To describe the AFC West we could say this division housed several of the most powerful and talented offenses in the game, as well sporting many of the weakest defensive teams in the league.
Outside of the upstart and surprising San Diego Chargers, the division was a disappointment. The Kansas City Chiefs anticipated a run at the Super Bowl, only to falter to a 7-9 record. In Denver, the Broncos believed they had turned the corner and were on their way to the top of the mountain, only to face another embarrassing loss in the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts.
And well, the Oakland Raiders were the Oakland Raiders. The 2004 season came with high expectations with some new faces, less distractions, possibly a direction for the future established, but yet another disappointing season at 5-11.
The Raiders have thrived on their pursuit of high-profile names…..the problem is those names may no longer be high-quality players at the professional level. Whether it was miss-casting, age, or overall scheme and attitude, two of the Raiders largest 2004 acquisitions failed to pan out.
Warren Sapp and Ted Washington, both defensive tackles were expected to mend the defensive line of the Raiders and lead them back to the time when the Raiders were a dominant force. Needless to say, they didn't, and the Oakland defensive line was a fairly weak unit last season. Defensive end Bobby Hamilton was solid, but the Raiders need to re-focus the notion they are a 3-4 team, unless the off-season brings them the riches of capable 3-4 type defensive ends and linebackers.
The Raiders dealt one its better linebackers, Napoleon Harris this off-season in the Randy Moss trade, leaving the Oakland defense with yet another void to fill. Cornerback Charles Woodson signed his franchise offer and may depart this off-season. Young veteran cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Nnamdi Asomugha have failed to live up to expectations, as has safety Derrick Gibson. There is a reason why the Raiders ranked 30th in the league against the pass and not all the blame can be placed on the lack of pass-rush generated by the Oakland front-seven.
Offensively, the Oakland Raiders could be as good as any team in the league in 2005. Quarterback Kerry Collins has the power-arm and with a season under his belt, he has the knowledge necessary of the Turner offense. Showing flashes of excellence last season, Collins has the make-up to play at a high-level in Oakland, especially with the supporting cast in place.
In an off-season like none other in Oakland recently, the Raiders have acquired explosive talent. Game-breaking wide receiver Randy Moss was acquired for Harris and the team's first-round draft selection (#7) in the 2005 draft. Running back LaMont Jordan has been signed as a free agent, away from the New York Jets. In Jordan, Turner has the running back to power and keep the defense from keying on any one facet of the Oakland offense. Along with the re-signing of wide receiver Jerry Porter, these Raiders are going to be a very tough offensive machine next season.
Speaking of offense, the cream of the crop in the AFC West and possibly the entire league has to be the Kansas City Chiefs.
Another team with defensive liabilities, the Chiefs is the closest thing to an unstoppable force on the offensive side of the ball. With the ability to score from anywhere on the field due to a diversified offensive scheme, which is based on quickness, imagination, and precision, this Kansas City team needs to focus its efforts on its porous defense.
Head coach Dick Vermeil has toyed with the notion of adding another receiver to the offense, but due to the vast issues on the defensive side of the ball this may not be possible. The team is sufficient with Eddie Kennison, Johnny Morton, and Samie Parker at the receiver position, as evidenced by the consistently explosive numbers supplied by the passing game. With Trent Green, Priest Holmes, and Tony Gonzalez getting to the point of their careers when injuries become increasingly evident, if there was ever a time to make a concerted effort to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl, that time would be now in Kansas City.
The Chiefs have numerous issues on the defensive side of the ball. The cornerback position must be made a priority, which it has, as the team has been in discussions with almost every available high-quality player (Samari Rolle, Ty Law, Patrick Surtain) at the position. If this team does not emerge from the free agent player signing without a shutdown cornerback, the story may remain the same in Kansas City.
The linebacker position has received significant focus during the early days of the free agent player signing period. The Chiefs have been in negotiations with Ed Hartwell (Baltimore) and recently visited with Kendrick Bell (Pittsburgh) to explore the opportunity to improve the middle and outside linebacker position voids. With the slow recovery of Mike Maslowski (knee), Shaun Barber (knee), and slow development of youngster Kawika Mitchell, the Chiefs are being aggressive in their pursuit to upgrade.
All this Kansas City team needs is a little defense to compete for the AFC Championship and right to play in the Super Bowl.
Of the teams in the AFC West which believed they were a Super Bowl contender, the Denver Broncos were sorely disappointed in their ending to the 2004 season. Coming out of the gate quickly, the Broncos thought they had the pieces in place to become a significant representative of the AFC. Those beliefs lasted all of six-weeks before chinks in the armor appeared.
Following a 5-1 start to the season, where the team played solid football on both sides of the ball, this Denver team was already thinking they were the team to beat. They may have been in the AFC West, if it weren't for too much confidence, a lack of a playmaker in the red-zone, and some inconsistency on the defensive side of the ball.
Losing defensive end Trevor Pryce to injury significantly affected the team's ability to rush the passer all season, which created issues for the defensive backs. The Denver defensive backs had been solid early in the season, but wore down as time passed, the lack of a pass-rush exploited what was already the known, and the Denver defensive backfield was questionable. At an alarming rate, the cornerbacks were being beaten in coverage, even All-Pro Champ Bailey struggled at times.
Without the space under the salary cap to make any significant additions in the defensive backfield, the Broncos may have no option but to seek a lesser known or experienced talent and the team expects starters Kelly Herndon and Kenoy Kennedy to depart via free agency.
While the offense was sufficient enough to compete regularly, questions remain about quarterback Jake Plummer. Despite putting up some good numbers in the Denver offense, Plummer remains an erratic quarterback, who makes questionable decisions. The Broncos need Plummer to become consistent and reach the level of play he teases them with on occasion.
The team is interested in adding a receiver to the mix with veteran Rod Smith closing in on 35 to team with Ashley Lelie. Presently, the team can continue to count on Smith as a viable weapon in their system, but with age comes injury and production drop, and this team has not been built with the depth necessary to off-set a loss of production at this skill position.
Tatum Bell is expected to be the feature running back for the team in 2005. Very quick, elusive, with the ability to run between the tackles, Bell showed flashes of his ability prior to being injured last season. Backup Reuben Droughns has been provided the opportunity to seek a trade, with no takers being presented at this time. If Droughns is to return to Denver, he may be the second running back on the depth chart, as well as being utilized once again as a fullback. Though, an injury to Bell would put him back in the spotlight, where he did extremely well in the 2004 season.
Some of Denver's key contributors are aging, and the team does not have the room needed under the salary cap to make major roster additions. If the Broncos can't get it done within the next season or two, the window may be closed and the organization may have to rebuild the roster.
The surprise team of the 2004 season had to have been the San Diego Chargers. Quietly flying under radar most of the off-season prior to the 2004 season, the Chargers were a busy team within their immediate structure, believing the talent was in place to become competitive, but the attitude and belief in the system required work.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the man who has never been associated with a losing football program was at the forefront of this massive change in San Diego. Under considerable scrutiny for his player moves, coaching habits, and lack of communication with players on the roster, Schottenheimer's belief and experience were steadfast. Following the 2004 season, Schottenheimer was named Coach of the Year for the efforts and striking turnaround of his Chargers.
As for the defense, the secondary has undergone a youth movement, focusing on fast, aggressive young cornerbacks. Bhawah Jue (Green Bay) has been signed as a free agent to help solidify quickness and range issues at the safety spot. The linebackers of the Chargers are aggressive and solid tacklers, though the team seeks increased speed and athleticism at the position. Led by veteran Donnie Edwards and pass-rushing linebacker Steve Foley, the group overall is solid and a significant reason for the success of this team. Buying into the 3-4 defensive scheme of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Chargers are a well-coached team and are defensive front-seven are rarely out of position.
Heading into the off-season, the Chargers seek a defensive end that shows the ability to get to the quarterback. With Foley, a linebacker being the team's most consistent pass-rush presence, the Chargers could mask some minor flaws within its defensive scheme with this type of difference maker.
AFC West Overview
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