Carl's Roster Roulette

Two years ago, Kansas City's offensive line was King Kong. They terrorized NFL defenses with their power, agility and textbook-perfect blocking. Larry Johnson rushed for over 1,200 yards in nine starts. Trent Green threw the ball all over the yard despite a spare-parts wide receiver corps.

The Chiefs finished either first or second in total yards for four consecutive years, powered by the best line in the NFL.

King Kong is dead.

In place of The Beast is a group of over-30 starters who struggle to open holes in the running game. There are multiple reasons why what used to be the NFL's best unit has become a problem. The most obvious cause is losing left tackle Willie Roaf and right guard Will Shields to retirement, while middle-round offensive linemen drafted during the Dick Vermeil era failed to develop.

But there is another reason which few have recognized. Salary cap pressure forced general manager Carl Peterson to get cute with his roster in 2004. Peterson's roster games caused the Chiefs to lose John Tait and Ryan Lilja, who could have been solid replacements for Roaf and Shields.

Tait, Kansas City's first-round draft choice in 1999, was the team's starting right tackle and a free agent that year. Instead of locking him up with the franchise tag, Peterson placed the cheaper transition tag on Tait, which only gave the Chiefs the right to match contract offers from other teams. The Chicago Bears stole Tait with a $15 million roster bonus designed to bust Kansas City's salary cap.

Lilja was an un-drafted free agent in 2004 who had grown up in the Kansas City area. He was a talented player who had been behind the eight ball his entire college career, losing scholarship offers after being suspended from his high school team for a drinking incident. Lilja recovered from his problems well enough to be a three-year starter at Kansas State, and earn an invite to training camp.

Kansas City's coaching staff liked Lilja, but had no need for a starting guard when they already had two Pro-Bowlers in Will Shields and Brian Waters. Peterson decided to waive the un-drafted Lilja and sneak him onto the practice squad. The Indianapolis Colts immediately claimed the young guard, who seized a starting job by the end of his rookie season.

These errors were not readily apparent in 2004. That season, the Chiefs led the NFL in total offense. They set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a single game (eight vs. the Atlanta Falcons). Trent Green threw for 4,500 yards. The offensive line was so good, even casual fans noticed the breath-taking precision of their blocks. Though the team finished with a disappointing 7-9 record, the offensive line wasn't part of the problem.

By 2007, however, these oversights have become glaring mistakes. Ryan Lilja is now a road grader for the 2006 Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts. Not only would Lilja have been a solid replacement for Shields, he would have injected much-needed youth into the Kansas City line. Had the Chiefs kept Tait, Roaf's sudden retirement before the 2006 season would have prevented the team from depending on "I-65" Jordan Black. Instead, Roaf's departure grounded Kansas City's high-flying offense.

To be fair to Carl Peterson, the Chiefs had a tight cap situation in 2004. Defensive end Eric Hicks and safety Jerome Woods, whom the coaching staff viewed as two of the better players on a pitiful defense, were free agents. Priest Holmes spent the offseason screaming for money after wildly out-performing the free-agent contract he signed in 2001. Balancing salary demands on a team with eight Pro Bowlers isn't easy.

With Priest Holmes coming off the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after Week 6, Peterson is certain to play roster roulette once again. Does he bring back Holmes? Does he waive rookie running back Kolby Smith? These are the kind of decisions that NFL general managers face every day. Chiefs fans can only hope that, this time, Peterson puts his money on the right number.

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