee Ford, Hali looks like someone who the Chiefs definitely need to convince to come back for at least one more go-around.
All of this is predicated on whether or not the front office can bring each of these veterans back to the Chiefs, but each player has become special to the fan base and perhaps the feeling is mutual. From Berry's emotional return to Hali and Johnson both serving as all-time franchise greats, a call for the entire trio to return should not surprise anyone.
There's still six games left in the regular season, so there's no need to look too far ahead. (Thank goodness, since we've been there before at this stage.) But if you do, you'll realize that a team still growing, still maturing, and still developing its ceiling also has plenty of impact players who rely on their experience as much as their talent. It's a mix that could serve the Chiefs well longer than many of us could have predicted.