INSIDE SLANT: A Lot of Sizzle Without Much Steak

That was the Kansas City Chiefs' 7-9 season, one that began with Super Bowl expectations and produced a lot of glossy offensive numbers along the way before ending in yet another non-winning campaign because of a defense that, after three years of foundering, seems incapable of getting better.

Gambling that new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could turn around the same players that didn't get the job done for Greg Robinson, the Chiefs played the same hand in 2004 that took them to a 13-3 season in '03.

Bust.

The gamble failed miserably -- the Chiefs defense even took a step backward, from No. 29 under Robinson to 31 this year under Cunningham -- because coach Dick Vermeil simply refused to believe that the good-guy, high-character defensive players he already had simply didn't have the talent necessary to back up even the league's No. 2 scoring offense.

Before posting his third non-winning season in his four years in Kansas City, Vermeil re-signed almost all of his defensive free agents, made only some minor offseason personnel moves on defense (see Lional Dalton) and believed that his offense could get by with even a marginal defense behind it.

It didn't.

Kansas City's offense finished No. 1 in total yards and No. 2 in scoring (behind only Indianapolis) and still found a way to lose two games (to San Diego and Tampa Bay) in which it scored more than 31 points. The Chiefs racked up more first downs (398) than any team in history, bettering the record of Dan Marino's 1984 Dolphins, and became the first NFL team to have three different runners record a 150-yard rushing game in the same season.

Little did it matter. Kansas City's notoriously porous pass defense, the league's worst in total yards allowed, made receivers such as Tennessee's Drew Bennett (12-233, 3 TDs on a Monday night loss) look like Michael Irvin. San Diego's age-less backup, Doug Flutie, playing with a junior varsity lineup as the Chargers rested for the playoffs in the regular-season finale, toasted the Chiefs for almost 200 yards in just a half! Runners from Quentin Griffin to DeShaun Foster and Michael Pittman all had their best days against what came to be known as the Career Day Defense.

Where do things go from here?

The offense returns in great shape. All the principals are signed for '05, and though some are getting up in years -- Trent Green, Priest Holmes, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Tony Richardson are among those all well into their 30s -- there's enough firepower left in the arsenal for at least more offensive circus.

Fixing the defense, however, is a far more difficult assignment that probably can't be done in the next year -- the final one for Vermeil.

Finding a solution will be especially tough for an organization that doesn't believe in messing with team chemistry, even if the mixture was as out of balance as was Kansas City's offensive-defensive mix this past season.

"The one thing we've learned in this business is that you're always better to retain your own players," said team president Carl Peterson. "When you bring in an unrestricted free agent, the only thing you can evaluate is what you see on the video. You can't evaluate how they're going to interact in the locker room, in the classroom, in the community. But you do know what you have when you draft and have someone here for a while. You know about their strengths and their weaknesses."

The Chiefs desperately need immediate help at cornerback and in the linebacking corps, and they likely won't be able to acquire all they need in one offseason. They have some cap dollars for free agent shopping, but Peterson is a cautious spender more inclined to look for bargains after the initial hot buys are taken off the market.

The draft hasn't been particularly helpful to the Chiefs in recent years, either. Their only defensive help of the past three seasons came in the fourth round when rookie Jared Allen turned into a pass-rushing specialist.

To worsen the outlook, the offensive window won't be open for much more than another season. Several years ago the Chiefs began restructuring a bunch of offensive contracts with the idea of opening a three-year window from 2003 to 2005. The high-dollar end of many of those contracts, including those of Green and Holmes, kicks in after '05.

Beyond that, all contracts of the current coaching staff, as well as that of Peterson and most of his top people, are up after the upcoming season. Uncertainty looms in Kansas City's immediate future, with the only known factors right now being that the Chiefs should have a standout offense for one more year, but if major defensive changes aren't forthcoming, it won't be good enough to get the Chiefs close to where they thought they would be at the start of the '04 campaign.

CHIEFS NOTES:
Quarterback coach Jason Verduzco has been identified as a possible offensive coordinator candidate for former Chiefs defensive coordinator Greg Robinson as he builds his first staff at the University of Syracuse. Verduzco spent last year working with the QBs after Terry Shea left to become Chicago's offensive coordinator. But Shea is returning to Kansas City after getting the ax in Chicago to coach the Tight Ends.

The Chiefs established 19 team records in '04. Some were as significant as total yardage, first downs and offensive TD's, while other made one lift an eyebrow. A record for kickoff returns and kickoff return yardage, after all, means only that the defense gave up a lot of touchdowns.

Watching the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game had to make the Chiefs wondering what their season had been like if they played with the kind of intensity when they routed the Falcons 56-10 at Arrowhead back on October 24th. Defensively they played their best game but on offense they had a record setting day as they became the first team in NFL history to score eight rushing touchdowns in a game -- four by Priest Holmes, four by Derrick Blaylock.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"Everyone in this organization, including the president and general manager, is on the last year of their contract." -- Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson, on whether the Chiefs had a one-year window of opportunity that could close after the 2005 season.


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