Inside Slant: Vermeil Is Confident in His Team

Not that there were many doubts about what he expects from his team this year, but if there were, Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil removed them at the club's annual Kickoff Luncheon last week in Kansas City.

"If I believe in something and someone I'm not going to hide it," Vermeil told his players and supporters. "We can win it all. We may not. We have no guarantee we'll even go to the playoffs. But I know where we are because I've been there before. I've done it before. I know the environment. I can smell it here. I feel it."

After spending two seasons acquiring the personnel and establishing the chemistry he believes is necessary to win, Vermeil does not want his 2003 Chiefs to be content with merely making the playoffs for the first time since 1997, or even winning a postseason game for the first time since 1993.

But the Chiefs have three key questions for the 2003 season that will determine if Vermeil can get Kansas City back to the Super Bowl.

1. Is Priest Holmes really fully recovered from his hip injury? On the surface, the answer is yes. Holmes was given just enough preseason duty to show he is not visibly affected by last Dec. 15's injury, but not enough playing time to demonstrate he can again be the NFL's best all-purpose running back as he has been the past two seasons.

2. Even if healthy, will Holmes' demand for a contract extension be realized by opening day, and will he play against the Chargers if it isn't? Holmes may not get the extension he wants by the opener, but he and team president Carl Peterson have been talking to each other, as well as through Holmes' agent. Holmes seems to feel things are progressing in a positive manner and looks ready to accept Peterson's word that a deal is forthcoming. Besides, if he misses a game and a game check, he might also have to kick back some of the $2 million signing bonus he took from the Chiefs upon joining the team in 2001.

3. Did the Chiefs appreciably improve their defense? The preseason offered mixed results. Kansas City did show a better pass rush, especially from the defensive right side where Vonnie Holliday and returning second-year player Ryan Sims form a nice combination. But cornerback play remains erratic on a good day, and until more pressure is brought to bear on opposing quarterbacks, it will stay that way.

Player to Watch:

Wide receiver Marc Boerigter -- He stormed out of the CFL last year to catch touchdown passes on eight of his 20 receptions -- a 40 percent scoring percentage -- as a rookie. A big target at 6-feet-3 with surprisingly good speed when he hits high gear, this unheralded player from tiny Hastings (Neb.) College could be poised for a breakthrough season. Both offensive coordinator Al Saunders and quarterback Trent Green believe strongly in his playmaking potential. Expect Boerigter to be starting midway through the season especially if Johnnie Morton or Eddie Kennison struggles.

Touting the Top Picks:

Running back Larry Johnson -- The first-round pick struggled to adjust to the NFL early in camp and spent most of his time as the No. 3 halfback behind Holmes and Derrick Blaylock, but a breakout game against Seattle put Johnson in position to challenge for the backup role he might eventually claim in his first season. Johnson is more gifted and has far more upside than Blaylock but he'll likley sit early in the season unless an injury occurs. But expect Johnson to continue to develop in practice over the first half of the season. With a few projected blowouts by the Chiefs, Johnson could see some playing time during the first eight weeks of the season.

Linebacker Kawika Mitchell -- Sidelined by a hamstring injury for more than two weeks of camp, he fell behind in his bid to back up starting middle linebacker Mike Maslowski. The Chiefs like their No. 2 pick enough that they'll give him plenty of time to catch up. Mitchell proved his value last week where he tackled a Rams running back on a short pass play for a loss and the very next play stuffed another Rams runner behind the line of scrimmage. If Mitchell continues to grow, he could split time with Maslowski.


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