GREEN BAY, Wis. If we lived in a world where the NFL preseason wasn’t so generally boring and irrelevant in predicting real-world success, the 2014 Chiefs would be more of an excuse to put off yard work than a returning playoff team.
Now that it’s over — with only rare smiles during a limp 34-14 loss to the Packers here on Thursday — any optimism in this group has to come from reasons that have nothing to do with what we saw in the Chiefs’ four preseason games.
The hope is that the best thing about a 1-3 Chiefs preseason in which they were outscored 131-69 is that it’s over, in other words. And if you’re afraid that might actually turn out to be the worst thing about the preseason — that these guys could use some more time to get ready — you are not alone.
It’s hard to be confident based on spec.
“It’s good to get the preseason over,” coach Andy Reid says. “Let’s get on with the regular season.”
Reid is the place to start. Your belief in the Chiefs looking better in the 16 games that matter than they did in the four that don’t should be a direct reflection of your belief in the head coach. The spots where the Chiefs have shown inadequacies are the spots where Reid’s experience and expertise are most effective.
In Reid the Chiefs trust, or, at least, in Reid the fans must hope. He was a leading candidate for coach of the year for much of last season. In his second year with the Chiefs, he faces another significant challenge.
With adults understanding the appropriate warnings about being too certain of anything after the preseason, the Chiefs were mostly awful for four games and need their coach’s help, particularly as it relates to the offense. The defense has at least shown signs of improvement. The offense has shown few.
Toward this end, running back Jamaal Charles — the Chiefs’ most important player, and it’s not close — made a good point this week.
“He hasn’t really called a game yet,” Charles said. “The way he goes in the meetings, and puts people in places to make plays, puts people in their strong points, (where) they’re in comfortable position to make plays, it’s just crazy. When you see the real game plan, and what really goes on, then that’s when you can really start worrying — when we’re in the middle of the season.”
After the final preseason game, backup quarterback Chase Daniel basically echoed that sentiment.
“We haven’t even touched the surface of how good we can be,” he said. “That’s a little bit of the preseason, Coach not wanting to show too much. But we just have to execute, you know? That’s the good thing about it. This preseason really doesn’t mean anything toward stats or wins or losses.”
It’s true, of course, that the Chiefs are running basic plays and the simplest game plans. But their opponents are, too, and the Chiefs’ offensive line, in particular, has looked mostly wretched.
Donald Stephenson was perhaps the worst of the bunch Thursday, taking a holding penalty and getting beat for a sack on back-to-back snaps. Remember that Stephenson was supposed to be the Chiefs’ starter at right tackle before a four-game suspension, so his struggles in a game for backups are especially concerning. If he was bad because he was disengaged, knowing he won’t play until October, that addresses some concerns but creates others.
It wasn’t just Stephenson, though. The running backs never had much to work with — and this was a week after the line was often overwhelmed in the third preseason game against the Vikings.
Reid is an old lineman and line coach. The struggles here must hit him particularly hard, but he is also better equipped than most of his peers to deal with it. Some of that can come with his expertise as a line coach. But more of it likely has to come from his skills as a play-caller.
There are ways that the best coaches can create space with the type and timing of their calls. The same can be said for helping the receivers, who — a tremendous diving catch down the sideline by A.J. Jenkins notwithstanding — haven’t shown enough to calm worries.
If there is such a thing, Reid is something like an ideal coach for a team with those particular weaknesses. Just like it’s possible to play-call space for the running game at times, it’s possible to play-call an open receiver at times.
This season, it’s probably worth the time to set some expectations. The Chiefs made a historic jump a year ago, from 2-14 all the way into the playoffs. They caught some breaks along the way, particularly with lots of injuries to their opponents (five straight weeks of facing a backup quarterback in their 9-0 start) and precious few to themselves (at least until the playoff game).
The natural pattern with the way the NFL is structured is for regression the year after a big jump, and the 2014 Chiefs are prime candidates for that. Their draft class hasn’t stood out (not for good reasons, anyway), they lost key performers along the offensive line and in the secondary, and their best players are no longer at the age where you expect natural improvement. A brutal early schedule and a secondary still full of cross-your-fingers is a problem.
A drop to seven wins feels realistic. Maybe even six. Five is in play if the offensive line doesn’t improve.
A disproportionate amount of the outcome will depend on Reid’s ability to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses, especially on the offensive line and with the receivers.
His track record shows the Chiefs are in good hands.
Their preseason indicates they’ll need it.