Trailing by three on Sunday afternoon in San Diego, the Chiefs were in perfect position for a comeback that would save them from a 0--3 start. Their film study had revealed that the Chargers like to blitz from the weak side in crucial situations, so coach Todd Haley and his staff tucked away a play that would exploit that pressure.
The moment of opportunity arrived with just over a minute to play. With Kansas City trailing 20--17 and just outside of field goal range, Haley and his staff called their play: a screen pass to running back Dexter McCluster on the left side.
The situation couldn't have unfolded any better. When quarterback Matt Cassel walked to the line, free safety Eric Weddle began creeping forward. Cassel took the snap, dropped back and stared down the middle of the field to disguise his intentions. Then he turned to his left and drilled a pass right between the numbers. Weddle's numbers. Game over.
In many respects the play symbolized the Chiefs' young season: Even when things look like they're going right, they still turn out wrong. That's why a year after finishing 10--6 and winning the AFC West, they're among the leaders in the sweepstakes for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the prize of the 2012 draft class.
Yes, injuries are a major part of the Chiefs' predicament. Torn ACLs have cost them their best defensive player, safety Eric Berry; their best offensive player, running back Jamaal Charles; and their No. 2 receiver from last season, tight end Tony Moeaki. Linebacker Mike Vrabel, the veteran glue of the defense in 2010, retired, and wideout Jon Baldwin, their No. 1 pick this year, has yet to see the field since fracturing a thumb in training camp.
But there's also the regression of Cassel, who looks more like the player who threw for 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 2009 than the one who passed for 27 scores and only seven picks in 2010. The interception on Sunday was a classic example. Since Cassel arrived two years ago, the staff has stressed the need for him to avoid throwing blindly, to go through his read progressions and to tuck it or throw it away if everyone is covered. Cassel failed to look before attempting the pass to McCluster, not only failing to spy Weddle but also throwing so far off-target that McCluster had no chance to break up the pass.
This year's start makes it harder to argue that the 2010 Chiefs weren't a product of their easy schedule. They've scored just 27 points in three games, and some disgruntled Chiefs fans have begun taking the long view, finding winning in all the losing. Around town there's a phrase that's gaining in popularity: "Suck for Luck."