When Dick Vermeil came out of retirement four year ago after winning his first Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams; every one assumed that he'd turn the Kansas City Chiefs into a winner.
Though his career coaching record in Kansas City is a shade over .500 thanks to Sunday's blowout win over division rival Denver, Vermeil more by accident then design has reason to hope the Chiefs can win the division next year and make a strong run through the playoffs.
There is certain to be some changes to personnel next year that's a given depsite what you hear coming out of these interviews and press conferences at Arrowhead. With the projected salary cap expected to be near $100 million in 2006 and the likelihood that the playoff format will increase by at least two teams, the Chiefs are poised to add some playmakers on both sides of the ball in the draft and through free agency.
Though this organization has been unlucky in the draft the past several years, we saw on Sunday the emergence of running back Larry Johnson, wide receiver Samie Parker and the continued development of defensive end Jared Allen. That means they were not as bad as some people predicted.
Granted the 2004 campaign has been one of disappointment and disaster. It also has given life to a franchise that needed an infusion of character and youth to step up and serve notice they deserve a chance.
There has been a lot written in the media about the fights in the locker room and practice fields with some of the younger players chomping at the bit to get on the field. None has been more public than Larry Johnson but he's shut up all his critics both inside Arrowhead and in the media; who said he was a bust.
He's so good that the Chiefs should consider trading Priest Holmes before the draft next April. It sounds foolish but there are a handful of teams who would line-up for Superman. Teams like the Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys to name a few.
One thing is certain, Johnson is faster and stronger than Holmes. He does not have his skills scoring inside the red zone but that can only be learned by playing time. Holmes had to learn it and he got his chance because the Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis. The Chiefs gave him an opportunity though they were not convinced he could be as productive as he's turned out at this stage of his career.
Parker, Allen and defensive tackle Junior Siavii have shown promise that they can become playmakers in 2005. Siavii should take over for Ryan Sims now that Lional Dalton has emerged as a starter on the interior of the line. Allen is a future star that only needs to learn better technique when going up against strong offensive tackles.
Parker has speed and play-making ability. He's the combination of former Chiefs J.J. Birden and Willie Davis. Birden had great downfield speed and had a knack for catching the long pass. Davis had sped but had better hands. Parker has the combination of both but he also brings something else this organization has never had in a receiver. He accelerates down the field. When he catches the ball, he gets faster.
Now what does this have to do with Vermeil? Everything because he didn't want the young kids to get this kind of experience and exposure not with the team failing to achieve the singular goal it set for itself in training camp.
Vermeil made the comments today in his weekly press conference that he'd rather have 12 wins then see these young guys on the field. He'd rather have the wins and be driving toward the playoffs with the veterans. Yes he wants to develop young guys but he wants them hungrier so they'll step in 2005 or 2006.
Well that's been Vermeil's downfall since he's been in Kansas City and that more than anything else has been the primary factor for this season has gone so bad. It's also something deep down Vermeil understands should not happen next season.
All he has to do is look at what Marty Schottenheimer did this past year in San Diego. He rode a quarterback that by his own admission, he didn't want. Sound familiar? It's the same story with Larry Johnson and Vermeil. Schottenheimer rode the hot hand of Drew Brees all the way to a division title despite they spent millions of dollars by drafting quarterback David Rivers.
Vermeil needs to understand that the only way this organization is going to make the next step is if the Jordan Black's, Kris Wilson's, Parker's, Johnson's, Siavii's and Allen's learn on the fly. The Chargers starting rebuilding their roster during there pitiful season a year ago. The decision was made to play some young guys and move out aging veterans.
Granted the Chargers are starting two rookie offensive lineman and the Chiefs have a veteran offensive line that is getting long in the tooth. But Vermeil if he truly wants to end his run in Kansas City with a championship, must adhere to the same philosophy as the Chiefs old coach. That's new the NFL.
What Vermeil has to do is stay focused on developing the young players and squeezing all the talent out of his veterans for another season or two. But before he can do that, Vermeil must first get on the same page with his boss Carl Peterson. Granted both have egos and though each is probably entering their final seasons in Kansas City, they have a responsibility to set those egos aside and make strong decisions to rebuild the Chiefs into contenders not only for 2005 but beyond as well.
The Chargers did it in one year and Kansas City can do the exact same thing. In fact, the Chiefs are so far ahead of where San Diego was a year ago; that it can accomplish two goals next season. They can upgrade some of their deficiencies on defense and use some of the youth that's ready to play in the NFL now by sprinkling in some of their younger offensive players who have shown play-making abilities this season.
Vermeil's entire legacy could hinge on what happens in Kansas City in 2005. The Eagles landed Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens and they quickly became the class of the NFC. Despite the fact Owens will miss the playoffs; the Eagles are so far ahead of the remaining pretenders in the NFC that they'll finally make it to the Super Bowl this season.
The Chiefs were close last year but failed to act in the off-season by using common sense when it came to their aging defensive players. They would have been bringing in marginal free agents then resigning the majority of their aging veteran defensive players. They can't afford to keep them around next season.
Vermeil has to look at the 2004 off-season to elevate this franchise into becoming more than a contender just next year but setting the table for the future of this entire organization.
There are very few dynasties left in the NFL and the Chiefs for the most part have been one of the most consistant franchises in the league but they've failed to bring a hint of a NFL Championship to a city that worships this franchise. Mainly becuase they've not been good at evaluating talent or the heart of the player.
Vermeil had to ponder all of this before deciding to return next season and I doubt that he would have agreed to honor the last year of his contract if it was strictly for the money. He has to genuinely believe that the mistakes made the past two seasons can be overcome with a change in heart and philosophy. If not, he's wasting his time because next year could be more of the same as it was this year.
The last three weeks have proved that if Vermeil was more willing to move past his loyalties to his veterans that this roster has some younger players who can help this team win games now.
Let's face it without Johnson on the field the Chiefs would be riding a seven game losing streak. If Johnson was better prepared and been given the opportunity earlier in the season instead of Blaylock, he'd could have been the difference in four consecutive losses to Tampa Bay, New Orleans, New England and San Diego; they could have alll been victories instead of loseses.
Stubborn coaches don't do well in the NFL and those who change with the times generally are more successful; especially those pushing their 70's. It's great news that Vermeil will be coming back for another season but not if he's not going to make the changes in his coaching style that will allow for the best players to be on the field on Sunday's.
He can't have anymore petty spats with Johnson who should be the starter next season at running back. Nor can he pick and choose when Jared Allen is on the field or anyone else for that matter. This is a results oriented business and the only thing that matters is winning as many of the 16 regular season games as possible. That should be the pre-cursor to gaining momentum for a Super Bowl run.
If Vermeil can't follow in the footsteps of Schottenheimer now, then next season will be more of the same. The Chiefs head coach already admitted he knew this team was not as focused or gifted as everyone predicted they'd be when he was up in River Falls. But he kept it to himself and he didn't do anything to change the personnel back then. He can't make that mistake this go around.