KANSAS CITY, Mo. —After last Saturday's overtime heartbreaker at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs don't appear to have much to play for in their season finale Sunday at Denver.
Sure, interim coach Romeo Crennel said this week that the team was as focused as ever on winning each game and, in this case, finishing 7-9 instead of 6-10. But whether the Chiefs pursue it or not, they do have one final incentive: learning about themselves and their future.
Of the team's nine draft picks in 2011, only two — first-round receiver Jon Baldwin and third-round linebacker Justin Houston — have received significant playing time. Three of the remaining picks, including fifth-round quarterback Ricky Stanzi, have yet to play a single snap, and sixth-round nose tackle Jerrell Powe has been inactive in all but one game. The rest — offensive lineman Rodney Hudson, defensive lineman Allen Bailey and cornerback Jalil Brown — have made only a handful of appearances.
Added to a fruitless class of undrafted free agents, and this season hasn't offered much hope that the Chiefs did the right things last offseason to build for the future. The problem is that, simply, they don't know what they have in many of those players. And Crennel indicated this week that, after Sunday, the Chiefs still might be wondering.
"I'm going to go the way it has been because we feel like the guys that we have been playing with basically have given us the best chance to win," he said. "I don't know that making a change now will change that."
As often as the Chiefs have struggled this season, the team wasn't eliminated from playoff contention until a 13-10 loss last Saturday to Oakland. That kept youngsters out of the lineup, as the Chiefs chased a faint chance at a playoff berth.
That wasn't the story in recent years, when the Chiefs' seasons were sometimes dedicated to learning how young players might help in the future. In 2008, when coaches decided early that they'd play rookies immediately, 11 of the team's 12 draft picks played in at least six games — including four picks who started immediately. The Chiefs went 2-14 that season, but at least they knew that many of the rookies would someday be helpful pieces.
As the team added pieces in subsequent years, plenty of youngsters had a chance to show their value. Of the Chiefs' 15 draft picks in 2009 and 2010, all but four played in at least six games during their rookie seasons. Many emerged as immediate starters or at least showed promise. During those seasons, several undrafted free agents, such as linebacker Jovan Belcher and wide receiver Jeremy Horne, also contributed.
This year, Houston leads all rookies with nine starts, and he's one of five draft picks to appear in at least 10 games — though, in the cases of Hudson, Bailey and Brown, those appearances have been brief. Fifth-round linebacker Gabe Miller was placed on injured reserve during the preseason, and seventh-round fullback Shane Bannon was released after training camp and then added to the team's practice squad. Questions remain about the futures of Stanzi and Powe, seen on draft weekend as potential difference-makers in the future. No undrafted players have played significant roles this season.
Still, Crennel appears to see potential. He praised Brown's special-teams play this week, indicating that he's a candidate to see an increased role sometime in the future. Still, it's unlikely it'll be in the immediate future.
"If an opportunity arose, then he might be able to get some playing time," Crennel said. "But going into this game, knowing what we have to face offensively, our defense has to face a running quarterback in (Tim) Tebow and the option and all those things, so I don't know that Brown's abilities, how much they will impact what we need to do defensively."
Crennel added that Stanzi would play only if starting quarterback Kyle Orton is injured. Stanzi has been inactive for all but three games this season.