I usually write about one game of the week in this column, trying to dissect one aspect of it, or one key player in it. Usually.
So this week I'm writing about Miami-Kansas City.
Actually I'm writing about what in the world has gotten into the Chiefs, who started the season 0-3 and now co-lead the AFC West at 4-3 with Oakland and San Diego. With all the good stories in the league this week, I find the Chiefs the most compelling, because any team that rebounds as well from losing its first two game by a combined 89-10 to, in the last two weeks, beat their two division rivals 51-20 ... well, there's something amazing going on here.
I wasn't able to speak with coach Todd Haley this week (unavailable, his PR man said) about this good-news story, but I did reach a guy who is playing himself into the Pro Bowl, and maybe even All-Pro teams: inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. He's been fabulous the past two weeks, with a pair of 13-tackle games against Oakland and San Diego -- and three goal-line tackles in Oakland, and a sack of Philip Rivers, and an interception of Rivers. I picked Ray Lewis and NaVorro Bowman as my two
I asked Johnson what Haley and the coaching staff did after the two-game debacle opening the season, and after starting 0-3. I mentioned a story about Haley's mentor, Bill Parcells, often going easy on the team at times of crises when players expected a royal butt-chewing (that just sounds gross, doesn't it?), reinforcing the fact that they're good players. Johnson laughed and said that's basically how Haley handled it.
"We thought there was going to be a lot of yelling,'' said Johnson. "We thought we'd get ripped. But actually, the coaches just went back to teaching. I think Todd has grown a lot as a head coach. He's patient, easier to listen to now. He's still a disciplinarian, but there's a different aura about him. Everybody's bought into him.''
It would have been pretty easy, mentally, for the players to check out after season-ending injuries to three of the five or six most important players on the team by the middle of September: tight end Tony Moeaki, Matt Cassel's versatile security blanket; safety Eric Berry, the young leader of the defense; and running back Jamaal Charles, who coaches were relying on to produce 1,500 yards of offense, minimum, this year.
"They're probably our best players,'' said Johnson. "But it just goes to show you what a team sport football is. It's why I love the game so much. Football's just too hard, and it takes too much out of you, to say after two bad games and all those injuries, 'That's it. We give up.' As a football player, you just can't do that. We didn't.''
Johnson said the change actually began at San Diego in Week 3, in a narrow loss to the Chargers ("We got our life back,'' he said), then continued with a win at home against the Vikings. But in Week 5, trailing to Curtis Painter and the lowly Colts, the seminal moment of the season, at least for the defense, may have occurred in a halftime locker room. Indianapolis 24, Kansas City 14. Twenty-four points in two quarters to the Peyton-less Colts!
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, normally the most mild-mannered of coaches, had tried every way he could think of to cajole his players to play better. Now he lit into them. "WE'RE THE WEAK LINK!'' he said, according to Johnson. With a few other particulars thrown in, such as: It'd be one thing if you weren't good enough, if we were playing with a bunch of backups. But this is a good defense here! And it hit the players in that room that they were good enough. "I've never see him [Crennel] like that,'' said Johnson, chuckling at the memory. "He got everyone's attention. Not like he was throwing chairs, but we realized what he was saying was right.''
In the next six quarters, the Chiefs' D held the Colts and Raiders scoreless. Cassel threw two second-half touchdowns to beat the Colts. In the 28-0 win at Oakland, the defense picked off six Raider passes; Haley called a smart Wildcat direct-snap to Javier Arenas for a seven-yard touchdown. And last week, the miracle weirdness of the Rivers fumble in the last minute of regulation led to a 23-20 overtime win. In the last 10 quarters, the defense has forced 10 turnovers.
"When you have a crisis like we had,'' said Johnson, "it can't be all what the coaches do. It has to be the players. They can teach us the best schemes in football, but we have to go out and play.''
Johnson entered the league as a first-round pick in 2005. I remember seeing him in his first mini-camp under Dick Vermeil. Speed guy. Outside rusher. Vermeil thought he could lead the league in sacks one day. It wasn't until late in the 2008 season, Herman Edwards' last, that Johnson was thrown inside full-time. And late that season, coordinator Gunther Cunningham told him he should have been playing middle linebacker all along.
The middle, or inside, linebacker prototype 15 years ago was a run-stuffer on first and second downs who spent most third downs on the bench. Not anymore. Ray Lewis, among others, changed that. The inside guys are now more liable to be all-over-the-field playmakers. San Francisco's Bowman and Patrick Willis never come off the field. Neither does Johnson.
"It's quite a big responsibility to play all three downs," Johnson said. "I'm pretty fast on my feet. You can make more plays in the 3-4, like we play now than in the 4-3 because there are more gray areas where you can play on either side of the block. You're not head-up on a guy every time. In this defense, I feel like I can make some havoc."
In the last couple of weeks it's hard to imagine an inside guy playing the position better than Johnson has. "That Raider game was one of the best games of my life," he said. "I can watch that game over and over again."
It's the kind of game a lot of Chiefs can watch over and over again, a 28-point beatdown of the Raiders in the black hole. The way Kansas City is playing now, there may be more where that came from.
Blast from the past this week on the ninth podcast of the season: Ryan Leaf, the infamous second pick in the 1998 NFL Draft (one pick behind You-Know-Who), who has been through fame, failure, drug addiction, rehab, brain surgery ... and now faces six weeks of radiation starting later this month after having a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from the base of his brain in May.
The podcast on
Failing with the Chargers: "I'd never really failed at anything before, and this was at the highest possible level, something I had wanted to do since I was four-years-old. So, dealing with that in a positive way, it wasn't in my cards ... Everything that I physically did I take full responsibility for. But I do believe there is some fault that should be taken by the Chargers organization ... For a long time I wouldn't [take responsibility]; I would say it's somebody else's fault. But that stuff is mine to own.
Being a draft bust: "It took a long time to deal with it. You're in denial first, and then you resent everybody and everything that went along with it. But when you are able to spend time really working on yourself in an introspective way you realize that it really isn't that important ... If I was only going to be a football player, that would have been tragedy, it truly would have.''
Rehab, and being a complete person: "The fact that they said I didn't have to do anything associated with football ever again was like a huge weight being taken off me. I felt like that might be the only thing I was ever going to be able to do and to have such a rock that I lugged around for so long, being the bust of all time or whatever, that was just too consuming for me, I think.''