The Kansas City Chiefs are 2-0 and have somewhat repositioned themselves back on the NFL map, yet it's possible we should feel less optimistic about their playoff hopes now than we did at any point last week or during the preseason.
The team stumbled through an ugly and forgettable sixty minutes of football in Cleveland en route to a 16-14 victory over the lowly Browns Sunday.
There were more causes for concern than any Chiefs fan would like to admit, but none was more apparent (again) than the play of quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel, working in comfortable playing conditions and no rain in sight, completed 16 of 28 pass attempts for 176 yards and no touchdowns. He threw two interceptions and finished the game with a 46.1 QB rating.
Cassel struggled mightily in the first half. He threw both his picks and had just sixty yards passing by the end of the first two periods. Those statistics look bad enough on their own, but they appear much worse when you consider it was against the 31st-ranked defense from last year.
Head coach Todd Haley referred to the game as a "grind-it-out type of day".
Whatever. The fact of the matter is, it shouldn't take a few key halftime adjustments against one of the league's worst teams to make your $60 million quarterback look average.
Of course, the "grind-it-out" approach didn't seem to really get going until the second half. Early in the first half, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis repeatedly called passing plays on first and second down, in an effort, possibly, to get Cassel in a rhythm early. It didn't work. As was the case last week and much of last season, he often struggled with his accuracy and missed open receivers.
It's now or never for Cassel. His sketchy play last season was disguised by the bad team around him. There wasn't any quarterback controversy last season because there just isn't anything controversial about who plays on a bad football team. With the team around him seemingly improved, his play must improve, as well.
Really, though, with a struggling quarterback and young defense, you'd think the last thing the coaching staff would want to do is wait until the third quarter to establish the run. It's baffling.
What's more odd is the Chiefs' (mis)use of their best offensive weapon, Jamaal Charles. To this point, I've been hesitant to criticize Haley and Weis for their obvious negligence here. Firstly, the team is winning, and until that changes, it's hard to make a strong case that the team is misusing its personnel. Secondly - and you probably won't agree with this - I do think the team is onto something with its 'thunder and lightning' approach in using Thomas Jones first before putting Charles in. Haley seems adamant about opening games with Jones and then using Charles to try and stun the defense with his contrasting running style. Think 'shock and awe'.
Depending on how you look at it, you could say that approach worked in the Charger game. You could also make a case that Charles would have simply made more big plays had he played more. Either way, with Jones starting, the team has failed to move the ball to begin each of their first two games. In both contests, Charles didn't get in the game until the team's third possession, and in each game the offense looked much better when he finally got on the field.
Having two talented running backs isn't a bad problem to have, but Haley and Weis can't allow it to remain a problem. They must - and this, along with "fixing" Cassel, is how Weis will or won't earn his paychecks in KC - find the right combination for these two backs and commit to it. Jones getting twice as many carries as Charles, as was the case in Cleveland, is not it.
I really don't mean to spoil the fun, but this team has way too many issues to gloat about a couple of cheap victories. Turnovers and good special teams play were absolutely vital in the team's undefeated start. It just won't last. It can't last. In two games, the Chiefs have managed just two offensive touchdowns. No team can sustain winning over the course of a season with that level of inefficiency.
Haley and Weis must be more creative to yield positive results offensively. If they fail to, the team just does not stand a chance against more talented opponents.
Surely you saw the San Francisco defense rattle Drew Brees and the defending champion Saints Monday. How about Peyton Manning and his Colts coming to life to blow by his little brother Eli and the (seemingly) little Giants Sunday night? You couldn't have missed Andre Johnson and company running up the score week after week the past few years down in Houston (They're 2-0).
Well, those three teams are the Chiefs' next three opponents, with two of the games being on the road. All three were favorites to be playoff teams coming into the season according to many experts. After that stretch, we could easily be talking about a 2-3 team with a bad quarterback and inexperienced defense that hasn't won in a month. It's scary.
That disaster could be avoided with some improvement this Sunday against the 49ers. San Francisco had high hopes this season but have gotten off to an 0-2 start. They're hungry for a victory. They have a great defense. It will be a task - a bigger one than the Browns were.
Since 1990, though, over three-fourths of teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. With the Colts and Texans up next (after the bye week), this game could be the most important yet. Some forward thinking from Haley and Weis could have the Chiefs well on their way.
Continued stubbornness and the ineffectiveness that comes with it will only greaten the mess they've helped create.