KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The worries and hope were there weeks ago, and reality is on the horizon. In 11 days, the Chiefs report to training camp — that three-week-plus period in which the truth shows itself after so much waiting.
Coach Todd Haley said during offseason practice — which seems like ages ago — that the Chiefs would begin their downtime with several important orders: Stay in shape. Avoid trouble. Remain focused.
The team had about six weeks to wonder how dozens of players would spend their time before camp began. Now it's time to see how the many variables that an NFL team faces each year will affect this year's Chiefs.
"When we get to training camp," Haley said then, "that'll be another step that we can take advantage of. We can stay the same, we can get worse or we can get better. What's critical for everyone in this building is to continue to get better."
Everybody says the same things this time of year: Players must stay healthy, be focused, become a team. But there are deeper and perhaps more important issues in play for the Chiefs as they enter a pivotal preseason, which begins July 29 as the team gathers in St. Joseph for camp.
How will third-year running back Jamaal Charles respond to the pressure of being seen as a rising star?
How many distractions can such an unproven team afford — especially when wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, safety Jarrad Page and a group of players with past conditioning issues all present potential threats?
How would a long holdout by top draft pick Eric Berry affect the team?
The Chiefs, uncertain and anxious after three consecutive disappointing years, will remain hopeful. But in the meantime, here are some of the real things the Chiefs must see — and must avoid — once camp begins and reality sets in.
The Chiefs must ...
Be rewarded for their faith in Branden Albert. The talented left tackle struggled in his second season last year, perhaps because of a 40-pound weight loss or a continually changing offense. Albert allowed nine sacks last season, fifth-most in the league, and that cast doubt on a promising rookie season and strengthened talk that Albert, who had never played tackle before being drafted in 2008, wasn't up to the job. Still, the Chiefs passed on several tackles in the first round this year, underscoring their faith in Albert.
The big man needs a strong training camp to rebuild the confidence he lost last year, and the Chiefs need Albert to show the intelligence, footwork and passion that made him look like a potential franchise tackle two seasons ago.
Get Charles to pick up where he left off in 2009. The young running back is expected to be the centerpiece of the Chiefs' offense, and he must prove early that he's up for the attention that he'll receive — defensive coordinators know about him now. Haley has to keep Charles grounded throughout the preseason, reminding the youngster that he's not a star yet and that veteran back Thomas Jones would gladly accept the starting job if Charles regresses.
Charles spent the 2009 offseason working on conditioning and strength; he should have repeated that routine this year. Now he must show signs that he can keep improving and that last year's statistics weren't a fluke.
Find a role for linebacker Derrick Johnson — and stick to it. Last year's mind games between Haley and Johnson were unproductive and occasionally silly, with Johnson phased out of the starting lineup through most of the season. Johnson is a veteran who admits he has underachieved, but he's also the type of player who becomes defensive and self-conscious when he's overcoached. Johnson has been at his best when he's given freedom to make plays, which he did with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the season finale at Denver.
Haley and Johnson must find common ground, and that means committing to Johnson for better or worse, so that the sixth-year linebacker proves that he can or cannot consistently live up to the potential he showed in the upset victory against the Broncos.
See a better training camp and preseason from Matt Cassel. The Chiefs' starting quarterback had a disappointing preseason in 2009, frequently being overshadowed in practices by Brodie Croyle before suffering a knee injury in a preseason contest against Seattle. The starting job unequivocally belongs to Cassel, but his throws have to become crisper and more fundamentally sound. He too often made off-balance passes last season and missed open targets.
He's as much a reason as any that Haley hired coordinator Charlie Weis, who will work closely with Cassel to fine-tune his throwing motion and decision-making. Cassel had his adjustment year in 2009. Now, there are no more excuses. He should know his offense, his teammates and himself enough to show that he's worth the money and faith the Chiefs have invested in him.
Get the defense to jell quickly. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has a tall task in turning last year's disappointing unit into one that's at least capable of preventing big plays, pressuring quarterbacks and keeping unknown players from turning into stars. (Anyone ever heard of Dallas' Miles Austin or Cleveland's Jerome Harrison before they blew up the Chiefs?) Other than draft picks and veteran nose tackle Shaun Smith, the Chiefs have mostly the same defensive personnel as last year's group.
Crennel also has Anthony Pleasant, a first-time position coach who some within the organization thought last year wasn't yet ready to handle a position group, working with the defensive line and two of the Chiefs' biggest investments, ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson.
Crennel can afford no mistakes or setbacks if he is to build a competitive unit out of the personnel he inherited.
The Chiefs must not ...
Have division in the coaching ranks. Last year's preseason was soiled with behind-the-scenes disagreements between Haley and then-offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who was fired less than two weeks before the regular season began. Haley now has a trustworthy coaching staff in place, and he'll be tested to speak his mind and make decisions but avoid meddling.
Weis and Crennel have far more experience than the young and hot-headed Haley, who has to find a way to delegate and avoid the divisive behavior that led to sideline blowups and ill-timed staff changes a year ago. Crennel is soft-spoken, and Weis is gruff and headstrong. Haley has to show he can work with both, which would be a sign that he has matured as a head coach.
Tolerate players who arrive to camp out of shape. Dorsey and several others missed nearly a week of training camp last season while they worked themselves into condition, and while they were absent, the team was in a holding pattern. The Chiefs aren't talented enough to absorb a similar start to camp, and with the coaching changes and many young players expected to compete for playing time, they'll need every minute of practice time to build chemistry and feel comfortable — things they clearly lacked after last year's camp.
Foundation players such as Dorsey and Bowe must prove they are past last year's pitfalls. If they don't, it may be interpreted as one of the organization's worst sins: that they aren't fully committed.
Allow Bowe and Page to draw attention from football. Bowe's errors in judgment are well-documented, and he could be entering a make-or-break season in Kansas City. He has to produce and keep quiet — some of his teammates already have begun rolling their eyes at the fourth-year wideout's antics.
Page didn't participate in any of the Chiefs' offseason activities, and a happy reunion — he has yet to sign his tender as a restricted free agent — appears unlikely. The team seemed to distance itself from Page by drafting a pair of safeties, and despite Page's skills and experience, it seems as if the simplest move now would be for the sides to part ways.
Have a long holdout from Eric Berry. The Chiefs rarely have their top draft pick in camp on time, and there are few indications that Berry, this year's fifth overall selection, will break the trend. No NFL first-rounders have signed, to say nothing of the top five picks, who set the floor and ceiling on contract values. Neither the player nor the organization wants to be first, fearing they'll lose money one way or the other. Things can happen quickly once players begin to sign, and the Chiefs need to avoid wasting time.
The Chiefs can't afford to be without Berry, who's expected to be an immediate starter, for more than a few days. General manager Scott Pioli should understand that value sometimes goes deeper than money.
Give in to the temptations of having training camp so close to Kansas City. The Chiefs are breaking from a long tradition of sequestering players in an area far from home. St. Joseph is less than an hour from downtown KC, and many players will have their cars with them at camp. Team unity is as important as anything in the NFL, and worrying about players' nighttime whereabouts is a distraction the Chiefs cannot afford. The team needs players rested, focused and eager if it has any chance of ending what is becoming another tradition: losing.