> What exactly
are the Chiefs right now? Coming off an up-and-down season in which they edged
into a wild card, they jettisoned longtime starting quarterback Trent Green,
wanting to get younger across the board. So their four big free-agent
acquisitions were a 34-year-old outside linebacker, Donnie Edwards; a
28-year-old middle linebacker, Napoleon Harris; and two starting tackles,
Damion McIntosh and Chris Terry, who are 30 and 32, respectively. At
quarterback they're straddling the line between ancient ( Damon Huard, 34, the
opening day starter) and fuzzy-cheeked ( Brodie Croyle, 24, the presumed
successor). "I know who we are," said coach Herm Edwards in training
camp. "We've changed the face of our team, but we're still a cross between
a young team and a veteran team. This franchise has had 53 wins the last six
years, which is good, but that's what this team was."
K.C. thinks its
retooled defense could be a top�10 unit. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham
will move end Tamba Hali all over the front seven to maximize his rush skills,
and over his shoulder often will be one of the fastest linebackers in football,
Derrick Johnson. Free-agent vets Harris and Edwards, with Johnson, should give
the Chiefs their best linebacking corps in years. At safety two 2006 rookies,
Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard (who blocked three kicks last year), take their
head-hunting games to the starting lineup. The Chiefs will have to play smart,
low-scoring games and win the turnover battle.
> There are
plenty of obstacles to success. This is the only team in the league that plays
its first two and its last two games on the road. There's also a bull's-eye on
the shoulder pads of running back Larry Johnson, the main offensive threat; a
green quarterback, Croyle, pegged to take over at some point in the season; and
a formerly strong offensive line that's now a patchwork.
The offense is all
Johnson, all the time. He was wise to redo his contract in August because he
almost surely won't have the same negotiating power after the season as he did
before, running behind a line in which guard Brian Waters is the only
outstanding pro. Plus, there's no way a back can continue on the pace Johnson
has kept up the past two years. After carrying the ball 140 times in his first
two seasons, mostly backing up Priest Holmes, Johnson toted it a combined 752
times in 2005 and '06. Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, only
Eric Dickerson carried it more in back-to-back seasons, with 769 for the Rams
in 1983-84. Johnson is only 27, but if he continues bearing such a burden, he
may have only two or three dominant years left.
Herm Edwards says
he'll keep LJ fresher this year by using a couple of relief pitchers--veteran
Michael Bennett and surprising fifth-round rookie Kolby Smith from
Louisville--but let's see if that plan holds in late December if the Chiefs are
still in the playoff race. "Obviously he won't run it 400 times again,"
Edwards says, "but whoever runs it, we've got to get 2,000 yards." K.C.
rushed for 2,143 last year.
The Chiefs will
play it safe in the passing game, with Huard expected to give way to Croyle,
the second-year player out of Alabama who'll get the chance to show he's the
quarterback of the future. "I get the don't-be-a-gunslinger talk twice a
week," says Croyle. "If the big play's there, hit it. If not, check
down to the back. I know that, and I'm ready. This is what I've been preparing
for since junior high school. It's not too soon."
reason to suggest that last year's 16th-ranked defense can get much
better--mainly because of four rapidly developing young players. Derrick
Johnson, being mentored by veteran tackling machine Donnie Edwards, could have
a breakout season pass rushing from the weak side. Page and Pollard are the
biggest combo platter in the NFL in the deep secondary. Both weigh about 225
and are Polamalu-type big hitters. The question is, Are they mature enough and
smart enough to be good players and not just torpedoes?
But if this defense
is going to be great, Hali is the key. As a rookie out of Penn State he showed
such consistent pursuit that Cunningham began playing him on both sides of the
line and as a stand-up rusher at times, all to try to get him in the backfield
more. The result: eight sacks and six forced fumbles. "If you want to be
good in the NFL," Hali says, "there has to be something that separates
you from the other rushers. With me, I think it's being relentless on every
play." Hali will be helped by having a playmaker like Edwards commanding
attention. After leading the 14-2 Chargers with 141 tackles last year, a
healthy Edwards looks to have a season or two left. He and Hali could form a
dangerous rush tandem.