By Curtis M. Egan
BoltTalk Staff Writer
It is a new season and the year has not started out as the fans of the San Diego Charger and the Kansas City Chief had expected. In a role reversal of late the Chiefs sit atop the AFC West with a record of 3-0, while all the other teams in the division are at 1-2.
The AFC West is considered by many to be a soft division. Many nay sayers of the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, or Raiders will tell you the division is weak and that is why the teams win… I don’t know about that.
Take for instance the division currently boasts the top team in Offense (San Diego), Passing Offense (Denver) and Rushing Offense (Kansas City). Not sure if that fits the ‘soft’ criteria many place on the AFC West, but it does speak to a renewed level of competition within the division. None of the teams in the AFC West rank lower than 10 in over all offense. That in itself speaks to a division where games can swing either way.
All this does beg the question, are the Kansas City Chiefs for real? The answer is Yes, and No.
That is wishy washy of me you might correctly point out, but if you break down the team you will see there is reason to have confidence in the Chiefs, and there is reason to have concern.
First and foremost let me point out that the Chiefs Chief, Head Coach Todd Haley has done a very good job of getting the locker room to buy into his system. That is a very important factor for any young team. He has removed players who did not fit, or buy into the program and got young players who are eager to be part of the new look Kansas City Chiefs.
Haley, who was labeled a control freak, and dictator last season, after firing his offensive coordinator Chan Gailey just thirteen days before the start of the 2009 season, brought in two coordinators in the off season both with a New England Patriots background.
The Chiefs hired former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator. Weis, who was offensive coordinator for New England's Super Bowl teams, Weis and Haley are longtime friends going back to the time when they shared an office as assistant coaches for the New York Jets. They also added former Cleveland Browns head Coach Romeo Crennel.
Not sure if it is due to the transplant of the Patriots staff, but there is an immediate effect, the Chiefs Defense, which was not very good last season, is vastly improved. They currently rank 13th in the league in over all defense, but more importantly they have allowed their offense to be able to win the game.
Another improvement is the Chiefs team speed. This is a young, fast team. As the Chargers found out, the Chiefs can score on special teams when Dexter McCluster took a punt and returned it for the deciding score in the first game.
The Chiefs also have a very good running game. It currently ranks first in the league. The Chiefs offensive line is currently ranked second. They are opening holes for Thomas Jones who has a 4.2 yard per carry average through the first three games. Possibly even more impressive is Jamaal Charles who has a 7 yard per carry average. Their running game is working and allowing the Chiefs to control the clock thus far in a very young season.
On paper, the Chiefs only have four or five ‘tough’ games coming up. However, they will be facing divisional rivals 5 more times, and divisional games are always tough.
Well that is why Chiefs fans should be confident, but there are definite reasons for concern as well.
Bye bye, bye week: The Chiefs are heading into the bye week, which will make the remainder of their season long.
Tough games ahead: They have Indianapolis and Houston coming up in back to back weeks. They still have Tennessee and San Diego on their schedule as well. They still face five divisional games, and everyone knows that there is never a ‘sure win’ divisional game. These games, starting with the Colts and Texans will be a litmus test for this team.
Early opponents may make the Chiefs ‘paper tigers’: So far the teams the Chiefs have faced have a combined record on 1-8. With the exception of San Diego, who they faced opening week, the Chiefs have not faced a Defense or Offense that is in the top 3rd of the league; Cleveland ranks 16th defensively and 19th offensively, while San Francisco ranks 17th and 20th respectively.
The Colts, whom the Chiefs face after their bye week, rank 3rd overall offensively, thought the Chiefs will have two weeks to get ready for them; it will be no easy task to beat the Colts, especially at home. The following week they face the Texans, also at home who are the current 4th in the league offensively. This will be a major challenge for the team.
Depth: They are not very deep on their offensive line, and this could hurt them in the long haul with their bye week in week four. So far they have managed to avoid any major injuries but their Offensive Tackle Ryan O’Callaghan has not bee able to play any games this season with a groin injury.
So bottom line, are the Chiefs for real. Yes. They are a vastly improved team. Are they destined to win the AFC West? No, they could but it is an uphill battle for them, even at 3-0.
There would have to be a lot of lucky bounces go their way for them to continue to enjoy the success they are currently. I believe they are headed in the right direction. Their Quarterback Matt Cassel is a game manager. Not a top tier passer but a QB that can win games with the right supporting cast. They are fast but as teams get more tape on them, they will find it harder to win the games. This s due in part to the fact that no team will over look them and they will know they have
The Chargers have started off in the same way they have for six out of the last eight seasons. Yes, I said eight seasons. Sorry Norv haters, the dreaded ‘slow start’ is not something new that can be hung around the neck of Head Coach Norv Turner.
The Chargers have suffered ‘slow starts’ in the following: 2003; 0-3, 2004; 1-2, 2005; 2-1, 2006; 0-3, 2007; 1-2, 2008; 1-2, 2009; 2-1, 2010; 1-2. As you see only twice in those 8 years did the team have a winning record going into week four. During that time the Chargers have won the Division five times, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. It can be maddening for the fan of the San Diego Chargers, but you can never count this team out. Love him or hate him, Head Coach Turner has gotten this team into the playoffs, and won the division each year he has been head coach.
But to that point I would suggest that you can’t judge the product on the field as of yet. Are there reasons for concern? Yep, sure are…
Strength of Opposition: The Chargers thus far have not faces a team other than Kansas City with an offense or defense in the top half of the league; Kansas City, 13th ranked defense, 17th ranked offense (#1 running attack). Jacksonville, 29th ranked defense, 30th ranked offense. Seattle, 28th ranked defense, 29th ranked offense. Not a pretty picture right there. But as some fans will point out stats, especially in the third week of the season rarely tell the whole truth of the matter.
Schedule Challenges: The Chargers have some tough games coming up, they have just dropped two games in the ‘easy’ portion of their schedule. On the horizon is New England in week seven, Tennessee and Houston in weeks eight and nine respectively, at Indianapolis in week twelve (after the bye in week ten), and at Cincinnati in week 16.
Road Warrior Woes: Two road games, two losses. Yes they were before hostile and very vocal crowds, but is there going to be a quiet home crowd? The Chargers will have to overcome their travel troubles to be able to make a run for the division or the playoffs later in the year.
Special Teams and dissention within the ranks: Special teams have been anything but special this year. The troubles on this unit have been documented to death, and can be summed up as “three scores given up in three games”. This week however new Chargers Wide Receiver Patrick Crayton came out and blasted the special teams coach Steve Crosby saying the players do not respect him. Chargers quickly put a lid on that and are trying to prevent this from turning into a division in the locker room.
There are reasons to be confident. As hard as that may be for the collective fan base who have their hands hovering over the panic button…
Slow Starts: We all know that the Chargers take time to get up to speed. This season should be no different. The Offense and Defense are arguably playing better at this point than they have in years past. There is no reason to think that the Chargers cannot make another mid and late season run.
Defense: Can you say ‘awesome’? The Chargers defense is playing at a mid season level at this juncture. Through three games they have already produced eight turnovers and a safety. Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera is implementing a package that combines different looks, secondary blitzes and linebacker drops into coverage. They have given up an average of thirteen points a game.
“You Cant Run!’ a favored chant amongst the Chargers faithful is back. The Chargers defense is giving up less than 100 yards rushing a game and only 3.9 yards per attempt. This includes the Chiefs who are the current number one ranked rushing team in the league.
Offense: The Chargers boast the second passing attack in the league, and the top overall offense. The offense, though suffering from some early hiccups has played well thus far. Quarterback Philip Rivers is completing passes and moving the chains. Tight End Antonio Gates continues to get open down field, and Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are making the drive continuing catches.
The running game has not really gotten on track yet. Rookie Running Back Ryan Matthews was injured in week two and did not play in week three. When he returns he could spark the running attack. In his place Mike Tolbert has done an admirable job. He is a big bodied runner who can give a pounding to the defenders who have to stop him. He and Matthews will be a good combination for the Chargers.
Schedule: Many comment about how ‘soft’ the AFC West is. This season though indications would be that it is not quite as soft in years past. The Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders are all improved thus far from last year. The Chargers however face three of their five toughest teams at home this season. They also have five remaining games against divisional rivals including a rematch with Kansas City at home in week fourteen.
Can the Chargers win the AFC West. Yes. History is on their side, you can’t count San Diego out. They have the deepest pool of talent in the division and many still feel this is San Diego’s division to lose. I am one of those who think that way.
The Denver Broncos have been playing better than many expected. They were hit hard by the injury bug in training camp, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Injuries have not been the only distractions the Broncos have suffered. The team lost Wide Receiver Kenny McKinley who was found dead in his Denver home of a gun shot wound.
Denver has lost to Indianapolis at home and Jacksonville on the road so far this season. They did get a home victory over Seattle when they exploded offensively for 31 points.
They have a series of very tough games coming up including at Tennessee, at Baltimore, New York jets, at San Diego, Houston, and then they close out the season at home against San Diego again.
The Broncos are not a push over team by any means, but they fall behind San Diego and Kansas City in the division. The Broncos do currently have the top passing offense in the league and the 2nd overall offense behind San Diego.
Defensively there is a drop off as they rank 18th over all, 23rd against the pass and 10th against the run.
Denver has perhaps the toughest schedule in the division and they are heading into the teeth of the schedule. They have arguably the steepest hill to climb to win the division. Injuries and lack of offensive line depth makes that climb even harder.
Can the Broncos win the West? No.
Kyle Orton has arguably been the best player on this team. That is a good thing as he is the Quarterback. It is not such a good thing when the team has to rely on him so heavily. He is another game manager, and without a healthy skilled supporting cast they will not win the AFC West. Poor rushing output, and lack of protection from the offensive line put Denver in a position to finish third in the division.
The Raider have already benched their starting Quarterback. That happened at halftime in their second game. Quarterback Jason Campbell was not replaced due to injury, he was replaced in hopes that now starting signal caller Bruce Gradkowski could provide a lift.
The Raiders won the game against St. Louis, but dropped a close one to Arizona, and got blown out in Tennessee. However, statistically the Raiders have accounted well for themselves so far in this young season.
Offensively they have the 10th overall offense in the league. They have the 4th rated rushing and 19th rated passing attack.
However they have a bear of a schedule with games coming up against Houston, San Diego, at Denver, at Pittsburgh, Miami, at San Diego, Indianapolis and they close out the season in Kansas City. Not a cushy schedule at all.
Oakland has had the injury bug hit its defense. They get a bye week in week ten, but have a long stretch of tough, physical games between here and there.
Can Oakland win the Division? No.
Their offensive line is not providing enough protection to keep them in the hunt for the division. They currently rank 30th in the league and have given up an average of 3 sacks per game thus far. Further the Oakland QBs have been hit 15 times. That is a lot of punishment for the passer to absorb. Injuries on the Defense will prove fatal as they head into the toughest part of their schedule.