Postcard from camp: Chiefs
Chiefs feel good about their chances now that a number of key players are healthy
Holdout Dwayne Bowe will show up eventually, while Jonathan Baldwin is emerging
Crucial free agent signing Eric Winston will help establish a strong running game
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about Chiefs camp in St. Joseph, Mo., which he visited on July 28. Read all of our postcards here.
At Missouri Western State University, in St. Joseph, Mo. This is the Chiefs' third summer on the tiny, tucked-away campus, which is roughly 45 minutes north of Kansas City's main airport and a good one-plus hours from the team's year-round training facility near Arrowhead Stadium. Mother Nature was kind during my visit, hitting the reset button and turning down the heat and humidity that had blanketed the region. Fans can watch from grass knolls and temporary bleachers that border two fields along one goal line and one sideline. A personal disappointment is that the media are not allowed to walk the sidelines during practice. Instead, they can watch while sitting or standing with fans, or from a reserved section at the top of knoll overlooking the fields. Might not sound like a big deal, but one of the charms of training camp is getting as close to the action as possible so you can hear and see what players are being taught. Improved insight by the media often translates into greater detail and color for fans.
1. Unlike teams that have mastered the art of saying as little as possible, the Chiefs have no problem telling you they expect to win the AFC West for the second time in three years. Their optimism is well-founded. Despite losing three of their top players (safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki) to season-ending injuries by Week 3 -- not to mention top draft pick Jon Baldwin for the first five games with a broken hand, and quarterback Matt Cassel for the final seven games with a broken hand -- they still had a chance to win the division on the final Sunday of last season.
Now they get those five back, and have added defensive tackle Dontari Poe via the draft and right tackle Eric Winston, running back Peyton Hillis and cornerback Stanford Routt through free agency. The roster is deeper and more talented than at any point since GM Scott Pioli arrived in 2009.
"I don't think it's out of line at all," coach Romeo Crennel says of picking KC to prevail in the division. "Being a coach and being in this business as long as I have, I know you have to temper things because it's a new year and you start over. But ... if we can get that team chemistry and camaraderie together, coming out of this preseason, then I think it would bode well for us going into the regular season."
2. No one is fretting the absence of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, partly because it's wasted energy and partly because he's expected to join them before the season kicks off. Bowe, who received the franchise tag in the offseason after leading the team in catches and receiving yards for the third consecutive year, has yet to sign his one-year, $9.5 million tender; consequently, the team can't fine him for staying away. I'm told, however, there is virtually no chance that Bowe will pass up game checks that amount to $559,000 a week. He skipped offseason workouts while hoping to land a multi-year deal, so he could be behind when he finally reports. The Chiefs have a new offensive coordinator and new playbook; how long that will take him to get up to speed -- and how severely his absence might limit his effectiveness -- are questions no one can answer.
Still, it's enticing to think of the offensive possibilities when he's in the lineup. Bowe, Jon Baldwin and Steve Breaston are big, fast threats on the outside; Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss are capable pass-catchers at tight end and Jamaal Charles and Hillis are formidable running backs when healthy and on their games. "When I look at Jamaal Charles, I see so much potential," says Hillis. "I see him as one of the best backs in the league. I look up to him. He's a great player. ... I hope to really produce for this team and win ball games. We have all the ingredients to have a really successful team."
3. Matt Cassel is getting very little love around town. Sports talk radio has been particularly hard on him after a 10-touchdown, nine-interception season (nine games) last year. Barring injury, Cassel should regain his form of 2010, when he threw for 27 scores and only seven picks. Not only does he have better talent around him, which means the Chiefs are going to rely on the run and use play-action to hurt teams down the field, but also the playbook is more quarterback-friendly than past seasons.
"It's very similar conceptually speaking to what we were doing before, but the terminology is much different from what we've used in the past," Cassel says. "For me it was a lot of flashcards in the offseason, where I was writing down plays and having my wife give me pop quizzes at night. But once you get it down, you can roll with it. Coach Daboll did a great job of simplifying and categorizing everything to where it wasn't as difficult for me to learn this offense compared to the previous ones."
Cassel's first three seasons were a rollercoaster ride, with 16 TDs and 16 INTs in 2009; 27 and seven the following year; and 10 and nine last season. If the trend continues, he's due for a big year. Still, the former long-time Patriot says the line between good and bad is not as wide as some think. "The line is super thin. Every quarterback goes through his ebbs and flows. You look at last year, we started off on a bad note. That first week we got beat by 34 points against Buffalo, and the next week at Detroit we lost by 45. When you're playing from behind in those types of games, they know you have to pass and they're rushing the passer, and sometimes you force things trying to make plays. If you're going to try to make up ground in a short amount of time, you know you have to get the ball down the field and sometimes bad things happen."
Jon Baldwin, receiver. The 2011 first-round pick had a rough rookie season. He was unable to have contact with the team during the offseason because of the lockout, then broke a hand during a training camp fight and missed the first five games due to the injury. Once on the field he was limited to two or fewer catches in eight of the 11 games he appeared in and averaged just 23.1 yards receiving per game.
However, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Baldwin had an outstanding offseason this year and is being counted on to pick up the slack if Bowe doesn't report soon or struggles after returning. People in and around the organization say he has displayed greater maturity and focus and consistently made catches during workouts that had teammates and media members shaking their heads.
"I feel like I'm so much farther ahead, just in terms of understanding all the defenses clearly and being able to react to what you see on the field and play naturally," he says. "Last year that wasn't the case, but now I feel like I have a better understanding, going through the OTAs and minicamps and being able to be talked through the routes."
Eric Winston, right tackle. This was a major signing for the Chiefs, who struggled at the position last season and want to establish a strong ground game. Winston was a key factor in Houston being so successful running the ball the past few seasons, and once he was on the open market the team aggressively went after him. GM Scott Pioli called at least three times trying to persuade Winston to sign.
The early schedule is tough, with home games against Atlanta, San Diego and Baltimore offsetting trips to Buffalo, New Orleans and Tampa Bay in the first six weeks. Even if the Chiefs stumble there, though, they'll have a chance to right themselves, because five of their six divisional games are after the Week 7 bye. The key for them could be the season opener against the Falcons. A victory would give them momentum heading to Buffalo, which is much improved but still breaking in new players. If they can get past the Bills, they get the Chargers and Ravens at home after visiting the Saints. Tough teams? Yes. But Arrowhead Stadium is an imposing place when the Chiefs are playing well.