Eric Berry was poised for a superstar second season until a torn ACL ended his campaign after just one game. (Getty Images)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
The Chiefs entered 2011 with high expectations after a surprise 10-6, first-place finish in 2010. But last season turned out to be Murphy's Law personified in Kansas City.
It started when Jonathan Baldwin and Thomas Jones got into a locker room fist fight in training camp, and then continued with a bevy of significant injuries that sent the likes of Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry and Matt Cassel to the IR.
The team managed to hold on after Charles, Moeaki and Berry were lost toward the beginning of the year, going 4-4 through its first eight games. When Cassel was lost, however, the wheels fell off with a 1-5 stretch that saw coach Todd Haley lose his job. Romeo Crennel was elevated to close out the year on an interim basis, and a 2-1 finish (including a stunning win over the then-undefeated Packers) was enough to restore hope entering 2012 and get Crennel the full-time gig.
2011 Record: 7-9 (fourth place, AFC West)
Key Additions: RB Peyton Hillis, TE Kevin Boss, OT Eric Winston, CB Stanford Routt, DT Dontari Poe,
Key Subtractions: CB Brandon Carr, RB Jackie Battle, FB Le'Ron McClain, TE Leonard Pope, C Casey Wiegmann
Team Strengths: RB, LB, OL, DB, WR
Team Weaknesses: QB, DL
Three Things to Watch:
1. Can the injured players return to form?: Other teams may have had more injuries, but the Chiefs' injuries were to impact players, and three of the four most significant (Berry, Moeaki, Charles) came before the third week of the season.
The timing of those injuries cast an immediate pall over the Chiefs' 2011 season. But on the bright side, it gave all three players plenty of time to recover for 2012, and it appears as if the trio will be ready to go for training camp. That's obviously good news for a Kansas City team that was excited to see Berry and Moeaki respond after stellar 2010 rookie years, while Charles was coming off a year in which he almost reached 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.
Charles may never be the type of guy to carry the load fully, and it remains to be seen if he can regain his explosiveness. Moeaki, on the other hand, was an injury risk even in college (part of the reason he was available in the third round of the 2010 draft). But the Chiefs set themselves up well in case one or more of the trio suffers a setback, adding Peyton Hillis and Cyrus Gray to the backfield as well as signing reliable veterans Kevin Boss and Abram Elam to back up Moeaki and Berry, respectively.
2. Will Matt Cassel help or hurt the Chiefs?: The other notable player the Chiefs lost for the year is a bit of a more complicated situation. Cassel is very much boom or bust. In the Chiefs' breakout 2010 season, Cassel had seven games with a rating over 100, and five in which his rating didn't top 80. Things were worse in his shortened 2011, with three games over 100, and a 71.8 as his highest rating in the other six games.
That being said, the Chiefs were clearly worse without him. Still, Cassel has to be more consistent. He has a supporting cast that most signal-callers would be envious of, with a bevy of talented skill players and a very good offensive line that got better with the addition of right tackle Eric Winston.
The Chiefs didn't hang on to late-season addition Kyle Orton as Cassel's backup, but Brady Quinn is pretty good as far as No. 2s go (at the very least, he's much better than Tyler Palko, whose disastrous run in Cassel's stead led to Orton being claimed off waivers). Still, it shouldn't come to that, as long as Cassel is healthy. With the talent around Cassel, and the level of play he's shown he's capable of playing at times, if the Chiefs offense fails the blame lies with Cassel.
3. Will the team continue to respond to Romeo Crennel?: As last season went on, it was clear that boisterous Todd Haley was losing his grip on the team. The answer, after firing Haley with three games left in the season, was the promotion of defensive coordinator Crennel, pretty much the polar opposite of Haley personality-wise. The team responded to Crennel's subtler managerial tactics, winning two of its last three games (on top of the aforementioned win over the Packers, the team also upended the miracle-working Tim Tebow and the Broncos, who seemed by divine faith impossible to beat last year).
But it's no sure thing that Crennel is the right coach to lead this team. Teams usually respond well in the short-term after a much-needed coach firing, especially when you replace a hard-ass like Haley with a much more soothing personality like Crennel. But keeping the players similarly happy and focused over the long haul is a bit tougher. You can't necessarily project those three games over a whole season.
Crennel also wasn't particularly impressive in his first stint as a head coach, going 24-40 in Cleveland (of course, those teams weren't as talented as this one is). And the Chiefs weren't all that great in the closing trio of games, either. The win over the Packers was legitimately impressive, but the team managed only 20 points combined in its last two games, even with Orton at the helm.
Outlook: This is a very talented team, there's no doubt about that. That talent alone should get it to the playoffs easily, even in an AFC West that has a reloading Chargers and a Peyton Manning-led Broncos team.
But how far the Chiefs go in the postseason is up to Cassel and Crennel. Both are good enough to not get in the way. But can they be even better? If so, I dare say that the Chiefs have a chance to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
– By Tom Mantzouranis