In 2011, the Chiefs were coming off a season in which they won the AFC West championship and were a popular pick to defend their title. They bombed so badly they fired their coach, Todd Haley, before the season was finished.
Last year, the Chiefs were again considered a favorite to win their division. And they underachieved again, winning just two games and firing Haley’s successor, Romeo Crennel, shortly after their final game of the season.
Few observers expect the Chiefs, who have rookies and quarterbacks reporting Monday for the start of training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, to overtake the Denver Broncos and win the AFC West this year. But many expect the Chiefs to make rapid improvement and challenge for a wild-card playoff berth.
There are some valid reasons for that, as well as a few that could lead to the conclusion the Chiefs will again finish the season floundering at or near the bottom of their division.
Reasons for hope
• Everyone finally seems to be pulling in the same direction, which hasn’t been the case with the Chiefs for some time. Chairman Clark Hunt’s move to divide the power between general manager and head coach is working the way he intended. The communication between general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid is by all accounts excellent, which can only help the Chiefs. A candy wrapper in the stairwell is now just that and not the sign of some sinister plot to bring down the entire operation. The Chiefs are back to what really matters: winning football games, and Dorsey and Reid have shown they know how to do that.
• The Chiefs showed a more aggressive defensive personality under new coordinator Bob Sutton, and the early returns during offseason practices were promising. The Chiefs may yield more big plays, but they’ll also create more turnovers than they did last season, when they were last in the league. The Chiefs haven’t had more than 41 sacks in a season since 2000, but this team intends to get to that point — and beyond.
• The free-agent additions of Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson give the Chiefs some much-needed depth at cornerback, a most important position. They join Brandon Flowers to provide a strong trio of cornerbacks capable of playing the man-to-man coverage that Sutton’s system requires while allowing the Chiefs to match up with opponents who are deep at wide receiver. One of those opponents, not coincidentally, is Denver, which has Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and now Wes Welker to catch Peyton Manning’s passes.
• The schedule is made for the Chiefs to make a playoff run. They have four games against teams that will be strong contenders for next year’s number one overall pick: the Jaguars, Raiders and Bills. They have two other games against opponents (Philadelphia and Cleveland) also ranked near the bottom in the power poll at ProFootballTalk.com. And they have two games against the Chargers, who are rebuilding. Meanwhile, only their two games against the Broncos and one with the Texans are against teams that look to be serious Super Bowl contenders.
Reasons to mope
• There are some things to like about Alex Smith as the Chiefs’ new quarterback. He protects the ball (only 10 interceptions in his last 25 starts with the 49ers) and completed more than 70 percent of his passes last season. Plug those numbers into the Chiefs’ system and they are automatically a better offensive team than they’ve been in some time. But there were things to like about Matt Cassel when the Chiefs first acquired him, too. Is Smith really an upgrade or is he just Cassel in a different form? Regardless of how well Colin Kaepernick played in practice or during Smith’s injury absence last season, the 49ers had to have seen some flaw in Smith’s game to lead to his benching last season.
• The Chiefs signed Donnie Avery to be the fast wide receiver they’ve lacked the last few seasons, but Avery watched for most of the offseason because of a high ankle sprain. Avery should be ready to participate when camp starts, but he will be behind when he gets to St. Joseph — and that’s not a good omen for a team hoping to find playmakers alongside Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe. Rookies Travis Kelce and Knile Davis showed they have ability and could help this season, but it’s not wise to count on much from a pair of third-round picks. It’s also unwise to count on help from two players, Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster, who have disappointed before.
• The shuffling in the middle of the offensive line during offseason practice could be a sign that the Chiefs aren’t comfortable with Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah at guard and Rodney Hudson at center. Donald Stephenson received plenty of work at guard, with Allen occasionally shifting over to center. It’s definitely a sign of trouble if the Chiefs continue with their experimenting well into camp and the preseason.
• The offense could use some help in the form of favorable field position or touchdowns from the return game. But the Chiefs are preparing to go with one player who is unproven and another who has been unproductive as their return specialists. Davis didn’t return a kickoff in college at Arkansas, but he was the main returner at offseason practice. He has the ability to be successful but has a lot to learn. McCluster is the punt returner, but he’s produced little since bringing a kick back for a touchdown in his first NFL game. McCluster also weighs only 170 pounds, so he tends to wear down if he plays a lot on offense and also returns kicks.