DEFENSIVE LINE - Starters: LE Eric Hicks, LT Ryan Sims, RT Lional Dalton, RE Jared Allen (rookie). Backups: T John Browning, E Vonnie Holliday, E Jimmy Wilkerson, T Junior Siavii (rookie), E Gary Stills.
Rookie Allen, a fourth-round draft pick, was the surprise here; voted by his teammates the rookie of the year after recording nine sacks (one short of Derrick Thomas' rookie record) and having two others wiped out by penalties in the secondary. If he works as hard to improve in following years as he did in his initial season, Allen will be an edge-rushing threat for years to come but he has to improve on run defense, however.
Dalton was the budget-basement free agent acquisition who brought real improvement to the gaping interior of the defensive line. KC was No. 12 in rush defense -- probably because it was so easy to pass -- and Dalton was a hard-to-move gap plugger largely responsible for that. Sims, in his first full season after a holdout and injury-abbreviated rookie campaign in '03, was barely a factor as a 3 technique player. Had only 30 tackles, four behind the line, with two sacks.
Hicks was quietly efficient with a line-best 63 tackles (four for losses) with five sacks. Was often around the quarterback in pressure, but didn't often finish the job; a trademark of his career. Browning remains a steady but never spectacular player who started seven games at three different positions but lost his starting job when Dalton took charge.
First-round draft pick Siavii's first-year was a shakedown cruise with little demonstrated in games (12 tackles, 1 sack, three pressures) to suggest that he'll be a future star. Blessed with a big body, he's still learning what to do with it. Veteran Holliday, who in three seasons in KC seldom demonstrated the ability he did in Green Bay, did so little that he doesn't figure in the team's plans for '05.
LINEBACKERS -- Starters: LOB Scott Fujita, MLB Kawika Mitchell, ROB Shawn Barber (injured). Backups: IB-OB Monty Beisel, OB Quinton Caver, OB Fred Jones, OB Keyaron Fox (rookie), IB Mike Maslowski (injured.).
An area of major concern to coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who asks his linebackers to take on major responsibilities that they may not be able to handle. An alarming lack of speed is a problem here, and they don't tackle especially well as a group, either and that's a recipe for disaster.
Strong-side backer Fujita, in his second season, led the team in tackles (116, with seven for losses), but he had trouble matching up with tight ends and backs in coverage. Mitchell showed a nose for occasionally blowing up screen plays, but missed too many tackles continue to be a problem for a guy in a position where he simply has to put people on the ground. His career will be short-lived if he doesn't improve. Barber's midseason season-ending knee injury, which has since required two surgeries, will keep him out of action until midway through the 2005 season.
That's a major hit for KC as its now lost its only speed in the unit. Beisel, who opened the season in the middle when Mitchell was hurting, had to learn the weak-side position on the fly, but he doesn't have the skills to make the best of all that his intellect can master. Former starting MLB Mike Maslowski will try to come back from an ongoing knee problem, but that's really asking too much after too many surgeries. Rookie Fox should little in his first year and Caver and Jones are best utilized as special teams players.
Warfield, who had four interceptions for the fourth straight year, is the only real cover guy in this unit, and he'd be a solid No. 2 on most other teams. This was supposed to be Bartee's year to step into McCleon's starting position, and he was a disaster. He finds his man, all right, but never can seem to find the ball which means he's a completion anytime an opposing QB needs one.
McCleon simply doesn't have it at age 31. He was burned so badly for the game-winning points in a loss at Jacksonville that he was mercifully deactivated for the next three games, ostensibly with various injuries. Opposing receivers merely shove him around these days, and when he pushes back, he gets penalized. Battle, after two full seasons, doesn't have a clue yet and there's no sign of the light clicking on anytime soon but he'll likely get another season to see if he can live up the Chiefs expectations that compare his physical attributes to those of former great cornerback Albert Lewis.
With that said the Chiefs didn't even bother suiting him up in the final two games after he failed to so much as mark in his previous four. The unit's real disappointment, though, was the failure of veteran proven safeties Woods and Wesley to play up to the big contracts they signed in the offseason.
Woods, so intent on stopping the run as the first marching order of Cunningham's new defense, was drawn in by too many play fakes and consequently failed to protect in deep coverage too many times. He missed the final six games with slow-healing knee injuries that forced many to wonder if he still has the skills to play in the NFL.
Wesley remains a consistent tackler and his four INTs tied Warfield for the team lead. But he missed three games with a hamstring and didn't play effectively in far too many others. Pile showed promise as a replacement at both safety positions and may get a look at free if Woods struggles to come back next year at age 32. Sapp, an undrafted rookie, showed some real fight, but he's too small at a bare 5-9 to be an every-down player.
Hall caught fire late, way too late. Oh, he had some nice returns, but he didn't score his first touchdown until the 11th game, and by then the Chiefs were 3-7. Remember, Hall's electrifying four kick-return TD's in KC's first five games of '03 were a major reason for Kansas City's 9-0 start then. A big play from Hall in any of several games during KC's 3-7 start this year would have made a big difference.
Hall finished with two kickoff return TD's (after fumbling away a third 15 yards from the finish line in the open field) and finished No. 5 in the league in kickoff returns and No. 7 in punt returns. Tynes, in his first NFL season as the replacement for the venerated Morten Andersen, converted 17 of 23 field goals but with only 5-of-10 accuracy from 40-plus. He also missed two PAT's and his kickoffs weren't deep enough to assure job security.
Punter Nick Murphy was a late-season replacement in Vermeil's on-going search for a punter he can live with; Steve Cheek lost the job after averaging only 39.1 with a net of 31.6. Murphy's 47.3 and 40.8 numbers on his four punts in KC are a move in the right direction. Long snapper Gammon may be the best long snapper in the business. He throws nothing but strikes.
COACHING: - Head coach: Dick Vermeil. Assistants: Al Saunders (offensive coordinator), Gunther Cunningham (defensive coordinator), Mike White (team administration), Irv Eatman (offensive line), Charlie Joiner (receivers), Terry Shea (tight ends), James Saxon (running backs), Mike Solari (offensive line), Jason Verduzco (quarterbacks), Peter Giunta (secondary), Bob Karmelowicz (defensive line), Fred Pagac (linebackers), Frank Gansz, Jr. (special teams), Darvin Wallis (defensive assistant/quality control), Carl Hairston (defensive line), Vernon Dean (secondary), Jeff Hurd (conditioning).
Vermeil says he'll give it one more year in '05. He'll be 69 during the season and he'll have fought the good fight long enough. After only one winning season (13-3) in four previous years in KC, it may be time to walk away anyway. Saunders, the architect of one of the league's most productive offenses of the last three years, is the local favorite for elevation to Vermeil's position, but that will be dependent on team president Carl Peterson -- if he's around after his contract expires in '05.
Cunningham wasn't the Miracle Man everyone hoped he would be upon his return to KC this season. Working with personnel not of his own choosing, he not only failed to restore the gloried Chiefs' defenses of his first tour as coordinator (1995-98), the Chiefs actually took a step back. Cunningham was as frustrated as anyone in Kansas City, but that only makes him more determined to make things right in 2005. Solari is one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL. Rowen's stature as an offensive mind was evident in his hiring as Dennis Green's new offensive coordinator at Arizona. His loss will be significant, especially in short-yardage and goal-line game planning but Terry Shea the former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator will fill the void left by Rowen.