KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Recent NFL history is littered with stories of teams that made the journey from the basement to the higher floors in the league’s building in just one season. The Kansas City Chiefs made that move in 2013, going from 2-14 the year before, to 11-5 and a spot in the AFC playoffs last season.
The outhouse-to-penthouse climbers invariably suffer a fall back the next season. The Chiefs lived that scenario just a few years ago: 4-12 in 2009, 10-6 and an AFC West title in 2010 and then 7-9 in 2011.
The Chiefs have spent the first six months of 2014 preparing to write a chapter about continuing the winning trend they started last season under head coach Andy Reid, not back-tracking in the standings.
“We got the best coaches in the league and nobody wants to go back to what we had before they got here,” veteran wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said of Reid and his staff. “We know what we are capable of doing and we know that with coach Andy he will make us able to do even more.”
They will have to do it against a much tougher schedule than they faced last season, and without the surprise element that allowed them to start 9-0 before falling off in the second half of the schedule (2-5). And then, there was the monumental second-half collapse in the first round of the playoffs against Indianapolis.
That 44-43 loss where they blew a 28-point lead with 28 minutes to play is not forgotten among veteran Chiefs. That’s especially true for outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who over his first eight seasons with the Chiefs has played in just three postseason games, going 0-3.
“That one will sit with us throughout this year and throughout the games,” Hali said. “That will sit with us because we definitely have something to prove. To lose a game like that – our fans know it, our players know it, the guys that have been here and the coaches know it – it’s hard for them to continue to do what they’re doing, knowing they put so much into it and things turned around like that? It will sit with us and help us go through this season.”
As the Chiefs head to their training camp site at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo., for the first practice July 24, there will be new starters on both sides of the ball, with Husain Abdullah moving into the free safety spot and likely Marcus Cooper taking over for the released Brandon Flowers at left cornerback. Journeyman Joe Mays will work at middle linebacker and former third-round pick Allen Bailey looks like the new starter at left defensive end.
The linebackers are the strength of the team. The power of the Chiefs roster can be seen in their three Pro Bowl linebackers — Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston. The team added to this group 2014 first-round draft choice Dee Ford.
If Houston and the Chiefs work out a contract extension and the linebacker does not miss a lot of training camp time in a holdout, it will be hard for Ford to get a lot of snaps in the defense.
But the Auburn rookie — a productive college defensive end-turned linebacker — was so impressive in the team’s offseason practices the coaching staff may not be able to keep him on the sidelines.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will spend the pre-camp break brainstorming on schemes where Hali, Houston and Ford are rushing the passer together.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line will be different, losing three of the team’s first six blockers from last season. The 2013 NFL No. 1 draft choice Eric Fisher is moving from right to left tackle. Donald Stephenson will handle the right side. There’s a wide-open battle for the right guard job and there’s a chance rookie Zach Fulton will earn the spot.
Last season, the starting job was shared between Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, but both left as unrestricted free agents – Asamoah signed in Atlanta, Schwartz with the New York Giants.
In the first OTA session, Rishaw Johnson was in the starting lineup. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Johnson has played in just three games after spending practice-squad time with Seattle (2012) and the Chiefs (2013). He has the road-grader physique the Chiefs are looking for when opening running room for Jamaal Charles and pass protection for Alex Smith.
If Johnson falters, others that may get a shot at the job are Rokevious Watkins, a 2012 fifth-round selection by St. Louis, plus this year’s sixth-round draft choices by the Chiefs — Fulton out of Georgia and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from McGill University in Canada. Watkins’ chance hit a roadblock when he was suspended for the first four games of the season.
Probably the position with the most question marks is wide receiver. The Chiefs have 12 wide receivers on the 90-man roster. Six have played at least one NFL game, but only two have more than 50 league appearances — Dwayne Bowe (103) and Donnie Avery (71). Last season, the wide receivers accounted for 52 percent of the team’s passing offense, with Bowe and Avery producing ordinary performances with just seven touchdown catches total and averaged only 13.1 yards per catch (91 receptions, 1,269 yards).
The Chiefs needed to be active adding receivers in free agency and the draft. Slot receiver Dexter McCluster signed with Tennessee in free agency. But the closest Kansas City came was selecting University of Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas in the fifth round and he will play everywhere in Reid’s offense, including wide receiver.
They added other bodies without NFL experience: 5-foot-7, 180-pound Weston Dressler from the Canadian Football League (98 games, 442 catches, 6,536 yards, 43 touchdowns) and Jerrell Jackson, who played 19 games in Arena Football. Apparently, the Chiefs could not afford NFL free-agent receivers.
It could be argued that Bowe has the most to prove of anyone on the roster.
Last year, Bowe signed a five-year deal for $56 million. In his seventh season, the package lifted him to a spot among the top 10 pass-catchers in the league. Bowe then turned in one of the least productive seasons of his career. His 57 receptions in 15 games was his worst season since 47 catches in 11 games during the 2009 season. His 589 yards that season is the only time he’s been lower than his 673 yards in 2013. Bowe did perk up in the playoffs, catching eight passes for 150 yards and a touchdown against Indianapolis.
It was not the production expected from a player averaging more than $11 million per season. The Chiefs have not added a significant talent at wide receiver in the offseason, so the catchers already wearing the red jersey must be better. Bowe is capable of much more and needs to perform at the level he did in 2010-11 when he played all 32 games, catching 153 passes for 2,321 yards and 20 touchdowns. As one of the team’s highest-paid players, Bowe must prove he’s worthy of the compensation.
One long shot rookie to watch is undrafted wide receiver Albert Wilson. Wilson jumped off the game tape during a college career in which his speed (4.38 seconds in 40 yards) was obvious. As a receiver, runner and returner, the 5-foot-9, 202-pound Wilson had eight touchdowns of 70 yards or more, including scoring catches of 70, 75, 78, 84 and 93 yards. He added an 80-yard run for a score and 97- and 100-yard kickoff returns that reached the end zone.
He chose the Chiefs from among the 25 teams that called him after the draft. On an offense that gets explosive plays solely from running back Jamaal Charles, Wilson has an opportunity to stick on the 53-man roster if he can show in training camp and preseason games that he can provide big plays on offense and special teams.
Here is a snapshot of the Chiefs’ roster as they head to training camp:
–QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Alex Smith. Backups – Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray, Aaron Murray.
–RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Jamaal Charles, FB Anthony Sherman. Backups – Knile Davis, Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight, De’Anthony Thomas, FB James Baker, FB Jordan Campbell, Charcandrick West.
–TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Anthony Fasano. Backups – Sean McGrath, Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Richard Gordon.
–WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery. Backups – Junior Hemingway, A.J. Jenkins, Weston Dressler, Kyle Williams, Frankie Hammond, Jerrell Jackson, Fred Williams, Albert Wilson, Darryl Surgent, Deon Anthony, Mark Harrison.
–OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Eric Fisher, LG Jeff Allen, C Rodney Hudson, RG Zach Fulton, RT Donald Stephenson. Backups – G/T Jeff Linkenbach, T Ryan McKee, T J’Marcus Webb, G Rokevious Watkins, C Eric Kush, G Rishaw Johnson, G Otis Hudson, G Ricky Henry, G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, C Ben Gottschalk.
–DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LDE Allen Bailey, NT Dontari Poe, RDE Mike DeVito. Backups — E Vance Walker, E Mike Catapano, T Jaye Howard, T Kyle Love, T Jermelle Cudjo, E Kona Schwenke, T Dominique Hamilton.
–LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Justin Houston, MLB Joe Mays, ILB Derrick Johnson, WLB Tamba Hali. Backups — OLB Frank Zombo, OLB Dee Ford, ILB James-Michael Johnson, ILB Nico Johnson, OLB Josh Martin, OLB Dezman Moses, ILB Ben Johnson, ILB Alonzo Highsmith, ILB DeRon Furr.
–DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Marcus Cooper, RCB Sean Smith, FS Husain Abdullah, SS Eric Berry. Backups — CB Ron Parker, CB Chris Owens, S Sanders Commings, S Malcolm Bronson, CB Phillip Gaines, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, S Jerron McMillan, CB Vernon Kearney, CB Justin Rogers, CB Kevin Rutland, CB David Van Dyke, CB Brandon Jones, S Daniel Sorensen.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: P Dustin Colquitt, K Ryan Succop, K Cairo Santos, LS Thomas Gafford.