KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs have plenty of company in the dregs of the NFL. Seven other teams are 1-3. Two are 0-4.
A loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium would most assuredly knock the Chiefs from playoff contention nearly a month before Halloween. The players know it.
“We finished 1-3 in September,” Chiefs cornerback Stanford Routt said. “October definitely can’t be like that, or else we’re going to be at home in January.”
One team, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, started 1-4 after losing its first four games before bouncing back and winning the AFC West at 11-5.
But the Chargers weren’t outscored 136-88 in four games, as the Chiefs have been this season. That’s the third-worst scoring differential in the NFL. The Chiefs already have lost two home games and are six-point underdogs to the Ravens in a stadium that at one time was an intimidating venue to visiting players. Six of the Chiefs’ last 11 games will be on the road.
“It’s so hard to win games on the road in this league,” tackle Eric Winston said. “You give up games at home, it’s hard to get to that double-digit win figure you’ve got to get to get to the playoffs, usually.”
The disappointing start has not only undermined optimism among the fan base that the team, in Romeo Crennel’s first full year as head coach, could snap its streak of 19 consecutive seasons without a playoff win, but it has cast doubt about prospects for future success.
Just two teams, the Cincinnati Bengals (1990) and the Detroit Lions (1991), have gone longer than the Chiefs since winning a playoff game. But the Bengals and Lions both reached the playoffs last season.
The other teams struggling with 1-3, 0-4 and even 2-2 starts seem to have reasons for hope. The Chiefs, not so much. Crennel, 24-40 in four years at Cleveland, has shown little evidence of changing his track record as a head coach, save an upset of then-unbeaten Green Bay as interim coach last December. General manager Scott Pioli’s four drafts have not produced any impact players, and he and owner Clark Hunt have not shown an ability to land marquee free agents.
And the biggest common denominator between the teams with hope and the Chiefs is that the others have drafted and are developing their quarterbacks of the future.
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel is 19-24 in three-plus years as a starter, having thrown 58 touchdown passes and 39 interceptions, including seven this year — second-most in the league.
Where is the hope for the Chiefs?
“The long-term issue is the quarterback position,” said Charley Casserly, a former general manager in Washington and Houston. “Matt Cassel is a middle-of-the-road quarterback — he’s not a franchise quarterback — but it’s hard to get those guys. Was Matt Schaub a franchise quarterback when he went to Houston? Is he a franchise quarterback today or just a good solid quarterback with a lot of talent around him and a terrific coaching staff?
“Two years ago, this team won the division. During the preseason, a lot of people had them as a potential winner of the division. Obviously they’ve had problems with the turnovers, and it’s been a big issue for them. If they can eliminate the turnovers, this team all of a sudden looks a lot different.”
The Chiefs’ one saving grace is that they are competing in the AFC West, which figures to be bunched the rest of the year.
“You can’t keep losing games…,” Casserly said. “But you’re not looking at a team out there 4-0 and you’re 0-4. That becomes an uphill battle. The team that would scare me the most is Denver (2-2), because they’re liable to keep getting better more than the other teams because of Peyton Manning and the new offense and players around him.
“The league is pretty balanced. At 1-3, they’re not out of it right now. So there is a possibility to come back.”
After spending a couple of days at the Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph, former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com, had the Chiefs pegged as a wild-card team.
“I prefaced it by saying they had a tough early schedule,” Brandt said. “I thought the Chiefs made some great pickups in (offensive tackle) Eric Winston, (tight end) Kevin Boss; I thought (defensive lineman) Ropati Pitoitua would help their run defense.
“I’m mystified. I was disappointed with what we saw in the preseason. I thought (new offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll was a good addition … I thought Cassel was good. I don’t feel he’s as bad as he’s been made out to look.”
Quarterback, for Brandt, is the heart of the matter.
“Minnesota is 3-1. Would you take (Christian Ponder) or Cassel?” he said, comparing the Chiefs’ starter to the Vikings’ second-year quarterback. Ponder is the eighth-rated passer in the NFL, having completed 68 percent of his passes and thrown for four touchdown passes with no interceptions.
“Let’s take Jacksonville. Jacksonville is 1-3. Would you rather have Cassel or (Blaine) Gabbert?” Brandt said of the Jaguars’ second-year quarterback from Missouri. Gabbert has completed just 55 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and one interception. “I’d rather have Cassel.”
Except for Oakland, which is trying to get by with Carson Palmer, who at age 32 doesn’t appear to be the same since hurting his elbow with Cincinnati a couple of years ago, the members of the 1-3 club have entrusted their programs to quarterbacks of the future. So has 0-4 Cleveland and a pair of 2-2 teams: Indianapolis with Andrew Luck, the first pick in the 2012 draft; and Washington, with Robert Griffin III, the second overall pick.
Here’s a brief snapshot of why each of the young guns on teams with losing records provide hope that does not seem to exist in Kansas City.
Carolina: As a rookie last year, Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500. He also broke Peyton Manning’s NFL rookie for passing yards in a season.
Cleveland: Brandon Weeden, the 28-year-old from Oklahoma State, already is the first rookie in Browns history to throw for 300 yards twice in a season, but he ranks last in the NFL in passer rating. The Browns have been competitive in all four of their losses, and Weeden may have to save coach Pat Shurmur’s job. With a new owner taking over on Oct. 16, Shurmer is 4-16 as head coach, having lost 10 straight going into Sunday’s game against the Giants in New Jersey.
Detroit: It would appear that Matthew Stafford has regressed from last year’s monster season of 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, but the Lions have more total yards this season (1,649) than they did during their 4-0 start last year (1,503). Stafford has been sabotaged by the Lions’ lack of a running game and special teams that have surrendered four kick returns for touchdowns in the past two weeks.
Jacksonville: Gabbert was probably rushed into starting as a rookie, and it showed. He barely completed 50 percent of his passes last season with just 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His stats look better this year, but new coach Mike Mularkey has Gabbert dumping off the ball for short gains. He completed 23 of 34 passes last week against Cincinnati but only two for 15 yards or more — and only 10 went to wide receivers.
Miami: The Dolphins turned a lot of heads in April when they selected Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick of the draft, and he’s having a typical rookie season, ranking second-to-last in passer rating. But his 431 passing yards in last week’s overtime loss at Arizona was the second-most by a rookie in NFL history to Newton’s 432 in 2011.
Tampa Bay: Josh Freeman, the Bucs’ 2009 first-round pick out of Kansas State and Grandview, is still learning to master the offense brought in by new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Freeman has tossed five touchdowns with four interceptions and has thrown for 790 yards, with a below-average passer rating of 75.3.
Tennessee: Jake Locker, the Titans’ first-round pick, was efficient in his first year as a starter this season — completing 63 percent of his passes with four touchdowns, two interceptions and a 90.2 rating — but he’ll miss at least one game after suffering a shoulder injury last week against Houston.
So what will it take to give Chiefs fans some hope that the team can save this season? Is it as simple as replacing Cassel with Brady Quinn sometime Sunday against Baltimore? Next week at Tampa Bay? After the off week?
In next year’s draft?
“The Chiefs clearly have some ground to make up,” said former Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon, now an analyst for CBS. “It’s not time to push the panic button. Is it a time to be a little more than concerned? Absolutely. There has to be a sense of emergency with this operation … everybody … Pioli and Romeo and the coaches and the players.
“Cassel has to play better, no question. He’s the best alternative at this point … you’ve got to stick to your plan. You’ve spent all offseason evaluating personnel, positions, the offense, the scheme, and now all of a sudden you say, ‘Wow, it’s no good anymore’ … You go back and look at the losses and how they lost games. You turn the ball over six times, I don’t care how good you are, you’re not going to win.”
Then, there’s this. Crennel has been part of a team that started 1-3 and made the playoffs and then some. The 2001 Patriots lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to injury in week two and were coming off a 30-10 loss at Miami in week four before turning it around and winning the Super Bowl.
They did it with a second-year quarterback named Tom Brady.