HOT TOPIC: Rebuilding Project for the Defense

If the Chiefs defense doesn't improve in 2005 after a host of off-season personnel upgrades, this will prove to be a rebuilding project that may never be completed successfully; not even by a capable architect/engineer like Gunther Cunningham.

Embarrassed by the No. 32 ranking in pass defense and No. 31 standing in total defense -- rankings that actually were worse than in a dismal 2004, before Cunningham returned as defensive coordinator -- Kansas City's every significant off-season move involved finding a way to field a defense that would not come up short in two games in which the Chiefs scored 31 points and two others with 21 or more.

Kansas City turned to the secondary of Miami's sixth-rated pass defense to sign free agent safety Sammy Knight and trade a second-round draft pick for proven cornerback Patrick Surtain. The two accomplished Dolphins veterans should account for an appreciable upgrade in the porous Chiefs secondary.

Knight will play the strong safety position, meaning incumbent Greg Wesley will compete with his long-time mentor, Jerome Woods, for the free safety spot. If Woods plays as a reserve, as likely would happen, it could help prolong a career that has seen Woods miss 1 1/2 of the past three seasons with injuries.

To add speed to a slow-moving linebacking corps, the Chiefs courted Jeremiah Trotter and Ed Hartwell before finally landing former Pittsburgh free agent Kendrell Bell. When healthy, Bell is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with a pass-rush upside, which he demonstrated in his 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. But Bell played in only three games in 2004 after being hobbled by a groin/hernia injury.

Defense occupied Kansas City's draft-day strategy, as well.

Kansas City was surprised to find University of Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson available with the 15th pick. A disruptive collegiate force in opposing backfields, Johnson should be a candidate for the starting strong-side spot (on the side away from Bell) by the time the season rolls around.

The Chiefs later added some veteran depth at cornerback. Ashley Ambrose was signed in late June to provide depth in the likelihood that starter Eric Warfield is slapped with the four-game suspension most people expect after his conviction on a third DUI charge in a three-year period.

Even the punting game got some needed draft-day attention. Dick Vermeil, who has been unhappy with his punters during four seasons in Kansas City, used his third-round draft pick -- only his second pick of the first day -- on Tennessee punter Dustin Colquitt, the son of Pittsburgh Super Bowl punter Craig Colquitt. Dustin's left-footed punts have hang time and a tough-to-catch lefty spin.

By the end of spring workouts with his new defensive replacements, Vermeil was pronouncing his new and improved defense to be better than any of his four previous units. That's faint praise, but if the Chiefs can improve to even No. 20 overall in 2005, they have the makings of a good team.

Chiefs Notes: Len Dawson talks about Hank Stram

"A lot of restaurants didn't want his business because he was always drawing up plays on the tablecloths," quarterback Len Dawson said jokingly. "He was always trying to think up new ways to create problems for the other team. We were doing things then with motion and formations that are common today but weren't then."

One of Kansas City's favorite moments with Stram came in the 1967 preseason, the year after the Chiefs lost to Green Bay 35-10 in Super Bowl I and football people were repeating Vince Lombardi's somewhat reluctant assessment that AFL teams were not on a par with those of the NFL.

In a game at Arrowhead seven months later, Kansas City ran it up on the proud Chicago Bears, 66-24, to the delight of Chiefs fans and the displeasure of Chicago players.

The Chiefs mascot of the time, a horse named Warpaint who circled the old Municipal Stadium field after each score, got such a workout that even the Bears feigned concern.

"Dick Butkus told me at one point, 'Dawson, you're a jerk,' the Chiefs quarterback remembered. "He said, 'I know you don't care about us, but you're gonna kill that damn horse.'"

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