Still Not Ready For Prime Time

A few weeks ago, when NBC made the decision not to flex the Chiefs-Chargers game to Sunday Night Football, some in Kansas City took it as a sign of disrespect.

San Diego has already been featured on a few national telecasts, both on NBC and ESPN, and they have a game coming up this Thursday on the NFL Network. In other words, the league clearly has no problem showcasing them. So to ignore the key AFC West showdown with the first place Chiefs was an obvious slap in the face to Clark Hunt's football team. Or so the logic went.

On Sunday, everyone who was peeved about the Chiefs not getting a Sunday night game should be writing letters to NBC, thanking them for not letting the entire country see K.C. on the wrong-end of a 31-0 beat down.

The overwhelming majority of football fans didn't see the game, so they'll probably dismiss the lopsided defeat as the result of Matt Cassel's surgery and a winless backup who was overmatched on the road. Even for Chiefs fans who did see what unfolded, it would be easy to pin the loss on Cassel's appendectomy or on a coaching staff that was uncharacteristically timid with a backup quarterback in the game.

It's easy because those are the sort of problems that haven't popped up before, won't pop up again (we hope), and can be written off as one week anomalies that won't have to be dealt with anymore (again: we hope).

Naturally, had Cassel played and the coaches not called the offense like a Herm Edwards era preseason game, the final score would have been closer. Who knows, maybe the game would have actually been worthy of prime time placement on NBC. But would things have been so drastically different that the Chiefs would have walked out with a win? Probably not.

Sunday was essentially a playoff game for the Chargers, who had to win to keep their postseason hopes alive. Facing those circumstances, it wasn't a surprise that San Diego brought their A-game for one of the few times this season. And when they're actually able to get out of their own way, there aren't many teams that the Chargers aren't talented enough to beat.

That's the key issue that was highlighted in the game: talent. Compared to the rest of the league, the Chiefs have been sorely lacking in talent for the last few years. That tends to be pretty obvious when you're only winning two to four games a season.

Thankfully, though, things have gotten much better. Even despite the loss to the Chargers, the Chiefs are in first place and have the #3 seed in the playoffs. But the San Diego game should be all the proof anyone needs that, when it comes to competing with the league's upper-echelon teams, K.C. still has a long way to go.

Losing Cassel hurt, of course, but the Chiefs had a myriad of problems on Sunday that weren't caused by his absence. Poor pass blocking, poor run defense, little pressure on Philip Rivers – it's too depressing to run down each one, especially given the multitude of injuries San Diego was dealing with. Needless to say, though, there were several areas where the Chiefs simply couldn't respond to the sort of things a talented team like the Chargers can do.

Chargers Quarterback Phillip Rivers surgically carved up the Chiefs defense on Sunday.
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At times, we might have seen one or two of those issues pop up against the easier teams on the Chiefs' schedule. But when the Chiefs have played teams with similar or greater levels of talent – the Colts, the Texans, the Raiders, the Chargers – all those issues seem to come to the forefront at once.

Unfortunately, unlike Cassel's bad appendix or the coaches playing Hermball, the Chiefs' lack of talent isn't something we can get over as the week goes on. It's been a constant issue since the bottom dropped out of the team in 2007, and it will continue to be one until the roster can be replenished with enough quality players to make the team a serious contender.

Even if the Chiefs do make it into the playoffs, their first round contest will match them up against a team with the talent to exploit their many weaknesses. If the Chiefs' tackles can't handle the San Diego pass rush, just to name one area where K.C. was overmatched on Sunday, how are they going to handle the Jets? Or the Ravens? Or the Steelers?

Of course, we should keep some perspective and remind ourselves that the Chiefs' roster was almost entirely gutted before the 2008 draft set them on the path to recovery. The long-term damage that was done to the franchise through years of poor drafting and bad free agent signings is not going to be fixed over just two or three offseasons.

And it's not like the team has been selling us a bill of goods on how stocked they are or how close a championship is. Todd Haley has refused to call his team "good" all season long, and after performances like Sunday's, it's easy to see why he's so hesitant.

But what's troublesome is the fact that, with a few exceptions (safety, right guard), the same positions the Chiefs need to improve now are the same areas they needed to improve a year ago. And the positions they needed to improve last year are, in large part, the same areas they needed to improve the year before that.

As you may recall, this is an issue that came up after April's draft, when many were critical of selections like Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas because the Chiefs had more important positions to address. Somewhere along the way it seems to have become accepted that both players were still worth taking anyway, which may well prove to be the case.

Without an accomplished number two wide receiver, the Chiefs passing offense has bottomed out the last two weeks.
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But here we are, with the Chiefs closing in on a possible division championship, and those same areas we've been lamenting for the last few years are continuing to hold the team back. It may be unfair to expect every issue to be addressed, but it's not unreasonable to expect more progress than we've actually seen to this point. Especially when you consider how long some of these areas have gone ignored.

How much longer, for instance, will we be talking about the Chiefs' drastic need for another pass rusher? We know the team can manufacture enough pressure to confound the Arizona's and San Francisco's of the world. But far too often – particularly against the more talented teams – they allow the opposing quarterback to stand all day in the pocket, just as Rivers did on the vast majority of his throws Sunday. And it continues to be a problem despite Tamba Hali having the best season of his career.

Then there's the receiving corps, or lack thereof. The Chiefs' two starting wideouts are Dwayne Bowe, a legitimate threat, and undrafted rookie Verran Tucker, who has only become a starter because of the contract-year illusion Chris Chambers perpetrated last season.

Between Chambers and Tucker, the #2 receiver spot has contributed less than two receptions and fewer than twenty yards a game. That hardly even qualifies as production. It amounts to one play in four quarters of football. Those numbers are only slightly better than if the Chiefs were playing with ten men on offense.

The mediocre teams peppering the Chiefs' schedule weren't capable of defending the run and corralling Bowe at the same time, but as we saw on Sunday, a good defense like San Diego's can. So would any defense the Chiefs see in the playoffs. If the running game isn't churning out yards and Bowe is held in check, what does the Chiefs' offense do for yards? Devise a game plan of nothing but dumpoff passes to Jamaal Charles?

Moving on to another overlooked need, how about a nose tackle? The Chiefs have been playing a 3-4 defense for two seasons now, isn't it about time they got one of those? The run defense has been getting gashed over the last several weeks – having a big ol' run-stopper to plug up the middle could probably help with that.

Some more help on the offensive line would be nice too. And how about a backup quarterback who doesn't cause the coaching staff to crawl into a shell and surrender when they're forced to play him?

Hey, this is starting to sound like a Christmas list. Maybe we can mail this off to Santa and see if he can help.

At the end of the day, Sunday wasn't a total disaster. The Chiefs still control their own destiny, after all. Up next is a game in St. Louis that, while looking a lot tougher than it did before the season, is still against the NFC West. Then they close out the campaign with two games at Arrowhead, where they're 6-0 on the year. The division crown is there for the taking.

But even if they make the postseason, it seems inevitable that we'll end up talking about another game that was highlighted by a substantial disparity in talent. And as far as the Chiefs have come this year, it's a little frustrating to think that the same old problems we've been talking about for the last few years may eventually factor into their downfall.

WARPAINT ILLUSTRATED MESSAGE BOARDS:
Did NBC do the Chiefs a favor by passing on this game?

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