Sunday Can Be Successful

A year ago at this time, like lambs being led to the slaughter, a young Kansas City Chiefs team was preparing to start its season in New England against a juggernaut that had just finished 18-1 the previous year.

With no one in their right mind actually expecting Kansas City to defeat the mighty Patriots, I tried to identify a few ways in which we could still consider the game a success even if the Chiefs were unable to come away with a win.

I wanted to see the Chiefs display a fresh offense under coordinator Chan Gailey, one that bore no resemblance to the days of Mike Solari. I wanted them to take the training wheels off starting quarterback Brodie Croyle and let him play without an overly conservative gameplan. I wanted to see the run defense step up and show signs of improvement.

Unfortunately, none of those things ended up happening.

We're kicking off a brand new season on Sunday, but there must be a sense of déjà vu for the Chiefs as, once again, they open their campaign on the road as heavy underdogs to one of the top teams in the AFC. Despite a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback, the Baltimore Ravens reached the AFC Championship game last year, falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Opening against the Ravens might not be quite as frightening as playing the Patriots team that came within an eyelash of a perfect season, but it has to be in the same ballpark.

With a victory on Sunday appearing rather unlikely, I've again tried to identify a few key areas which – if they come to pass – could let us view the Chiefs' opening game as a success.


•Sunday can be successful if the Chiefs' offense gets on the scoreboard.

This may seem like I'm setting the bar as low as possible, but consider this stat: when playing at home last season, the Ravens' defense only surrendered an average of 10 points a game.

For a team with a porous offensive line, an unknown situation at quarterback, no depth at wide receiver, and no Tony Gonzalez, scoring points is going to be hard enough as it is. We've already seen evidence of that throughout the preseason.

With the Chiefs' shaky offense going up against the vaunted Baltimore defense -- in front of a fired-up opening day crowd, no less – a shut-out shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

With that in mind, if the offense can actually move the ball and put some points on the board during the game, it has to be considered a success. Against a defense that only gives up 10 points at home, the Chiefs' offense managing to score a single touchdown could be the equivalent of putting up 14-17 points against a normal team.

It's nothing to write home about, certainly, but at least it's a start.


•Sunday can be successful if the Chiefs protect their quarterback.

Whether it's Matt Cassel, Brodie Croyle, or Tyler Thigpen, there's a real possibility that whoever starts this game at quarterback for the Chiefs might not make it through to the end.

That's due to a combination of the Ravens' defense and the state of the Chiefs' offensive line, particularly on the right side. Time after time this preseason, we saw right tackles completely whiff on their blocks. Damion McIntosh, the worst offender, is no longer in Kansas City, but Sunday's projected starter, Ikechuku Ndukwe, didn't exactly set the world on fire when he saw action.

The Ravens know this and they'll surely look to exploit the Chiefs' weakness. Can you imagine Ndukwe having to block Terrell Suggs all day?

Cassel, of course, already went down during the preseason, and Croyle's history of injuries has been well-documented. If defenders are allowed to pin their ears back and tee off on the Chiefs' quarterbacks, it's not going to be pretty.

It's an embarrassing commentary on the state of the team, but if the quarterback who starts the game ends up finishing it – even if he gets sacked repeatedly and keeps picking himself up off the turf - that has to be considered a mild success. For either Cassel or Croyle to survive that kind of abuse, with Cassel unlikely to be at 100 percent and Croyle's reputation for being injury prone, it would be a positive sign for both players.

If the starting quarterback finishes the game because he was actually protected by the offensive line, that would be an unqualified success for the team as a whole.


•Sunday can be successful if the defense shows up against the run.

I'm focusing on the run for the second straight year, but it's become an even bigger issue after last season's debacle.

The 2007 Chiefs gave up 130 yards per game on the ground, to the tune of 4.3 yards a carry. With Gunther Cunningham taking over as linebackers' coach, plus the additions of Glen Dorsey and Tank Tyler as starters on the middle of the defensive line, it seemed like better days would be ahead in 2008.

Unfortunately, things only got worse. Last season's Chiefs surrendered 159 rushing yards per game at an incredibly embarrassing average of five yards a carry.

Results from the preseason were encouraging, with the Chiefs' new defense giving up just 3.1 yards per carry. It's impossible to imagine the average remaining that low – 3.1 yards per carry would have led the league a year ago, putting Kansas City's defense above the Steelers, Vikings, and Ravens.

But the 2008 Chiefs surrendered 4.9 yards per carry in the preseason, just one-tenth short of their eventual average. So who knows, perhaps there is a minor correlation between preseason and regular season performance. Let's cross our fingers and hope that proves to be the case.

We should get a pretty good idea of where the run defense stands against the Ravens, who had the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL last year. They averaged about 150 yards a game on the ground, right in the neighborhood of what the Chiefs' defense allowed. If Kansas City can slow down the Ravens' running attack, it might mean actual progress is being made.

The Chiefs' chances of coming away from Baltimore with a win may be slim, but if they can accomplish the things we've laid out here, Sunday's game could still prove to be a promising start.

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