KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The fortunes of the Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons rested on the toss of a coin.
Both teams, along with Oakland, had finished 4-12 in 2007 and were tied in the other formulas to determine draft order. So it went to a coin flip.
When Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff correctly called tails at the NFL scouting combine, the Falcons received the third overall draft pick, the Raiders the fourth and the Chiefs the fifth.
Atlanta selected Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, who became the face of the franchise and has led the Falcons to the playoffs in three of his four seasons, including a 13-3 record and NFC South title in 2010.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, had launched a youth movement under club president Carl Peterson and coach Herm Edwards, having traded NFL sack leader Jared Allen to Minnesota on the eve of the draft. They stockpiled four choices in the first 73 picks, and after Oakland took running back Darren McFadden of Arkansas, the Chiefs chose defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey of LSU.
Three underclassmen — offensive tackle Branden Albert, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Jamaal Charles — joined Dorsey in that class. Albert, a first-rounder, and Charles, a third-rounder, were taken with picks acquired for Allen
“We had made the playoffs in 2006 in Herm’s first year, but we were an old team,” Peterson said. “We made the conscious decision of going from the oldest NFL team to the youngest in one year, and we knew there were going to be some lumps … but by making the trade and acquiring additional draft picks, we knew what we wanted to do and where we were going to go, and it would take a matter of time.”
Peterson and Edwards, however, did not get the luxury of time. As Edwards said, the young players “were thrown in there” during a 2-12 season which cost the coach and general managers their jobs. And in contrast to the Falcons, the Chiefs have gone 23-41 with just one playoff appearance since 2008.
Today, Dorsey, Albert, Flowers and Charles are cornerstones of the club and form the foundation of the 2012 Chiefs. If the Chiefs are going to be Super Bowl contenders, those four will have to make major contributions, starting with the regular-season opener today at Arrowhead Stadium against Atlanta.
“Every year is big,” Dorsey said. “It’s our fifth year, we’ve put the work in and are ready see it pay off. The 2008 draft class are the veterans of the team because we have a young team. All of us who came in that year take the responsibility of showing young guys how to work and take a leadership role on and off the field.”
The 2008 quartet is playing for its third head coach. They helped win an AFC West title in 2010 under Todd Haley and watched it all fall apart in 2011 when injuries and infighting within the organization led to a last-place finish for the third time in four years and the elevation of Romeo Crennel as head coach.
The 2008 draft also included two late-round picks who became starters: cornerback Brandon Carr and offensive tackle Barry Richardson. That makes it arguably the club’s most productive draft since the 1984 draft produced two club Hall of Famers in offensive tackle John Alt and cornerback Kevin Ross, plus two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Bill Maas and running back Herman Heard, a five-year starter.
“When you have a draft class like that, and then you have a new regime come in the year after, it alters the direction of what might have happened had Herm stayed, and we had drafted in ’09 and 2010,” said Bill Kuharich, the Chiefs’ former director of player personnel who oversaw that draft.
“Who knows? You can speculate all you want. But a lack of playoff appearances was (caused) by the change.”
Another question is what would have happened had the Falcons lost the coin toss? Because of the tie-break procedure, the highest the Chiefs could have drafted was fourth, and had the Raiders picked third, they would have passed on Ryan because Oakland selected JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick in 2007.
Had Ryan been available with the fourth pick, would the Chiefs have pulled the trigger and taken a quarterback in the first round for the first time in 25 years?
Dorsey was at the top of their draft board, but with fragile Brodie Croyle and journeyman Damon Huard as their quarterbacks, what would they have done?
“I would have thought about it absolutely,” said Edwards, who traveled to Boston College with Peterson for Ryan’s heavily attended Pro Day.
“It would have been very, very close,” Peterson said. “I really liked him … he was a very, very impressive young player. It would have been a long 15-minute discussion (before the draft pick had to be made).”
Instead, Ryan went to Atlanta, where he broke the franchise record for passing yards in a single season with 4,177 yards and posted career-bests with 29 touchdown passes and a 92.9 passer rating in 2011. Ryan is 43-19 as a starter, the second-best mark by a quarterback in his first four seasons since 1950. (Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, taken later in the first round of the 2008 draft, is 44-20.)
“They’re in position to have a quarterback for the next 10 years,” Edwards said of Atlanta.
The Falcons, in their first year under Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, weren’t going to pass on Ryan if he was still on the board.
“We had a guy targeted, and we were very fortunate he was available,” Smith said. “I liked the way the coin flip worked out. Where we were picking, you’ve got to make sure you get it right, because if you get it right, you’re not going to be picking there in that situation again …”
Besides landing their franchise quarterback, the Falcons, like the Chiefs, traded back into the first round for a left tackle in Sam Baker. Baker has been bothered by injuries and lost his starting job last year, but will start today against the Chiefs. Linebacker Curtis Lofton, the second round pick, became a starter as a rookie and led the Falcons in tackles last year before signing with New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent.
Two third-round picks from that draft, safety Thomas DeCoud and slot receiver Harry Douglass, will start today.
Another starter in Atlanta’s lineup would not be playing for the Falcons today had the Chiefs won that coin flip and taken Ryan. Surely, with a first-round pick at quarterback, Peterson and Edwards would have been given a little more time to see the youth movement through.
“I had a very experienced tight end I wouldn’t have traded … “ Peterson said of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who asked the new administration of Scott Pioli and Haley for a trade after 12 years in Kansas City and was sent to the Falcons for a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.
Adding to the urgency for the Class of 2008 is both Dorsey and Albert are in the final years of their contracts. Charles received a five-year extension worth up to $32.5 million with $13 million guaranteed in December 2010, while Flowers signed a five-year extension worth up to $50 million with $22 million guaranteed before the second game of the season last September.
Both Dorsey and Albert would prefer a long-term deal and avoid the situation wide receiver Dwayne Bowe faced this year when he sat out training camp before accepting a one-year, $9.5 million tender as the club’s franchise player.
But both players say their uncertain futures won’t affect their performance this year.
“It’s no secret,” Dorsey said of his contract status. “I don’t talk about it. Our whole goal is to make it to the playoffs and win a championship. We won the division two years ago, and it felt good. But we want to do it again and go farther. That’s our objective.”
Having watched the Chiefs let Carr leave and sign a package worth up to $50 million with the Cowboys hangs in the air in the locker room.
“I don’t see why the team wouldn’t want us all to be together,” said Charles. “We went to the playoffs (in 2010), and last year, we had a heartbreaker with me and Eric Berry (who also suffered a season-ending knee injury). This is a team that can be in the playoffs every year. If (Albert and Dorsey) have a good season, they could be here for years.”
Winning, Albert believes, will solve everything.
“It’s big to be part of a winning team,” he said. “The draft class is in the past. The only urgency and thing that motivates me is helping this team win. I don’t worry about a contract, I worry about the five guys I play with on the line, the quarterback I have to protect and the running backs I block for and the rest of this team I have to help out.
“I worry about blocking (Atlanta’s) John Abraham and all the other guys on that defense. That’s my worry right now.”