Let’s not get carried away.
It’s the mantra to repeat with only one week of NFL football in the books. Nonetheless, the temptation to draw conclusions is great. After all, having spent months listening to pundits championing theories ranging from the convincing to the contrived, we finally had the opportunity to let our own eyes do the talking. Yet, it would behoove us to reflect on what a truly small sample size one week is. It will be weeks before we can justly consider writing the Colts epitaph, it may be years before we can coherently debate Pete Carroll’s merits as an NFL coach, and it is certainly to early to champion this year as the Year of the Chief.
Nonetheless, however small the sample, in a sixteen-game season every result is significant. On Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs were significantly improved.
In front of a thundering home crowd, the Chiefs came back from an early Antonio Gates touchdown to explode to a 21-7 halftime lead, before weathering a long Legedu Naanee touchdown and a fourth quarter drive to defeat the division-favorite San Diego Chargers, 21-14.
The defense was particularly inspiring. Chiefs fans witnessed several young Chiefs’ veterans come into their own. Cornerback Brandon Flowers blanketed receivers all night, looking every bit the complete corner he was drafted to be just two years ago. Tamba Hali, the Chiefs’ 2006 first-round pick, demanded double teams all night, yet still could often be found in the Chargers’ backfield. Much-maligned linebacker Derrick Johnson could be seen both patrolling sideline to sideline and dropping the hammer on ball-carriers, resulting in a crucial forced fumble. Perhaps even more encouraging was the emergence of Glenn Dorsey, who took one large step toward shedding his “bust” label by being a consistently disruptive force all night. Indeed, the whole defensive unit seemed to have a cohesion and toughness under new coordinator Romeo Crennel that it has lacked for years. If not for a discouraging blown coverage resulting in the Naanee touchdown (which may well have been avoided had Flowers not been out briefly due to injury), the Chiefs defense would have had a truly dominant performance. Even as the Chargers pass attack seemed to find its wings as the hour grew later and the weather better, the Chiefs mounted a strong four-down red zone stop, sealing victory with blanket coverage and a strong push by the line.
This strong defensive performance was complemented by strong performances on special teams and in the running game. On offense, Thomas Jones mixed strong runs with a few disappointing attempts, while Jamaal Charles took his second touch for a fifty-plus yard touchdown and continued to post strong efforts thereafter. Though the running game bogged down in play-calling predictability late, the highly impressive showing by the oft-derided offensive line could promise consistency and, with Charles, explosive potential in the ground game. Perhaps more impressive yet was Kansas City’s special teams, which was nothing short of fantastic as rookie Dexter McCluster scored an impressive punt return to complement several gamebreaking returns by rookie Javier Arenas and coverage teams that gave no quarter to San Diego’s Darren Sproles.
The concern, then, will be Matt Cassel and the passing game. Largely ineffective throughout most of the game, Cassel will have to hope that better weather, improved routes and hands, and a less conservative and predictable game plan from coordinator Charlie Weis will pave the way to vastly better returns in coming weeks (Week 2 against Cleveland, anyone?) Minus the wind, rain, and desire to protect the ball while draining the clock, there is the chance that the Chiefs’ weak passing game can become at least a complementary piece of an emerging team.
Ultimately, fans of Kansas City will no doubt love to see better defense, quality special teams, and an offensive line that was respectable in pass protection and even better in the run game. Most of all, a crop of rookies that includes not only McCluster and Arenas (who also looked quick and instinctive on a pass breakup) but also tight end Tony Moeaki (lead the team in catches and scored a touchdown) and potential star safety Eric Berry promises to contribute to the Chiefs’ backbone both this year and in the future. Young players sometimes struggle to string together quality performances, but early returns look very good indeed.
Certainly, I do not suspect that Kansas City will be the best football team of Monday Night’s four participants. As I said, one week is only one week. Cassel may never find the passing efficiency he displayed in New England with neither a true deep threat nor an offensive line that can compensate for his happy feet and propensity to take sacks. The Chiefs may not get the consistent play from their young players and new schemes on both sides of the ball. They may be just another Kansas City team drafting in the top ten picks come April. Still, while New York and San Diego are tied for last in their respective divisions, and while Baltimore is destined for a battle in the tough AFC North, one Monday Night participant gave its team’s fans reason for hope; for at least one week, the Chiefs sit alone atop their division.