There is a pretty fine line between success and failure in the NFL. For the Chiefs, that line apparently was drawn somewhere between the first and second quarters of their final preseason game against Green Bay.
Kansas City coach Todd Haley opted to extend his starters against the Packers, despite general convention being that teams play it very, very safe in the fourth week of exhibition action. The results for the Chiefs were disastrous: Starting tight end Tony Moeaki blew out his knee on the first play of the second quarter and was lost for the year; starting quarterback Matt Cassel left after taking a sack moments later and may not be able to go in Week 1 thanks to an injury that's been speculated to be a cracked rib.
Cassel practiced on Monday, making a few "short throws" during the time the media was allowed to watch practice, according to the Kansas City Star. Still, his status is up in the air. Teams aren't required to release the first injury report of the week until Wednesday.
Suddenly, a Chiefs team that came out of nowhere to win the AFC West last season finds itself in turmoil.
The injuries to Moeaki and Cassel come on top of a dismal 0-4 preseason that saw the Chiefs outscored 90-42, and just a couple of weeks after rookie wide receiver Johnathan Baldwin injured his wrist during a reported locker room fight with highly-respected veteran running back Thomas Jones.
Haley clearly was trying to shake out his team's cobwebs Thursday by giving the starters a little extra time -- there was some sense after the Chiefs' third preseason game that at least Cassel was frustrated by the lack of snaps he'd been on the field for.
But let's be honest here: Haley blew it.
Even if Cassel can go in Week 1 or Tyler Palko steps up and gets K.C. a win over the Bills, and even if some yet-unknown player can replace Moeaki's production, Haley dropped the ball as a coach. The reason coaches so often rest or limit their starters in the fourth preseason game is to guard against precisely what happened to Moeaki and Cassel.
Those injuries could just as easily have happened in practice or Week 1, but part of a head coach's responsibility is to protect his players from unnecessary risks. Haley knew the gamble he was taking against the Packers and rolled the dice anyway.
It is not easy to repeat success in the NFL, especially when you've snuck up on people to begin with. After Kansas City stormed to a 13-3 mark and the division title in 2003, it finished 7-9 the next year and missed the playoffs. A 9-7 wild-card berth in 2006 was followed by a 4-12 record in 2007.
The Chiefs know as well as any team how difficult it is to keep momentum rolling in the right direction.
And in addition to having the Chargers' full attention now, the Chiefs also face a first-place schedule in 2011. That means a trip to Indianapolis and a visit from Pittsburgh, on top of two games with the Chargers, four against the NFC North and four against the AFC East.
Moeaki's and especially Cassel's injury could make a difficult road even bumpier. Cassel missed one game in 2010 and the Chiefs lost 31-0 to the Chargers, with Kansas City gaining a total of 67 yards. No one is mistaking the 2011 Bills for the 2010 Chargers, but Palko has thrown a grand total of six regular season passes in the NFL. A major step back on offense would be almost inevitable for Kansas City sans Cassel.
Which brings us back to the question of what exactly Haley was trying to accomplish against the Packers last week.
If nothing else, the risk very much outweighed the possible reward. Was it worth losing Moeaki for the season to get him one more meaningless catch? Does Cassel taking seven or eight extra snaps justify possibly losing him for Week 1? In both cases, the answer is a resounding "No."
The Chiefs were stumbling already heading into the regular season. The struggle to regain their balance got a whole lot more difficult last Thursday, and there was no reason for that to happen.