Poor Preseason Puts Heat on Pioli, Cassel

Did the Chiefs seriously just complete another losing preseason?

If you're keeping score at home, that's 1-7 in the preseason for the Scott Pioli era. Over the last four years, the Chiefs are a woeful 3-13 in preseason. While it would be foolish to assign too much relevance to exhibition wins and losses, when they come in tandem with 10 Chiefs regular season wins in three years, the correlation is a concern.

When you factor in the performance of the Chiefs' key starters and draft picks this preseason, there's even more reason for concern.

Aside from the shocking revelation that Todd Haley can control his previously nuclear sideline temper for an entire month, the most important thing we learned from August is that Pioli and his highly-paid quarterback, Matt Cassel, still have a lot to prove. Preseason provided no legitimate answers to the questions that have surrounded the pair since last season.

In Pioli's case, the question is simple – can he effectively identify and cultivate game-changing, impact players?

Most of his initial draft class appears to have been written off already. Jake O'Connell, Javarris Williams, Quinten Lawrence, Colin Brown and Donald Washington have been pushed down the depth chart by 2010 rookies.

The three who don't appear to have been written off - Alex Magee, Tyson Jackson and Ryan Succop – are a mixed bag. Magee actually showed up this preseason, recording a sack, which makes the crown jewel of Pioli's 2009 rookie class, Tyson Jackson, look like a lump of cubic zirconia. After a disastrous rookie year, Jackson didn't show much progress over the last month. He was invisible. If he made an impact play, I missed it.

Clearly, the Chiefs don't consider Jackson much of a threat as a pass rusher. He comes off the field frequently on third down. It's not hard to see why – Magee and Wallace Gilberry are far more athletic and explosive, not to mention cheaper. Considering his price tag, Jackson's impact should be more noticeable.

Has Pioli picked the right players?
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After missing four field goals all of last year, Succop missed three this preseason. Sure, they were long kicks. Is that supposed to make Chiefs fans feel better when a game is on the line this season and Succop needs to make another long kick?

Conclusion: there are no signs from the 2009 draft class of a game-changing, impact player. How about Pioli's 2010 draft class? Any signs there?

Pencil in safety Eric Berry as a legit possibility. After seeing Berry blast through a fullback to upend a ball carrier against the Buccaneers two weeks ago, I began speaking in tongues. The Chiefs shut down starting quarterbacks this preseason (apart from one busted play against Tampa) and Berry was definitely part of it.

The problem is Pioli's second-round picks, wide receiver Dexter McCluster and cornerback Javier Arenas, and his third-round pick, tight end Tony Moeaki. Carl Peterson is no longer hanging around Arrowhead Stadium, which means second-round picks should be having a huge impact, even as rookies.

Are McCluster and Arenas having a huge impact? Based on preseason, the answer is no. While they've both proven to be exciting, athletic players who can change a game on special teams, they have to be more.

Arenas has to make an impact on defense. In a perfect world, he'd challenge for Brandon Carr's starting job by season's end. If he's Allen Rossum, a great "cornerback" who has elite return skills but never plays defense, Pioli reached on the pick.

McCluster's preseason receiving numbers – seven catches, 40 yards, no touchdowns, two or three drops – are disappointing. While it's great that McCluster can make explosive plays as a running back, he needs 600 receiving yards and three or four touchdowns to justify the pick Pioli spent, and that's setting the bar low. Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks, selected in 2009 in roughly the same draft slot as McCluster, both went over 700 yards as rookies.

And let's go ahead and set the bar a little higher for Moeaki, who finally caught a pass Thursday night. Third-round picks, especially on teams lacking viable starting tight ends, have to make more of an impact.

But maybe we should temper the expectations for any of KC's pass catchers. Because based on Cassel's preseason, the Chiefs will again struggle to throw the ball.

Will Cassel chuck it down the field?
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I'm honestly flabbergasted that Cassel managed to complete 64 percent of his passes this preseason, throw more touchdowns than interceptions, and finish with a lousy 79.3 rating. Previously, football scientists believed such a feat was impossible, because the NFL weights completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio so heavily in their passer rating formula.

But Cassel pulled it off by quickly dumping the ball short on almost every snap this preseason, averaging a shockingly low five yards per pass attempt. In some cases, Cassel was dumping the ball to running backs behind the line of scrimmage before receivers running down the field had even completed their patterns.

Either the approach was Cassel's diabolical plan to avoid looking too inept, or KC's new offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, watched film of Cassel taking too many sacks and missing too many throws down the field the last two seasons. After sweating profusely for a moment, Weis yanked his 1983 Morristown High School Football playbook out of mothballs, fired up a Xerox machine, and voila! He produced the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs playbook and hatched a plot to turn Cassel into a mistake-free, accurate passer.

Humor aside, here are the facts: had Dwayne Bowe not caught a short pass from Cassel and rumbled for a 30-yard gain Thursday night, every one of Kansas City's starting receivers and tight ends would have averaged fewer than 10 yards per catch this preseason. Quite literally, in four exhibition games, Cassel did not complete a pass that traveled 15 yards or more from the line of scrimmage.

All of this happened in the midst of an improved offensive line that barely resembled the unit responsible for Cassel's knee injury last year. Cassel handed the ball to three dynamite running backs this preseason, threw it to a receiver (Bowe) who appears to have made a quantum leap in maturity, and had not one, but two former Super Bowl offensive coordinators talking inside his helmet between plays.

Chan Gailey, Bobby Wade, Larry Johnson and Mike Goff are gone. The excuses are drying up.

Is preseason a mirage, or will Cassel continue to play quarterback as if he were coached by Herm Edwards and Dick Curl? We're talking about a player who will make more money this year than Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

That means he has something to prove. So does Pioli. The heat is on.

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