He was signed as a free agent to make an immediate impact, and linebacker Shawn Barber wasted no time. Four days into camp, Barber sneaked into linebackers coach Joe Vitt's dorm room at the Chiefs' Wisconsin-River Falls training site and affixed a battery-operated, red-eyed bat to the ceiling with a string. When Vitt returned to his room and opened the door, the creature flew past his face. "It scared the life out of me," Vitt said.
Vitt liked the gag so much that he promptly sprang it on offensive line coach Mike Solari, who played it on defensive backs coach Peter Giunta, who played it on defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. The punking went on until well after midnight. "The best part is that none of them wanted to be the last one to be had," Barber says. "No one wanted to be the butt of a joke."
Not after the 2002 season. Last year Kansas City's defense was laughable, and not simply because it finished last in total defense (390.5 yards per game), 31st against the pass (261.3 yards per game) and 28th in points allowed (24.9 points per game). The embarrassment was particularly painful given that the Chiefs' offense was scoring more often than Colin Farrell, averaging a league-best 29.2 points per game behind Priest Holmes, the NFL's most productive running back over the last two seasons. Kansas City scored at least 30 points eight times but lost four of those games. Even in their eight victories, the Chiefs allowed 20 points per game. Little surprise that Kansas City defenders were apologizing to the offense almost weekly.
"You get sick of giving up almost 40 points a game, week after week" says sixth-year defensive tackle Eric Hicks.
Injuries to key starters plus Robinson's intricate game plans—which several starters found too complex—contributed to the unit's dreadful performance. Enter the 6'2", 237-pound Barber, a fifth-year outside linebacker who brings athleticism and attitude to a defense that lacked both last year. After signing a seven-year, $30 million free-agent deal following one season in Philadelphia (he played his first four years in Washington), Barber quickly made his presence felt in Kansas City. By the end of May's minicamps he had established himself as the defense's emotional leader because of his nonstop chatter and ball hawking. "[Barber] takes his position one step beyond," coach Dick Vermeil says. "He's a charismatic guy, has a great work ethic."
"Shawn makes plays every practice that no one was making here last year," says fellow outside linebacker Scott Fujita, who started nine games as a rookie in 2002. "Things feel different. It's a sea change."
Barber's signing was not the only defensive personnel change. Former Green Bay defensive end Vonnie Holliday signed a five-year, $20 million deal to help shore up a pass rush that had only 34 sacks a year ago. Barber's arrival also means that linebacker Mike Maslowski, who led the Chiefs with 126 tackles in 2002 despite playing out of position on the outside, moves back to his natural spot in the middle. Meanwhile, free safety Jerome Woods has returned from the broken left leg he suffered in August '02.
Everyone from general manager Carl Peterson to the camp's cafeteria workers points out that the defense need only ascend to the middle of the NFL pack for the Chiefs to be Super Bowl contenders. Led by quarterback Trent Green and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City could score in bunches as long as Holmes returns to the form that made him an MVP candidate before being sidelined last December with tissue damage and deep bruising to his right hip. (He had off-season surgery and looked like his old self in the preseason.)
Should all that happen, Vermeil could end his third season in Kansas City just as he did his third in St. Louis: holding the Lombardi Trophy. If, however, Barber and the new-look defense play anything like last year's unit, the joke will be on them.
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