As I wrote this article, the New England Patriots had the opportunity (but declined, as a show of mercy) to break two substantial NFL records: most points in a shutout (the record is 66) and most points by a single team in a game (72). The Pats got sloppy last week and lost to a team they should have beat, so they did what Belichick’s Patriot teams do: make an example of the next team they play. That was the mindset that carried them to the Super Bowl in 2003: Lawyer Milloy, hellbent on vengeance against his former team, led the Bills to a 31-0 shutout in week one. New England finished the regular season 14-2, on their way to their second of three Super Bowl wins in a four year span. Likewise, the team showed similar fire in 2007 amidst allegations of cheating and preseason speculation that they no longer held the competitive edge they had in years past. To prove those speculations to be inaccurate, the Pats embarrassed most of their opponents, surpassing 30 points in 12 of 16 regular season contests.
Meanwhile, a few hours ago the Kansas City Chiefs secured their first victory in nearly a year by beating the Redskins, 14-6. Low scoring affairs like that are usually indicative of matches between two dominant defenses. Not so in this case. There was a bad offense and a bad defense on the throne in Kansas City; there was a bad offense and a fair defense on the throne in Washington.
Aside from the literary reference, throne might be a wholly accurate word to describe this game. An acquaintance of mine dubbed it the Toilet Bowl. Or, in the words of color commentator and erstwhile Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon, “one of the ugliest games I’ve seen… they’ll probably burn the tape.”
Burn the tape, they should. This was an attrition of wills between two untenable offensive lines and the lackluster defenses they faced. This is what happens when a resistible force meets a movable object. Kansas City’s defense, for once, elected to be a little less resistible, however, and the result was a long overdue victory. Or, rather, long overdue in the sense that the players and fans alike needed a win to sustain their spirits – the Chiefs have not lost a single game in recent history that they deserved to win.
But today, despite their flaws (and there were many), the Chiefs earned a win. They didn’t eke out a win against a lesser opponent (see: Dallas Cowboys, 2009, week five). They didn’t get over on a technicality or a poor call by a ref. They just outplayed an opponent, albeit one that wasn’t very good. Wins are wins. The ugly ones count the same as the blowouts.
The story of the game, however, isn’t that Ryan Succop is emerging as one of the better kickers in the league – a near perfect complement to punter Dustin Colquitt. It isn’t that the defense finally bent rather than broke. It isn’t that Glenn Dorsey dominated for one full half, or that no fewer than three of Kansas City’s linebackers made key stops. It isn’t that Jon McGraw, aspiring to atone for an early error that would have resulted in a touchdown had Santana Moss been able to field the pass, went on to play one of his best games as a Chief, legitimizing himself as a starting caliber free safety. It isn’t even that Dwayne Bowe eclipsed 100 yards for the first time this season. These were all good stories. The team continues to be defined, however, by a far less pleasing plot, and one that appears to have no happy ending in sight.
I’m speaking, of course, of Bill Muir’s underachieving, borderline inept offensive line. Minus Rudy Niswanger, who for the second consecutive week played beyond expectations (admittedly low ones, mind you), the line showed few signs of competence, allowing Matt Cassel to be sacked no fewer than five times. It defies logic that Wade Smith, one of the worst players in the NFL, was permitted to start at the most important position, and it’s no surprise that he put on a performance reminiscent of Will Svitek’s against San Diego in late 2007, filling in for an injured Damion McIntosh. That was the game that effectively ended Svitek’s career. Maybe this one will do the same for Smith’s.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end, Ryan O’Callaghan makes fans pine for Big Mac’s return. O’Callaghan’s play was so poor, in fact, that the Redskins decided to attempt an experiment with perennial underachiever Albert Haynesworth: they moved the 350 pound nose tackle directly over the right tackle to see if the big man could get around him to the quarterback. He could. Haynesworth possesses only a negligible size advantage over O’Callaghan, who clocks in at 330, and should possess a considerable disadvantage in speed and agility. He doesn’t. If O’Callaghan can’t outmaneuver Haynesworth, what reasonable hope is there that he’ll fare better against speed rushers like LaMarr Woodley or Kamerion Wimbley?
Not that it matters, mind you. Even if the Chiefs’ offensive line excelled, their offense would still struggle. They lack talent at all skill positions, and it’s their two highest paid players who continue to disappoint the most. Larry Johnson opened today’s game with a promising streak of 11 runs for 56 yards – just a little under 5.1 yards per carry. 12 carries later, Larry had come full circle, posting only 27 yards. That brought his average down to 3.6, which is an improvement over his abysmal season average of 2.7, but still substandard for even an average player, let alone one with a contract like his. The decision to pay him so exorbitantly in 2007 is neither here nor there now. None of the parties involved in that decision are still around. It is, however, incumbent on Todd Haley to relieve him of his starting duties. If the team ethos is that the best player plays, there is at least one more qualified candidate than Johnson on the roster, possibly more.
Cassel, on the other hand, hasn’t played poorly enough to warrant losing his job. Yet. He should be put on notice, however. Cassel presently ranks 32nd of 35 ranked quarterbacks in yards per attempt and 26th in completion percentage. His only value thus far is that he hasn’t thrown a lot of interceptions. That’s the same virtue Damon Huard displayed in 2006 that earned him the rather regrettable opportunity to lead the team in 2007, which was the final unraveling of the potent offense Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders had worked so diligently to implement. Cassel mimics Huard in other ways as well. Specifically, he fails to complete most of his deep passes, and he clutches the ball too long (when given the opportunity – a rarity in Huard’s days as well).
Many fans view Cassel’s limitations as the temporary shortcomings of a young, ascending signal caller, but he’s neither young nor ascending. He is a five year veteran who plays like a career backup, primarily because, post-high school, he has been a career backup. He’s done appreciably better than most college backups would do, but the Chiefs don’t need him to be better than his peers from six years ago. They need him to be better than his present day peers. And he’s not. If this is as good as it gets, and it appears to be just that, Cassel will never be good enough to earn the checks he’s cashing.
Then again, Kyle Orton looks like a rock star now that he’s out of Chicago, so I guess anything is possible.
Anything that is, except for a winning season for the Chiefs. The Redskins came into today’s game with two wins, but both came against winless teams. As it turns out, the Redskins have yet to play a team with a prior win on their record. That’s nice work if you can get it. The Chiefs can’t. Their schedule pits them against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and twice against Denver. For a team that struggled so mightily against the stunningly bad Oakland Raiders, winning eight of their remaining ten contests is a pipe dream. Given that two of those wins would have to come against the aforementioned opponents, I’ll go as far to say it’s a statistical near-impossibility.
But I see a little light. Kansas City needs a major influx of talent, combined with an ego check by their head coach, in order to blossom into a perennial winner. The former is probably easier. Scott Pioli came from that other city. He’s guided the construction of a perennial winner, and once he gets it out of his head that he can only draw players from said city’s waiver wire, he might be able to guide the construction of another. In the interim, however, I warn fans not to view today as a sign of a long term reprieve from the pain they’ve been through to date this season. Tonight a win feels like the best of times to us all, but, overall, this season’s still the worst.