KANSAS CITY, Mo. —It's election week in the NFL. Players from around the league will cast their Pro Bowl ballots today and Thursday, and in past years, the Chiefs have used the opportunity to vote for the club's Derrick Thomas MVP award and the Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year award.
This year, in a 9-5 season and on the precipice of the club's first AFC West title since 2003, there's no clear-cut winner for either award.
Certainly, quarterback Matt Cassel personified an MVP on Sunday in St. Louis when he returned to the starting lineup 11 days after undergoing an appendectomy and led the Chiefs to a 27-13 victory in a game the Chiefs needed to win to maintain a one-game lead over San Diego with two to play.
Cassel also was voted the AFC Offensive Player for the Month for November when he threw an NFL-most 12 touchdown passes with only one interception and a 111.2 passer rating during the month.
But during that same period, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was unstoppable with a four-week stretch in which he caught 37 of Cassel's passes for 528 yards and nine of his league-leading and club-record 14 touchdown catches. Those early-season drops at Indianapolis and at Oakland were soon forgotten.
Yet the most consistent offensive player over the first 14 games has been running back Jamaal Charles, last year's team MVP winner. Charles, the NFL's third-leading rusher with 1,303 yards, has been a game-changer since opening night when he bolted 56 yards for the Chiefs' first touchdown in the 21-14 win over San Diego to last Sunday when his 80-yard burst set up the knockout blow against the Rams.
The Chiefs have some defensive candidates for team MVP as well.
Outside linebacker Tamba Hali has been a terror this season with his 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and 19 hurries. And inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has fulfilled his potential with an all-round year, leading the Chiefs with 134 tackles, four forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown.
Charles gets the vote from Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, the analyst on the Chiefs radio broadcasts.
"Jamaal Charles comes to my mind because of what he means to the team," Dawson said. "Cassel has improved, that's the thing. He's gotten better as the season went along, which is good. But Charles is such a threat, and for a guy who is not as big as he is, he somehow manages to get extra yardage when he gets hit."
In the previous 31 seasons in which the Chiefs have selected a team MVP, a running back has won it nine times, more than any other position, with three — Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson winning it twice each. A quarterback has won it four times — Bill Kenney, Steve DeBerg and Trent Green twice.
Defensive players have won the award 12 times, twice by the award's namesake, Derrick Thomas.
Here's a case for the top candidates for each award.
Derrick Thomas MVP award
* Quarterback Matt Cassel
Cassel won the admiration of his teammates, coaches, fans, and yes, even the Rams, for his fortitude in rescuing a team that had lost 31-0 without him the week before at San Diego.
"Part of being a leader is not only being a vocal leader, but a guy of action," said guard Brian Waters, "and what (Cassel) did was show us he was ready to put it all on the line. As a football team you definitely want to follow suit. To see him go out there and do that, definitely encourages the rest of us."
He ranks fifth in the NFL in passing with a 96.2 rating, had completed 59.3 percent of his passes, and has thrown 24 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. Cassel's streak of passes without an interception was snapped at 162 at St. Louis, but his plus-19 touchdown-to-interception differential ranks second only to New England quarterback Tom Brady's plus-25.
And the most significant statistic for a quarterback? He's 9-4 as a starter.
* Running back Jamaal Charles
Charles splits time with veteran Thomas Jones, but he still ranks third in the NFL with 1,303 yards. But that's not the impressive number.
This is: he's averaging 6.4 yards per carry, and no one else is close. Among backs with 200 or more attempts, Oakland's Darren McFadden is next at 5.2 yards.
Charles has produced two of the NFL's five top rushing games of the season - 177 yards against Buffalo and 174 at Seattle - and his 40 rushes of 10-plus yards lead the league. He's also had nine rushes of 20-plus yards.
Charles is also the Chiefs' third leading receiver with 39 catches for 415 yards, a 10.6-yard average.
"You want the ball in his hands in the secondary and let somebody try to tackle him," Dawson said.
* Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson
Johnson has been a defensive force all season and could be a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year following a season in which he was confined to passing downs and special teams.
Johnson displayed his athleticism as recently as last Sunday at St. Louis, where he not only helped the defense limit Rams running back Steven Jackson to just 67 yards rushing with a team-leading 17 tackles, but he batted away four passes.
"He was a difference-maker," Haley said. "He's got such good ability and cover ability that you can use him in a number of different ways."
Johnson provided a spark in the Chiefs' critical victory over Jacksonville with a 15-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave them a 28-20 lead in the second half and helped snap a two-game losing streak. The only flaw in his game this season has been the inability to hang on to a few other passes that would have been interceptions.
* Outside linebacker Tamba Hali
Hali is still getting the hang of moving from defensive end to an outside linebacker, but he's tied for sixth in the NFL with a career-best 11 sacks and has been relentless at pursuing quarterbacks, forcing grounding penalties and drawing holding and false-start calls. In the St. Louis game alone, the Rams' offense was guilty of four false starts - at home, no less - and Hali was a key reason.
In the fourth quarter of the Chiefs' 10-6 win over Denver two weeks ago, Hali made one of the key defensive plays of the game when he sacked Kyle Orton, stripped him and recovered the fumble at the Chiefs' 37, blunting a possible Denver go-ahead touchdown.
Hali was voted AFC Defensive Player of the Week in October after he tied a career high with three sacks, forced a fumble and had three quarterback pressures in the Chiefs' win over San Francisco.
Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year award
* Strong safety Eric Berry
Berry got burned for some touchdown passes early in the season, but he's been pretty dependable. He's started every game, has been strong in run support, ranks second on the team with 111 tackles, and has three interceptions.
Berry is just the fifth rookie in franchise history with a 100-tackle season and has the most tackles by a rookie safety in club history.
* Tight end Tony Moeaki
Moeaki made the highlight reel play of the season with his reaching, one-handed grab of an 18-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone against San Francisco. He missed two games after absorbing a wicked hit on special teams at Denver, but has been a dependable target.
Moeaki ranks second on the team with 41 receptions for 476 yards and three touchdowns. His 41 receptions broke Tony Gonzalez' team record of 33 by a rookie tight end, and he trails only Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham (48) and New England's Aaron Hernandez (45) for receptions by rookie tight ends.