"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"
Oh, those are not their exact words. No, their cries are more along the lines of statements like, "It will be years before this mess is fixed," or, "Until Clark Hunt fires Carl Peterson and Herm Edwards, this team will be nothing more than the horrible sight we've seen in 2007."
Yes, the popular sentiment today is that the Chiefs are doomed to be one of the NFL's worst for the next several years. There is no hope for restoration. There is no light in this tunnel of darkness.
Chicken Little, please sit down and be quiet. The truth of the matter is that this debacle of a season was inevitable. Two years ago I espoused that the Chiefs should pull out all the stops, including signing wide receiver Terrell Owens, to win the Super Bowl. It wasn't just because the Chiefs lacked a star-power, playmaking wide receiver (which they did). It was because the team they had was only built for one last run.
Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Trent Green, Eddie Kennison, Patrick Surtain, Priest Holmes, Greg Wesley, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Dunn, Casey Wiegmann, John Welbourn and others no longer a part of the organization were the foundation of that team. All were on the downside of their careers. It was a matter of time before that foundation would crumble.
My theory was to go after it one more season and then tear it down, rebuilding from the ground up. Last season the Chiefs used duct tape, super glue and string to hold the foundation together and fought and clawed their way into the playoffs.
This year that foundation began to crack, but held together enough to start the season at 4-3, tying for first place in the AFC West. Then the inevitable happened. The foundation collapsed and all hell broke loose (or in the case of the opposing defensive lines, a jailbreak occurred at the expense of the quarterback and the running game).
As this season now lays in ruin, we don't have to worry about tearing it down. It crumbled. Now the rebuilding process begins, but all is not doom and gloom.
First, there is hope in what the Chiefs already have. Through keen analysis and some dumb luck, the Chiefs have acquired talent over the past few drafts. Dick Vermeil has taken a lot of hits for his talent evaluation and drafting, and rightfully so, but there are a few players from his regime who form the new nucleus of this team.
Jared Allen began this year on a two-game suspension but came back with a vengeance, recording 15.5 sacks in 14 games to win the 2007 sack title. He will start in his first Pro Bowl this February. While he is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, Carl Peterson is already on record saying that Allen will be back in Kansas City next season.
Derrick Johnson had a breakthrough year at outside linebacker this season and should be poised to make a run at the Pro Bowl himself next year.
Larry Johnson, while not endearing himself to the fans with his holdout, reduced production and season-ending injury, is as talented a running back as there is in the game. In the two seasons prior to this one, he amassed over 3,400 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns.
Dustin Colquitt is quickly becoming one of the best punters in the NFL and was among the league leaders in net punting average.
These four players share a commonality. Dick Vermeil drafted them all.
As for Herm's drafts, Tamba Hali just completed his second NFL season, recording 7.5 sacks this season after logging eight a year ago. That's 15.5 sacks in two years, good production for a player early in his career.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe led all rookie receivers with 70 receptions for 995 yards and five touchdowns, and also led all rookies in receptions over 20 yards with 13. Jarrad Page is becoming a ball-hawking safety. Bernard Pollard, Tank Tyler and Turk McBride all showed flashes of becoming productive players for the Chiefs.
There is young talent and veterans who are playing at a high level who provide significant leadership - Brian Waters, Tony Gonzalez and Donnie Edwards. All three have been to Pro Bowls and have a tremendous passion for the game of football, and just as important, a tremendous passion for the Kansas City Chiefs.
To be fair, there is a huge question at quarterback. Edwards has said Brodie Croyle is the guy for 2008, and that's the right call. The Chiefs will be better served to build around Croyle than continuing with a question mark. I offer as a precedent the San Diego Chargers and their quarterback, Phillip Rivers.
Cornerback Champ Bailey of the Denver Broncos said it best:
"I don't really care for the guy, first of all," he said of Rivers. "He's not a respectable guy right now because you talk too much trash and do this and that, but you're really not a great player in this league right now. You're surrounded by great players, but you're not a great player. I think he needs to understand where he stands in this league -- where he stands on his team first and foremost."
Ignoring the obvious venom directed towards Rivers, Bailey makes a great point. Rivers is surrounded by talent. Is Rivers that much better than Croyle? Maybe, but we've seen some flaws in Rivers' game that have been overcome by the talent on the Chargers.
Croyle has enough talent to be successful in Kansas City if the talent around him is good enough. The good news is he's got an offensive guard, running back, tight end and wide receiver to start with.
How long will it take to assemble the rest of the pieces? I said earlier that this is not necessarily a long-term rebuilding project. I say that based on the history and parity of the NFL.
The NFL is designed to allow bad teams to get good in a hurry. Let's look at those Chargers again. In 2003 the Chargers were the worst team in the NFL and drafted first in the 2004 draft. They used that draft to establish the nucleus of their team. It's not just getting a high pick in the first round - it's getting a high pick in every round.
Picking in the top five in each round is equivalent to getting a low pick in the previous round. For example, the Chiefs will pick around fourth in the second round of the 2008 draft. That's basically equivalent to a first-round pick in the 30s. Because of the Trent Green trade to Miami, the Chiefs will have two of the top five picks in the fifth round, which equates to two low fourth-round picks.
In that 2004 draft the Chargers took the following players who are now the foundation of their team: quarterback Phillip Rivers (after trade to Giants), defensive end Igor Olshansky, kicker Nate Kaeding (acquired with pick from the Giants), center Nick Hardwick, linebacker Shaun Phillips, Michael Turner (fifth-round pick from trade with Miami), and defensive tackle Ryan Bingham (seventh-round selection). They also received a first-round pick in 2005 from the Giants, which they used to acquire linebacker Shawne Merriman.
In 2004 the Chargers finished with a 12-4 record. That is a one-year turnaround going from the worst team in the NFL to the best in the AFC West. That 2004 draft was aided by a significant trade-down situation, but why can't the Chiefs do something similar in this year's draft with a top five pick? All of the players listed from San Diego's 2004 draft play significant roles for the Chargers.
You might say San Diego's example is a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I'll again point you to recent NFL history.
In 2006, two teams that drafted in the top five that year wound up making the playoffs - the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets. The 2007 regular season just ended. Two of the teams heading to the playoffs this year drafted in the top six last April: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.
When you consider that the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns were in the playoff mix until the final week of the season, that's four out of the top seven teams in the 2007 draft that were serious playoff contenders in 2007.
So Chicken Little, all is not lost. The Chiefs have some young talent, they have veteran leadership still playing at a high level and they have a plethora of draft picks (at least 10 draft picks in the 2008 draft) to rebuild this team. In the NFL, a team can be built very quickly. A good draft and a solid free agency period could have these Chiefs back to contending for the playoffs and the AFC West as soon as next year.
Quiet Down, Chicken Little
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