On one hand, the Chiefs have the look of a team with its house finally in order. They have a coach in Andy Reid who has been there and done that, a quarterback in Alex Smith who was once the top pick in the draft and a roster dotted with some of the NFL’s best players.
On the other, they were a miserable mess last season with an NFL-worst 2-14 record.
So, as the Chiefs begin training camp Friday at Missouri Western State, reasonable expectations are a mystery. Is it too much to believe their many new elements will fit together quickly and they can make the postseason in their first try under Reid?
Or are they more likely to spend a third straight year watching other teams in the playoffs?
“I have them a solid second in their division behind Denver,” said Solomon Wilcots, who will work some Chiefs games this season as an analyst for CBS. “I don’t know how many games they’re going to win or whether they’ll make the playoffs, but they’re an interesting team. They’ve got six Pro Bowlers, so that tells you they have some talent. Andy will probably tell you he inherited a better team that what he inherited when he first got to Philly.
“They were 2-14, but they’ve got a lot of good players: Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, Branden Albert, Eric Fisher, Eric Berry, Brandon Flowers. To me, the names on the back of those jerseys tell you more about what type of team they have than last year’s record.”
If one thing is clear, it’s that the Chiefs aren’t approaching this as a rebuilding season. They understand that even with a large share of the league’s better players — besides the six Pro Bowlers, five Chiefs were named to the NFL Network’s top 100 — their window for success might not be an extended one. Some of their better players like Charles, Bowe, Hali and Derrick Johnson are approaching the age where their skills could begin to decline.
Reid joined the Chiefs only days after finishing his 14th season as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Given where the Chiefs finished last season, he might be viewed as a miracle worker if he can get the Chiefs to win merely half of their games this season.
But at 55, he hasn’t acted like a coach willing to accept a grace period. Along with new general manager John Dorsey, Reid attacked his new job. The Chiefs traded for Smith and reworked the roster to a significant extent.
“All of that needed to be new,” Wilcots said. “You need to ask yourself whether these changes are an improvement. Is the GM better than what was there? Is the coach better? Is the quarterback better? You could probably say yes to those questions across the board.”
Still, the Chiefs have to mesh a lot of new elements. Well more than half of their players, 52 of the 89 on their roster, joined the Chiefs only this year. In addition to that and the general manager, coach and quarterback, the Chiefs have new offensive and defensive systems that typically require time to take root.
“I always have very high expectations, but you try to temper those expectations,” said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, who watched the final rookie practice on Thursday. “We do have a new coaching staff. We have a lot of new players. I don’t know how quickly it will come together once we get to September, but I’m very excited about what I’m seeing . . .”
Reid indicated the Chiefs accomplished more in offseason practice than he thought they might.
“You come in with an idea,” he said. “I think we exceeded that. You can put a whole lot in, but it’s important that the fundamentals and techniques are there, too, on both sides of the ball and special teams. I thought we were able to maintain the fundamentals and techniques and get better at those and at the same time, the players were studying so stinking hard that their retention was good enough to where you could add a little bit more than what you thought you could.
“We have a long way to go. We have to keep working. It’s important that the players continue to work, which they’ll do.”
In offseason practice, the defense frequently appeared ahead of the offense. The schemes of new coordinator Bob Sutton showed his defense to be more aggressive than the Chiefs have been in many years. That should help them create more turnovers than the league-low 13 they forced last season.
“This defense is very special,’’ cornerback Sean Smith said. “Even though we went 2-14, we have a lot of guys who made the top 100 and we had six Pro Bowlers on this team, so we’re loaded with talent. Right now we’re putting it all together and it’s going to be very special in the future.
“It’s been fun, been fun. It’s definitely been a learning experience, and the guys are definitely buying into what Coach Reid has to say and it’s looking good.”
Expectations should be higher on defense, where the Chiefs have four players who participated in last season’s Pro Bowl. Two of their main free-agent acquisitions were cornerbacks, Smith and Dunta Robinson.
Reviving what has been for the past couple of seasons a sluggish offense could be more difficult. Much depends on the play of Smith, who cost the Chiefs a second-round draft pick this year and another choice next season.
Quarterback turnovers killed the Chiefs last year, and Smith threw just 10 interceptions in his last 25 starts for the 49ers. If he can merely help the Chiefs cut back on turnovers, Smith might be worth the price.
“One of the things that’s easy to do at practice is watch the quarterback position,” Hunt said. “I think we have several guys who are going to be able to help us not only this year but down the road at the quarterback spot. Clearly Alex is the focus. Watching him lead the team has given me a lot of comfort. Watching him throw the ball is really exciting. He’s somebody that has a command of the offense and brings a resume of success to the Kansas City Chiefs.”
The Chiefs didn’t ignore the offense around him. They drafted offensive tackle Eric Fisher, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Knile Davis with their top three picks. But, again, Bowe and Charles will be their main playmakers.
That combination wasn’t strong enough to carry the Chiefs to more than two victories last season. But Bowe could be revitalized in Reid’s offense. The Eagles were generally among the league’s highest-scoring teams when they were coached by Reid.
But the lack of a proven receiving threat to go along with Bowe could cause problems for the Chiefs.
“In his system, go back and look and whether it was Jerry Rice or whether it was (Terrell Owens) or whether it was Sterling Sharpe, you can easily have a guy with 90 or 100 receptions and I guarantee that’s how Andy sees Dwayne Bowe,” Wilcots said. “That’s why they moved immediately to get him signed to a new contract. He was the first order of business for the Chiefs. Now, what they get out of Jon Baldwin and Donnie Avery and some of their other guys, that remains to be seen.”