Chiefs, St. Joseph, Mo.: Finally, lots of options for Cassel.
The fantasy football nerds got to Todd Haley a few times last year. He'd be eating dinner somewhere in Kansas City, and a fan would come up and say hello, and, even after a win, would throw in a Great game, but I wish you'd give the ball to Jamaal Charles a little more. He's dominating out there, coach, and he only got it 12 times today ...
"We led the league in rushing,'' Haley said, "and all I ever hear is how we don't run the ball the right way because Jamaal's not getting it 25 times a game. It's anti-TEAM. The way fans looked at what we did on offense was so fantasy football driven. You know, the curse of the NFL -- the scroll on the bottom of the screen, with all the individual stats. Fortunately for us, Jamaal's such a good team player. He says, 'Coach, I get it. Whatever you want me to do, I'm here.' ''
The Chiefs led the NFL in rushing by 133 yards over Oakland. Charles, the wispy and explosive back, gained 1,467 yards, 6.4 yards a pop. Thomas Jones gained 896, for 3.7 a rush. Thus the hand-wringing. Haley's theory is he's eating the clock and keeping Charles healthy for 16 weeks, and he has zero regrets.
Now, to make the offense more explosive, he's focusing on the passing game. Multiple receiver sets, namely. And on this afternoon in humid western Missouri, the Chiefs' offensive versatility with Matt Cassel under center is on display.
Cassel had a good year last year, a B year, with 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. That part was great. The completion percentage, 58.2 percent, was just OK. Twenty-five NFL quarterbacks were better. This year, Cassel knows he has to be better, and the multiplicity of the passing game -- even after the late-week distraction of top pick Jonathan Baldwin -- is better.
I couldn't keep up with the different formations I saw in the afternoon practice, with Dwayne Bowe and Tony Moeaki the relative constants. Bowe's split wide right, mostly, and Moeaki is either tight to the formation, or in the slot right or left. On one set, third-down back Dexter McCluster is the single back, with Charles in the slot; on another, Charles is the single back and McCluster is off the field. Steve Breaston, the Arizona import, and another former Card, Jerheme Urban, are in the slot or split wide left.
One can see how much Cassel gravitates to Moeaki. He's Dallas Clark. The way Peyton Manning flexes Clark tight and wide and in the slot is the way Kansas City wants to use Moeaki, who had 47 catches a year ago but could have 80 in this offense if he stays healthy, which has been a problem at times for him in college and the NFL."You can make Moeaki whatever,'' said Haley. "You can make him Wes Welker if you want.''
And on one set, huge tight end Leonard Pope was a sixth offensive lineman, lined up next to the right tackle, and Moeaki was in the slot.
"I try to learn everything,'' Moeaki said after practice. "I want my position coach to have confidence that they can put me anywhere and have confidence in me to run the play right.''
I told him he looks like Dallas Clark, the way he was used in this practice. "I watch a lot of Dallas Clark film,'' he said. "We both went to Iowa, and so it's good to be able to see what he's been able to do in the NFL. I watch him to see how he gets open against all different defenses. That's helped me.''
Now for the Baldwin postscript. On Friday, word leaked that Baldwin hurt his hand or wrist in a fight with Thomas Jones and will be out for the rest of the preseason. (The team clammed up tight.)
Baldwin came in from Pitt in the first round with lots of questions; his character was widely questioned by NFL general managers, and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli went out on a limb to take him. Pioli has emphasized character so much that the Baldwin pick was a big surprise to his peers. Clearly, Pioli felt Baldwin's transgressions -- mainly, speaking out publicly against his coaches -- were overblown.
But when I heard about this fight, and heard that it was Jones, I felt sure it had something to do with the offense's most respected leader putting the immature kid in his place. The team had no comment about it, but here's the story with Baldwin now: He's got an 0-and-2 count on him, he just fouled a ball off, and he can't afford to have another strike against him.
Because he's a first-round pick, he'll get multiple chances to make it right. But if he screws up a couple more times, it could turn into a painfully costly mistake for the Pioli regime.
For now, the Chiefs have enough weapons to replace him. For now. But they didn't draft him, and they didn't draft him in the first round, to get into locker-room fights. The pressure's on him to wise up.
Before the fight, Haley said: "My philosophy is you put your best 11 on the field as often as you can. I like the options we're going to have to be able to do that, and to do it in different ways. When I think back to what we had in 2009, you throw up on your shirt a little bit. But now we've got the chance to do a few things.''
And now the focus will be on Cassel to be more efficient, and to extend drives.
Rams, Earth City, Mo.: The Boy Wonder is back.
Josh McDaniels is not chastened. He had his shot at a head coaching job in Denver, and it lasted two years, and to put it mildly, he crashed and burned. Denver was 6-20 in his last year and a half, and the franchise, frankly, was worried about things like season-ticket renewal and the continuing loyalty of suite holders. No one believed in McDaniels at the end.
You can say whatever you want about his errors, and much has been said. The Broncos should not have paired the strong-willed McDaniels with a first-time general manager (Brian Xanders) who was a good scout but didn't have the experience to stand up to a coach. A more experienced GM could take some bullets for him and tell him he was making some big mistakes, as when he hired his brother, Ben, out of high school football to coach the quarterbacks. It wasn't that Ben was a bad coach, but the clear perception in the locker room was that nepotism was at play. There are things a young coach shouldn't do, but no one in the organization told a first-time head coach who looked like he was 23 that he was making mistakes -- and he made plenty -- until it was too late.
"I think I know what happened,'' McDaniels said in his office here, "but I learned to understand there are things you can control and things you can't. Here, I can control this. It's a perfect place for me.''
I asked if his confidence had been shaken by the experience in Denver.
"Nope,'' he said. "Not one bit. I appreciate the experience. I appreciate what the Broncos allowed me to do, and it's made me a better coach. It made me a better person, I think. And it made me a little more aware of how an entire organization works. I can take a step back and see how different organizations function, and see how different structures work. I know when I got the interview here, Steve Spagnuolo was a guy I really wanted to work with, and when I left after spending 10 hours here, I called my wife and said, 'This is it. This is the place I want to be.'
"Not only did they have the quarterback in place, obviously, with Sam Bradford, a guy who has the chance to truly be special. But there was a structure in place that I could learn from, a coach I could learn from, a front office I could learn from.''
On the practice field, even in only the third week they've been together, McDaniels and Bradford look to work well together. "We're not going to just run plays,'' McDaniels said. "We're going to USE players. And Sam is good -- you can tell -- in using all aspects of this offense.''
McDaniels hasn't ripped up the departed Pat Shurmur's West Coast Offense. In the short period he's had to fold some of his concepts into the Rams' 2011 playbook, McDaniels has asked a lot of Bradford. Under Shurmur, the center made the line calls and identified the middle linebacker, for purposes of offensive symmetry. Now it's Bradford's job, and you can see him in practice, pointing out the middle 'backer ("53's the mike!'') and surveying the secondary pre-snap to get a good read of what he's going to do when the ball's snapped.
"Josh's mindset is, if the defense wants to play us a certain way, fine; we'll do something else to make plays,'' said Bradford. "What I like about the offense is there always seems to be an answer.''
Immediately, McDaniels will try to fold in some more downfield concepts. Bradford had the lowest average completion among starting quarterbacks last year -- Ram receivers had a 9.9 yard-per-catch average last year -- while McDaniels' receivers in Denver were at 12.9. Take a look at the Rams receivers, and you don't see a proven deep threat among them. But Brandon Lloyd was roster flotsam in Denver before last year, and he finished with an 18.8 yard average on 77 catches. It can be done.
"I couldn't care less about my average, about my stats,'' Bradford said. "I'd just like to score more.''
If the Rams are held to 20 points or fewer 13 times this year -- as happened last year -- I'll be stunned. McDaniels, for now in his niche, should be able to see to that.
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