It's been a week since the Chiefs' blink-of-an-eye exit from the NFL playoffs and most of the cursing and sulking out of Kansas City has dissipated. A few thoughts as we reflect on the season that was and what lies ahead for the Kansas City Chiefs...
Like it or not, Todd Haley is here to stay. When Clark Hunt hired Scott Pioli as general manager two years ago, he made it clear the model franchise the Chiefs would be taking after was that of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And if that's any indication, don't count on a head-coaching change any time soon in Kansas City (the Steelers have had just two head coaches since 1992 and haven't officially fired a head coach since 1969). Let's just hope Hunt can figure out how to emulate those Super Bowl victories.
While we're on the subject, we might as well discuss the rather large void left by Charlie Weis (pun-intended) at offensive-coordinator. Haley seems to be hinting that he may revert back to calling the plays himself next season, as he did in his first year as coach in 2009. The consensus from the fans/media is that Haley was a better game-manager this season because he wasn't preoccupied with the play-calling. While I agree with that assessment, I'm not convinced Haley hasn't learned from his 2009 mistakes and wouldn't be able to pull it off in 2011. If we're stuck with Haley, I honestly believe hiring another coordinator to call plays would be a mistake, as Haley has proven he can't seem to live with the decisions of his colleagues. The Chiefs are going to live and die with Haley as the face of the offense. Hiring anything more than another set of eyes in the press box would simply create turmoil and be counter-productive.
Kansas City's schedule next year is absolutely brutal. Right now, it's feasible to think the team could improve vastly next season yet finish with a worse record than in 2010. The AFC West will play the AFC East and NFC North next season, which means the Chiefs will play the likes of the Patriots, Jets, Bears, and Packers (all of which have yet to be eliminated from the current playoffs as of this writing). To be fair, the rest of the AFC West, via the NFL's balanced scheduling, will play those same divisions. But, as a result of a first-place finish, the Chiefs will get the Steelers (first-place in AFC North) and Colts (first-place in AFC South) in 2011.* By comparison, the Raiders, who finished in third-place, will get the third-place teams from the those divisions — the Browns and Texans.
*A couple positives could come from next year's gauntlet. One would be that the 2011 schedule could be filled with primetime games, especially if the Chiefs can win a few (flex scheduling could help or hurt the team's chances of exposure depending on their early season performance). Also, if the Chiefs can somehow find a way to make the playoffs next year ... talk about a battle-tested team. Watch out.
One obvious way the Chiefs could improve would be by acquiring disgruntled Cardinals wide-receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, 27, has one year left on his contract in Arizona, so any pursuit by Kansas City would require relinquishing draft-picks, something Pioli has been reluctant to do in the past. Kansas City is rumored to be one of the likely landing spots for Fitzgerald because of his history with Haley when the Chiefs' coach was the offensive-coordinator in Arizona. Fitzgerald, a four-time Pro Bowler, often credits Haley for pushing him to the limit and helping him turn a corner in his career. My prediction is that if the Cardinals can't work something out soon, the Chiefs will show interest and be one of the front-runners to land Fitzgerald. And if the price is a first-round pick, it's a no-brainer.* He's just that good.
*Think Tyson Jackson. Yep ... worth it.
In watching the playoffs, and specifically the Ravens' Dismantling of the Chiefs last Sunday (D-Day 2011), it seems apparent Kansas City's biggest weakness is lack of toughness on the offensive and defensive line. In the final regular season game against the Raiders and then the playoff game (both home games), the team was simply dominated by superior big-men on both sides of the ball. It was quite embarrassing.
Now, that's not entirely an indictment on the players, personally. Ryan Lilja and Casey Weigmann were great additions on the offensive side in helping the league's best rushing attack. Glenn Dorsey and Shaun Smith were, at times, forces on defense. But overall, the units just don't quite scream "playoff victories", if you know what I mean.
The 2011 season will ultimately be defined by Matt Cassel. The quarterback took great strides this season, but his improvement in 2010 will forever be scarred by his performance after the year turned. There are just an endless amount of questions as the Chiefs head into the off-season, most of which reflect back to Cassel and Haley...
Was the decline in Cassel's play directly correlated with the news of Weis' departure? If so, what does that say about the quarterback's poise and leadership skills? ... Can Haley and Cassel coexist, especially considering the possibility of there being no middle-man (offensive-coordinator) next season?
It shouldn't be understated that Cassel was originally a Pioli-guy, and it's possible if Haley were calling all the shots the team would have never acquired him in the first place. We're long past that now, but it will be interesting to see if the two will ever be productive together without Weis. If the Chiefs struggle with Cassel again next season, will it be time to move on? Would the previous three years be viewed as a waste? Would Pioli even have the guts to admit a mistake? So many questions.
My take? It's impossible to think Cassel will be able to play the type of mistake-free football that had many labeling the quarterback as a Pro Bowl-snub in 2010. And now that Weis and his three Super Bowl rings are Florida-bound, Cassel struggling in 2011 should be a foregone conclusion. Now, Fitzgerald could certainly change that assessment. And hey, Cassel could simply get better. But for a team that looked overmatched and undeserving when push-came-to-shove this season, predicting it to take the next step in 2011 just seems like wishful thinking.
My absurdly early prediction for 2011: 7-9.
As for beyond that, I have this overwhelming, yet sad feeling in my heart and mind, and I just can't rid myself of it...
Matt Cassel will never win an NFL playoff game, and the Chiefs will realize this fact entirely too late.
I sure hope I'm wrong.