The NFL’s final four is one of the year’s best days of football and, for better or worse, this weekend is a preview of sorts for the upcoming Chiefs season.
The Chiefs will play five games this fall against the four teams playing in the conference championship games — the only franchise to play all four finalists — which is a pretty good place to begin understanding that they’ll have to be better to simply earn the same outcome as this season’s turnaround that ended in a horrid playoff loss.
The reality is that a repeat of this season will be seen as a disappointment next season. So the Chiefs have a lot of work to do.
The shorthand is that a disproportionate chunk of their success or failure next season rests on which version of Alex Smith they have at quarterback.
The more complicated version is that the Chiefs aren’tthat
far from being worthy of playing this weekend.
And good thing, because their roster is at the point where the Chiefs need to win now or rebuild.
The key is zeroing in on a few specific spots to improve.
No position in major American sports casts a bigger shadow than quarterback, so the most important thing for the 2014 Chiefs is that a combination of Andy Reid’s system, Doug Pederson’s imagination and Smith’s hard work and talent bring out the best in Smith, who will probably enter the season with a new contract.
Smith’s first season in Kansas City can really be divided in two parts. For the first nine games, when the defense was doing its 1985 Bears imitation (albeit against bad teams), Smith was, well, a more athletic Matt Cassel: 59.7-percent completions, nine touchdowns, four interceptions and an 81.4 passer rating.
After the bye week, and including the Chiefs’ playoff game, Smith was terrific: 62.8-percent completions, 18 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 106.5 rating. His virtuoso performance in Indianapolis was the most encouraging sign of all. The Chiefs lost six of those eight games, but that wasn’t on Smith, who was at his best in the tougher part of the Chiefs’ schedule and — coincidence or not — after time to digest his eighth new offensive system in nine NFL seasons.
The advanced metrics line up with the traditional stats and eye test, too. For the season, Smith finished 22nd with an almost exactly average 49.4 Total QB Rating. But if you average out the Chiefs’ last eight games, Smith was at 61.6 — better than Seattle’s Russell Wilson and a tick better than New England’s Tom Brady. Pro Football Focus’ measurements paint the same picture. Smith was a Tyler Palko-like -8.6 before the bye week, and a get-that-man-a-razor-commercial +9.0 after. Project that finish over a full season, and Smith would rank as the sixth- or seventh-best quarterback by Pro Football Focus’ standards.
In real world, non-math terms, this is an indication of what insiders mean when they say Smith grew more comfortable and confident with his new team as the season went on. He took more shots downfield, had fewer fits of inaccuracy and displayed an outstanding feel for when to break the pocket. Also, it didn’t hurt that Jamaal Charles took four fairly basic passes for touchdowns in Oakland.
Either way, getting Good Alex for 2014 instead of the other version is the quickest and simplest way for the Chiefs to improve their chances of joining the NFL’s best teams.
But it’s only a start.
Peyton Manning is a one-man outlier, which is what happens when a middle-aged quarterback takes over a new team and throws for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in NFL history without anything resembling his old arm strength.
It’s interesting that of the four remaining teams, the Patriots were the only one that didn’t make a hard push for Manning two years ago.
But we can account for the Manning freak show here. The Chiefs are final four-caliber in some important areas: running back, defensive line and linebackers. Charles is the kind of dynamic talent that gives the Chiefs an advantage over virtually anyone, the line is anchored by the solid and (for now) affordable trio of Dontari Poe, Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito, and the linebackers are the heartbeat of the whole thing.
Even the Chiefs’ offensive line, which was among the youngest in the NFL last year, graded ahead of the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ in Pro Football Focus’ numbers. Obviously, the line will look different next year, particularly if Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert signs somewhere else, but it’s not a bad foundation.
If the Chiefs get the Good Alex next season, the biggest differences between them and the teams still playing this weekend are at wide receiver, tight end and, basically, the entire secondary, aside from Eric Berry and maybe Brandon Flowers (we saw what happened once he was hurt in the playoff game) and Sean Smith (I’m trusting he’d look better with a competent free safety alongside him). The Chiefs’ special teams, meanwhile — particularly punter Dustin Colquitt and the returners — are among the league’s best.
That gives general manager John Dorsey and his guys a major but digestible challenge this offseason. They have very specific areas of need and a ticking clock on the primes of Charles, Flowers, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Dwayne Bowe. Some help can come in-house, if the Chiefs’ internal beliefs are validated by major improvement from offensive lineman Eric Fisher, and if 2013 draft picks Sanders Commings and Travis Kelce can stay healthy and contribute.
This year’s free-agent class is good — 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin and Packers cornerback Sam Shields are among many intriguing potential fits.
But more likely, Dorsey and the front office he put together will have to find their fixes through the draft (without the second-round pick they gave up for Smith) and more low-profile moves.
The good part is that this has been Dorsey’s greatest strength in his short time with the Chiefs. The bad part is the challenge is only growing, and the window is closing.