In 2003 the Buffalo Bills opened their season with a 31-0 rout of the New England Patriots. Four months later, the New England Patriots closed their season with a 31-0 rout of the Buffalo Bills.
Barring some bizarre act of the football gods wherein both teams made the playoffs, the Chiefs won’t get a second shot at the Bills this year to return the favor the way the Pats did eight years ago. Then again, there’s always next season. Both teams are probably on the fast track to finishing third in their respective divisions. They’ve faced each other four seasons straight now…. Why not make it five?
I’d love for there to be relevant parallels between the 2003 Patriots and the 2011 Chiefs. I’m sure Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel feel the same. Right now this must feel to both of them more like their respective tenures in Cleveland. For Pioli, this may already feel like a microcosm of his 1995 season, when, in the absence of Pro Bowl safety Eric Turner, teams simply ran roughshod over a squad already demoralized by owner Art Modell’s relocation antics.
The key difference (aside from Clark Hunt possessing no desire to alienate his fan base) is that the 1995 Browns had a legitimate signal caller in Vinny Testaverde. Likewise, the key difference between the 2003 Patriots and the current Chiefs is that they also had a legitimate signal caller in Tom Brady.
Over the past two seasons I’ve fielded several arguments from the pro-Matt Cassel camp. Unsurprisingly, very few of them have suggested Cassel actually is an upper echelon quarterback. Most of them are some variant of the defense-wins-championships mantra. Many of them cite Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, and sometimes the rookie Ben Roethlisberger as evidence that a team doesn’t need an elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl. This always reminds me of comedian Chris Rock’s take on the subject of raising a child without a father: “You can do it, but that don’t mean it’s to be done.”
The simple fact is this: the overwhelming majority of Super Bowl winners had top ten quarterbacks as well as showstopping defenses. Unless Sabby “The Situation” Piscitelli was just having an off day (talk to any Tampa Bay fan and they’ll confirm for you that he probably wasn’t), a Matt Cassel-led Kansas City sans Eric Berry likely has neither.
Therein lies the real tragedy of the game. Eric Berry, historically sandwiched in Kansas City draft lore between a bust defensive lineman and a receiver with a questionable attitude, viewed by many as the lynchpin in a hopeful resurgence of West Missouri defensive dominance, is gone for the season. Opponents will study tape and see what a nobody tight end like Scott Chandler was able to do in Berry’s absence, and they’ll do the exact same. Only worse. Examine a sampling of upcoming opposing tight ends: Brandon Pettigrew, Antonio Gates, Visanthe Shiancoe, Dallas Clark, Kevin Boss, Anthony Fasano, Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller, Dustin Keller, and Jermichael Finley.
Moreover, shutting down tight ends was only one aspect of Berry’s game.
This is gonna hurt.
The degree to which Berry’s injury was caused by the earlier low blow dealt by Stevie Johnson is debatable, but I think we can all agree it didn’t help. Still, I think there were other mitigating factors. Following the close of this preseason, teams had an average of 3.7 players on injured reserve. The preseason average over the past ten years is 2.3. 10 of the 119 players on IR are there due to a ruptured Achilles. Last year there were eight through the entire season. This is the ugly aftermath of a prolonged lockout, and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s to come. You can expect to see astronomical increases with just about any type of injury that can be prevented to some degree by physical conditioning, be it pulled hamstrings, torn ligaments, tendinitis…. Pretty much anything except bone breaks and concussions.
Unfortunately for players like Berry, these injuries change and sometimes even end careers. An Edgeworth Economics study commissioned by the NFL Players Association last year in anticipation of the lockout, based on statistics from 2002-2009 provided by Football Outsiders, states that “20% of players sustaining an ACL injury did not return to play, and returning players experienced a 34% average reduction in power rating.” I did a little searching to try to discern more specifically how ACL injuries have affected other safeties, but there isn’t much relevant data to work with. Jamie Silva and Cameron Worrell didn’t play much either before or after their injuries. Morgan Burnett and Gibril Wilson are just now returning from theirs. Bob Sanders, who very well may be the best safety you’ve never seen, surprisingly hasn’t torn his ACL. Yet.
If the search is expanded to include cornerbacks, two things immediately come to light. First, both the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants have burned through two starters already, all due to torn ACLs. The proof is in the pudding. Second, and far more encouraging, is this: Ravens corner Lardarius Webb is kicking ass. Webb, who hurt the Chiefs a month ago in preseason play, opened the season with 11 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and two passes defensed. Less than two full seasons after his injury, he looks to be fully recovered. This is relevant not just because both he and Berry are defensive backs, but also because of the similarities in their style of play (both are known for their ability to cover a lot of ground very fast), the congruence in age at the time of injury (Berry is three months shy of his 23rd birthday; Webb was two months past his), and the close proximity of their surgeries. ACL repair is an evolving science. That doesn’t mean data from the earliest years of the Edgewood report has no value, but the more recent the operation, the more important it becomes in predicting the degree of recovery.
Of course, we won’t know a thing until Berry steps back on the field next season, and even then it will be impossible to state with any degree of certainty if the player he ultimately becomes is as good as the player he could have been. And in the meantime, without him, the season isn’t necessarily lost, but the chances of a winning record are significantly lessened. Mind you, no defense could really be successful with the field position afforded the Bills by the Chiefs’ offense and special teams. This is a fumble-happy, turnover prone team relying heavily on the leg of a punter whom I believe may also be injured. If he isn’t, he probably will be after he shatters the NFL record of 114 punts in a single season (he’s presently on pace for 128). Some of the pressure on him could, of course, be alleviated by the offense getting a few more first downs, which brings me to my final point….
Bill Muir knows more about offensive football than you or I. Unfortunately, he knows less than 31 other offensive coordinators, most head coaches, at least a dozen active quarterbacks, several dozen retired quarterbacks, and a handful of reporters not named Tony Kornheiser. At his prior stop in Tampa Bay, he developed the thriving careers of couch warmers Cosey Coleman, Anthony Davis, and Kenyatta Walker. With the Jets he guided Everett McIver, who nearly got quarterback Boomer Esiason killed. Long before that, he seeded the roots of the line in Detroit that couldn’t open a seam for Barry Sanders. Measurable, meaningful success has not been his forte.
Now he’s calling plays at Arrowhead. It appears from all but one drive, however, that in preparation for Sunday’s game, he gave the playbook the Tecmo Bowl treatment. When the plays in preseason were vanilla, I thought nothing of it. This is what coordinators do in preseason. For three and a half quarters on Sunday, the offense looked no less vanilla. Late in the 2nd quarter, however, a drive vaguely resemblant of the ones used by other NFL teams to win games erupted from nowhere and swept the team downwind, downfield, into the endzone. The drive was executed almost entirely in the no huddle fashion, and Cassel balanced the run with a receiving attack that found four different targets on its five completions.
This is where the analysis gets tricky. According to Todd Haley, Muir calls the plays, but Jim Zorn has veto power. Was that drive purely the product of Muir’s mind, or was it the result of Zorn exercising that veto? Did Haley override both and call the plays himself? Since it was a no huddle drive, was the success Cassel’s handiwork? All four of those guys know the answer, but they’ll never tell. They’ll close ranks and keep their mouths shut, leaving the fans and media to a guessing game.
Something tells me, however, that it wasn’t Muir.
Every season I pick a member of the Chiefs organization I believe to be the weakest link, and I call for his termination at the end of the overwhelming majority of my columns. Popular past victims have included special teams coach Mike Priefer, waste of space offensive lineman Wade Smith, and, near the end of last season, turncoat Charlie Weis. Picking my pony one week in seems premature, but Muir sure looks like an early contender. Terrance Copper and Sabby the Situation are likely to make strong cases for themselves as well, so I’m not ready to commit. Matt Cassel and Barry Richardson might even throw their names into the ring too. Thus, I say to my readers in the front office (i.e. nobody), don’t fire anyone yet. But hey, if one of the aforementioned gets a little lippy with you, don’t rule it out either.