We're Still Waiting

It is January 20, 2004. Gunther Cunningham has just returned to the Chiefs as defensive coordinator. A reporter asks the question:

"Could you turn this defense around in one season?"

Cunningham does not give a straight answer, and with good reason. He probably realizes fixing the Chiefs' defense of 2003 in one offseason is a pipe dream. But he does outline a plan:

"The first thing we talked about is we have to stop the run," says Cunningham. "We're going to stop the run. We are going to stop the run."

December 9, 2007: The Chiefs allow 215 yards rushing to the Denver Broncos. The same Denver Broncos who ran for 86 yards the week before against the Oakland Raiders, proud owners of the league's 31st-ranked run defense.

Can Cunningham turn the defense around in one season? How about four?

It's been almost four seasons now since he left the Titans and started his second go-around as KC's defensive coordinator. In that time frame, the Chiefs have surrendered 6,937 rushing yards in 61 regular-season games, or 113.7 rushing yards per game, at 4.3 yards per carry.

Any way you slice it, the Chiefs are not stopping the run. So far, Cunningham has yet to live up to his promise.

Run defense aside, just how much has Kansas City's defense really improved since 2003? The Chiefs wound up allowing 20.8 points per game that year. This year after 13 weeks? You guessed it, 20.8 points per game.

In between, the players have changed – the Chiefs started Dexter McCleon, Eric Warfield, Eric Hicks, Kawika Mitchell and others, now mostly departed, in 2004.

The scheme has changed – when Cunningham first returned, the Chiefs seemed to play more man coverage with more blitzing. Two years later, the Cover 2 arrived with Herm Edwards.

The coaches have changed – the defensive staff was stocked with names like Hairston and Guinta in 2004. Now it's Krumrie and Blackmon and so on and so on.

The one constant is Cunningham. When will the Chiefs finally have the dominant defense he so desperately wants to bring back to this franchise?

Now, I suppose you could sit there and say, "Gunther doesn't have the players." You'd probably be right. At the moment, the Chiefs don't have a consistent defensive tackle, Napoleon Harris makes thousands of fans long for Kawika Mitchell every time a running back takes a handoff, and KC's starting cornerbacks drink ensure every morning.

But again, it's been four years. The Chiefs – and Cunningham - have had ample opportunity to find the correct players. Instead, they wasted draft picks on Junior Siavii, Keyaron Fox, Boomer Grigsby, Alphonso Hodge and Marcus Maxey. The jury is still out on others - Bernard Pollard, Turk McBride, Tank Tyler – but early returns are not promising.

Since Cunningham arrived, the Chiefs have drafted 13 defensive players. Only four – Jarrad Page, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Jared Allen – appear to be keepers.

To fill the rest of the holes, Kansas City went to free agency. They returned with Kendrell Bell, Carlos Hall, Lional Dalton, Sammy Knight and Ty Law. A trade was made for Patrick Surtain. The return on all of these player acquisitions has not been sparkling, and the overspending on Law and Surtain is downright embarrassing.

So yes, the Chiefs haven't had the players. But whose fault is that?

Even worse, what player has truly improved under Cunningham's watch? Great defensive coordinators turn good players into great players. Allen and Johnson are obviously successful projects, but Hali, injured or not, has clearly regressed this year. The Chiefs haven't developed a young cornerback, let alone two, and despite his label as the "Picasso" of linebackers, Cunningham's linebacker unit has little quality depth.

None of this is personal. We like Cunningham, and quite honestly it's difficult not to. It's obvious the players in Kansas City's locker room love playing for him. But if the Chiefs can't stop the run and are giving up as many points as they did when he arrived, is it completely ridiculous to think someone else might be capable of doing a better job?

Some thought that job was done when the Chiefs' defense started out hot at the beginning of the year. Cunningham had his crew in the top 10 for weeks, but it all changed when the Green Bay Packers invaded Arrowhead Stadium in Week 9.

The Chiefs gave up 26 points and 432 yards that day. The following week, KC's run defense fell apart when the Broncos came to town. The Chiefs did manage to put on an impressive display against the Colts the week afterwards, but since then the Raiders, Chargers and yes, the Broncos again, have all torched Cunningham's run defense and scored at least 20 points apiece.

Some sobering statistics – since the bye week, Kansas City has recorded only 10 sacks and forced just six turnovers. During that six-week stretch, the Chiefs' defense has allowed 24 points and 345 yards per game. Basically, since November, Cunningham's group is performing like a defense ranked in the bottom third of the league.

Is it possible that as teams accumulated film of KC's defense this year, opposing offenses adjusted to the attack and found ways to defeat it? Is it possible Cunningham, for all his years of experience, has been unable to reverse this trend?

Even more worrisome is apparently, the same thing happened last season to the Chiefs. Over the final nine games of 2006, Kansas City allowed an average of 355 yards per game, easily one of the worst marks in the league. Is late-season regression two years in a row just a coincidence?

You would hope so, and you'd hope the Chiefs can shut down Vince Young this weekend. Young is the NFL's lowest-rated passer over 300 attempts, and has an interception percentage that makes Damon Huard look good. The Titans will enter Arrowhead Stadium with the goal of running over Kansas City's 26th-ranked run defense.

Will the Chiefs stop them?

We've been waiting four years now.

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