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August 13, 2004

Looking to the Future « Link O' Admiration »

This is about the Kansas City Chiefs, yes...but it also uses the Chiefs as a working example of a specific philosophy toward building a team, so other team fans might still enjoy reading this...

I think Kansas City is going to contend for the Super Bowl this year. Even more importantly, they are going to contend for the Super Bowl over the next several years.

Granted, winning the Super Bowl is tough. Once the season is over, it seems often seems like it was destiny. The team that wins is often considered the best team in football and the team to beat. How quickly we forget the questions and doubts and uncertainties surrounding the eventual Super Bowl champion when the playoffs began...and how much more when the season began.

But Carl Peterson has Kansas City well-positioned for both the present and the future. That's unusual. Heck, in this era of free agency, it's unheard of, and nearly a miracle.

There are many ways to win a Super Bowl. Here's a few that have been proven to not work:
1) Sign a bunch of big name free agents. If that method could work, the Redskins would have won 3 out of the last 4 Super Bowls. It doesn't work. Few free agents perform as well with their second team as with their first, and that's because many great individual performances come about by a player being in a specific scheme with the right supporting cast.
2) Have the 2-3 of the most talented position players. How many Super Bowls did San Francisco win with Steve Young at starting QB? One. How many Super Bowls did Walter Payton and Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas win, combined? One. Compare that with the number of superstars on the recent Patriot's Super Bowl-winning squads.

So how do you win a Super Bowl? It's simple, but difficult. And it's not a bulleted series of attributes you can pick and choose, it is a contiguous process, in which one bump derails the team, because, if you remember, only one team out of 32 wins the Big Dance. And yet it can be summed up in one brief sentence:

Develop a team of players who know how to play well with each other.

Such a simple sentence, but there's a great deal of depth there. To bring that about, you must:

1) Avoid injuries, or have a great deal of depth
2) Develop your own players within the system, because the more years players have together, the better they can mesh
3) Use the salary cap well, particularly by avoiding sinking too much money into one or two players. That means avoiding the biggest-name free agents who are unlikely to be worth the investment.
4) Coach them well with the best minds. That means a top-notch Head Coach who sets the direction, two excellent coordinators who can nullify opponents' strengths, and a competent staff who can teach basic and advanced skills.
5) Make the playoffs, and even more importantly, peak there. This often goes unnoticed, doesn't it? I mean, obviously you can't win the Super Bowl if you don't make the playoffs! But if Carolina had missed the playoffs last year, few people would have been talking much about their regular season. They didn't seem to be the best NFC team by a long shot...but they peaked at the right time. Denver easily beat Green Bay for their first Super Bowl win...but if you look at the entire season, Kansas City was arguably the better team. But Denver peaked and played their best game on the road in KC for the playoffs. The Chiefs were good enough that the final score was the closest margin of victory Denver saw that year. If KC had won the game, they might have had the same playoff cakewalk....or perhaps they would have lost the next game and we would now be talking about Green Bay's two years of Super Bowl wins. But that didn't happen. Denver peaked, and they were certainly the best postseason team, and deserving Super Bowl Champions.

And here's the thing about Kansas City this year: they have all the pieces in place for a Super Bowl campaign. An excellent mix of savvy oldsters, experienced veterans, and youthful vigor and health. They have All-Pro players at several positions, solid starters, and talented back-ups. Most of the back-ups are talented youngsters who will eventually be starters. Most of the players grew up in the KC system, but even the important free agents now have at least one year in the system (Holliday, McCleon, and Barber).

They might not win it one is a lock. Some people point to last year's defense and say the idea of KC winning the Super Bowl is crazy. I don't think so, though, because for KC's defense to suck again, you have to assume the players are mediocre.

Well, Ryan Sims was highly prized coming out of college. He held out and missed nearly all of his rookie season. Several teams wanted Shawn Barber. Jerome Woods had played a few years at near-Pro-Bowl level before finally getting the invitation he deserved last year...and Greg Wesley actually played better than Woods last season. That's 1 or 2 good players at each major position (D-line, LB, and secondary)...but there isn't much drop-off at any point, either. It's not like one injury will cripple us (unlike last year, when Mitchell couldn't replace Maslowski's leadership). And the bottom line on the defense is: lousy defenders cannot take the ball away at the rate Kansas City did last year. That takes talent. Why didn't the talent show in yardage and scoring defense? Because Robinson's scheme didn't use the talent. If you consider that ridiculous, how do you explain the number of turnovers the players got? If your answer is "the scheme", you are an absolute hypocrite. No, one way or the other, Kansas City's defense is as talented as the average defense or slightly better.

And so if Kansas City does win it all, it won't be a "one and done" situation like many teams. Kansas City is uniquely poised to create a dynasty.

Consider Kansas City's player acquisition. Kansas City has had lousy draft ratings for the last several years. I don't think they've gotten anything higher than a B score for at least 5 years. They certainly have been derided for their free agent activity.

But look at the players:
Top-Tier Players
Priest Holmes, All-Pro (prob future HoF), unheralded free agent
Dante Hall, All-Pro (poss future HoF), 5th round pick
Willie Roaf, pro-bowl (future HoF), acquired for a 3rd-round pick, because unhappy with former team
Will Shields, All-Pro (prob future HoF), 7th round pick

Could Start for Almost Anyone
Tony Richardson, pro-bowl, unheralded free agent
Casey Weigmann, anchor of NFL top O-line, unheralded free agent
Brian Waters, member of NFL top O-line, undrafted free agent, converted TE
Shawn Barber, unheralded free agent

Solid Starters
Eric Hicks, undrafted free agent
John Welbourn, acquired for 3rd round pick because unhappy with former team
Eric Warfield, 7th round pick
Dexter McCleon, unheralded free agent
Vonnie Holiday, unheralded free agent
Scott Fujita, 5th round pick
Mike Maslowski, undrafted free agent (if he recovers from injury)

Valuable Back-ups/Future Starters
Mark Boerigter, 8 TDs rookie year, unrecruited free agent
R-Kal Truluck, undrafted free agent
Jimmy Wilkerson, 6th round pick
Shaunard Harts, 7th round pick
Montique Sharpe, 7th round pick
Derrick Blaylock, 5th round pick

If you counted, that's 14 players out of 22 starters who did not cost the Chiefs more than a 3rd-round pick or a fat free agent contract. And they got to 13-3 with these players.

Kansas City can acquire players like Welbourn and Roaf, and keep all its players because Kansas City has grown a reputation as a place where players like to play. It starts with the fans, continues with a great players' coach like Dick Vermeil, and carries right on into having a team poised for a Super Bowl run. That's why Kansas City had only one significant departure since last season (John Tait), and why I'm not sorry to see him go: he'll be easy to replace, and if he didn't fit in enough to want to stay, he probably hurt team chemistry anyway.

Kansas City develops their own quality players like Maslowski, Hall, Sharpe, Wilkerson, Stills, etc, because Kansas City allocates more players to NFL-Europe than any other team. That helps three ways. First, it gets young projects more playing time against a competition that is tougher than college but not as tough/fast/difficult as the NFL. That helps players improve skills without much risk of damaging confidence. Second, it gives more game situations for Kansas City to evaluate talent. Third, it provides roster exemptions for training camp, so Kansas City can keep more players in camp longer than other NFL teams; that helps with competition, depth, and rotation during training camp.

Kansas City has also drafted for depth over the last three years, at least. People scratched their heads over the selection of Larry Johnson in the 1st round a year ago. It was taken as a sign that Holmes might not come back. In reality, it was a luxury. Larry will be Kansas City's starting RB within the next few years, and maybe as soon as next season. We didn't need him to start, and camp indications are that he matured and developed greatly over the last year. People scratched their heads this year over nearly all the selections, particularly TE Kris Wilson. Wilson is not only showing that he provides good insurance in case of an injury to Gonzalez, he is also running, catching, blocking, and learning well enough that he may eventually provide Gonzalez-like production after Gonzalez retires; and the reality is that we'll get good use out of him this year, because his skills already increase the versatility of the offense. Furthermore, camp indications are that Kansas City got a steal at nearly every pick. We'll need some games to know for sure, but Sammie Parker is playing well enough to push for playing time on most teams around the league (although probably not start). And the four "project" picks (Jared Allen, Jeris McIntyre, Keyaron Fox, and Kevin Samson) have performed well enough to pretty much be a lock to make the team. To find 4 players on the second day of the draft that can improve a 13-3 team is amazing, since it means no one else saw the same potential Kansas City did. And last year's "projects" (Brett Williams, Jordan Black, Julian Battle and the aforementioned Sharpe, Wilkerson, and Johnson) are coming along nicely and will probably be solid starters in the next few years.

I don't follow any other team as closely as I do Kansas City, of course, but I sincerely doubt that other any team has consistently had such good results coming from what "expert" opinion has insisted were such mediocre drafts. The only team I can remember having such a string of solid (if unspectacular) success was the late-90s, Ron Wolfe-assembled Green Bay Packers. And they only got 1 Super Bowl win (out of 2 appearances) because as soon as they tasted success, the salary demands of players forced the dismantling of the team. Ron Wolfe proved he could use free agency to craft a team, but he couldn't hold it together. I don't think you'll see the same thing happen in Kansas City, because Carl Peterson has just about everyone under long-term contracts. And the depth truly is good enough to give Carl the upper hand if anyone decides to sit out a year...

Kansas City will be interesting to watch, not just this year, but to see how the careers of all these un- and dis-respected players develop.

Posted by Nathan at 11:27 AM | Comments (0)
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