Leading Between the Lines

Chiefs Head Coach Dick Vermeil was asked to comment Friday about why Lionel Dalton wasn't lining up with the first team in practice, and if he had lost his starting job. Although Vermeil stated that Dalton had not lost his starting position, John Browning continues to practice with the first team defense alongside Ryan Sims, while Dalton lines up with the second team.

Vermeil added that John Browning was the team's best defensive lineman, and though Browning wasn't a starter last year he actually logged more playing time than the starting linemen. It seemed somewhat unusual that the "best player" hadn't been a starter even though he was healthy.

If you study that comment it sheds an understanding of the lack of success that haunted the Chiefs during the 2004 season. A factor that was the result of the injuries that swept through the linebackers and wide receiving corps like the black plague in the middle ages. The injuries to several of the wide receivers were instrumental in the Chiefs getting off to the 0-3 start, then the absence of the linebackers due to injury who had provided most of the tackles and defensive leadership from the 13-3 team of 2003, prevented the defense from being able to protect the leads on the scoreboard the offense had jumped out to in many of what eventually became losses in the middle of the season.

After overcoming these setbacks, last years team won four games in a row and very nearly the final five games of the season. If not for injuries, this team proved that it would have had a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl season. However, due to an injury riddled campaign, in 2004 a Chiefs ten point lead often lasted about as long as a hot plate of Gates barbeque served to Carl Peterson's not-so favorite reporter.

Some injuries hurt more than others. An injury often causes a player to miss several games, but his back-up can often replace his play with little drop-off in production from that position, but sorely misses the leadership he has been providing to younger, less experienced players who may have grown accustomed, even dependant, on that player during game action which cannot be replaced by his back-up.

The defensive line works in concert with the linebackers in either a 3-4 scheme, or in a 4-3. It's all a matter of playing to the strengths of your personnel. Either way, success depends on more than being physical in the trenches. It requires leadership. That's the intangible part of the game that can not be taught, only acquired with experience. The coaches can't appoint someone to be the leader. That is earned by the respect of the other players, the veterans who the other players gravitate to when the bullets are flying due to the confidence he exudes. If it's not obvious who has stepped forward and established themselves as a teams leader(s) at a position group, causing the coach to attempt to intimate to the fans and media who these players are, in most cases it means there isn't one yet. In simple terms, at this point there isn't one yet.

On all successful offensive and defensive units, there is a player or players who have earned that distinction, either because they are better or more experienced, and usually both. The leaders assume responsibilities such as making line calls, firing their teammates up on the sidelines by demanding that they pull their weight and don't fail to handle their assignments during games, practices, and off the field or even social activities. This is often equally as important as the instruction from the coaches. Many times it's referred to as "locker room presence." This is where team continuity is developed.

Absence of leadership within the player ranks on an offense, defense, or even a position group will have a negative effect on the overall performance. This is why "player only" meetings can be crucial to a teams success. Many successful coaches rely on their veteran leadership to police their respective units and deal with players who are in need of an "attitude adjustment".

This is why Coach Vermeils statement on Friday about who his best defensive lineman is, caused me to reflect on the defensive line and linebackers and realize that of the group that returned from last year, their may not be a player who has established himself yet as the one who the other players look to and identify as being "the man", and if not, that could be what has been lacking. With the exceptional talent acquired in the off-season, I am confident that such a player or players will establish himself or themselves in those roles, a designation that can only be determined by the players themselves. My prediction is that you will see the defensive players gel as a unit, as these players step up. They will not realize their full potential until this happens.

It may very well be John Browning, who has proven he can play every position on the D-Line, as he is probably the most versatile player in the position grouping. D-line and linebackers work so closely as one unit that one or more linebackers or D-lineman or both can fill these roles, and the same for the secondary positions. For example, regardless of which position Ray Lewis plays for the Ravens, middle or outside linebacker, he is the leader of their defensive front.

We don't have to look any further than the other side of the ball for an excellent illustration of the effects of veteran leadership. The Chiefs offense has more pro bowl talent than has ever been assembled in the league, each of the following players form a brilliant example of leadership skills making those around him a better, more effective player.

Will Shields and Willie Roaf, both thirteen (13) year veterans with an unprecedented ten (10) pro bowls each, are the leaders of the offensive line, definitely the best O-Line tandem in the league, and probably in the history of the NFL. Both will be first ballet hall of famer's, Roaf has started all 179 games in his career. These guys are coaches on the field, and elevate the play of everyone else on the line. As good as Casey Wiegmann is at Center, with Shields and Brian Waters (a pro-bowler who is the only guard to win the "Offensive Player of the Week "award, after he dominated that same Ray Lewis in their Monday Night Contest in week four last season. That line set a Kansas City Chiefs record of eight rushing TD's in a single game vs. the #1 rushing defense in the league at that time; the Atlanta Falcons.

But what makes that line so successful is that they are able handle their responsibilities and help cover both center gaps, Casey can't help but be a more effective Center. It's no coincidence that the Chiefs have the best and most decorated offensive line in the league.

The O-Line is supported by the Fullback and Tight Ends, the offensive equivalent of Linebackers. Tony Gonzalez is the best Tight End in the league, coming off the best season ever had by a TE, with six pro bowl selections to his credit in his nine seasons. "Gonzo" is widely regarded the best TE ever in the game. Jason Dunn is arguably the best blocking TE ever in the game. Fullback Tony Richardson is one of, if not the best Fullback in the league, coming into this season with two consecutive pro bowl trips.

It should come as no surprise that this group, along with three time pro-bowl Running Back Priest Holmes, racked up 63 rushing TD's in 2003-04, tying the NFL record for rushing scores in a two-year span which was first established by the ‘61-62 Green Bay Packers, and helped pave the way for Holmes' NFL-record 27 rushing TD's in 2003.

So with the recent player additions to the defense, where as many as five new starters will be in the line-up for the first regular season game, the leadership problem created by injuries to several of the 2004 Chiefs starters should not be an issue this season.

Holdovers from last season such as the afore-mentioned Browning and Dalton plus DE Eric Hicks, as well as leading tacklers from previous seasons returning from injuries, LB Scott Fujita and possibly LB Mike Maslowski, as well as newly acquired pro bowl veterans such as LB Kendrell Bell, the defensive has several veteran candidates to become the leaders needed to form a cohesive defensive front seven. If young but exceptionally skilled players live up to their expectations such as fourth year DT Junior Siavii, and second year players DE Jared Allen, and DT Ryan Sims, as well as recently acquired fourth year DE Carlos Hall, the Chiefs should field a more talented defensive front seven since the Neil Smith – Derrick Thomas years.

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