Sam Mellinger

Chiefs can have a losing season without it being a lost season

The Chiefs’ season got off to a bad start when linebacker Derrick Johnson tore his Achilles’ tendon in the opening game.
The Chiefs’ season got off to a bad start when linebacker Derrick Johnson tore his Achilles’ tendon in the opening game. The Kansas City Star

Nobody with the Chiefs will say this. Nobody with the Chiefs should say this. Even privately, even on a barstool, you would not hear anyone with the Chiefs say this. But it is true all the same.

The Chiefs, as a playoff team, are done.

This is as much of a certainty as anything can be in the NFL. All week you’ve heard people reference that teams starting 0-2 make the playoffs just 12 percent of the time.

That’s bad enough, but it’s actually worse than that. Since the current division and scheduling formats began in 2002, just nine of 100 teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-2.

These Chiefs, of course, will play the rest of the season without All-Pro linebacker Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito. Jamaal Charles, at best, will play hurt here on Sunday. Eric Berry is out, and after the Dolphins come the Patriots at home next Monday, then road games against the 49ers and Chargers.

The tougher schedule and the time-honored NFL pattern of teams falling back the year after big jumps mean history gives the Chiefs virtually no chance of making the playoffs this season.

And even if they can’t say that — heck, even if they can’t think it — quite yet, it does help inform the way smart fans will watch and digest the rest of the season.

Fans and coaches don’t like to say “rebuilding,” but if done the right way it can be the best thing for a franchise long-term — especially when the context is already set against immediate success.

This approach can feel like a bad thing, or the Chiefs can turn it into a good thing. Because a losing season doesn’t have to be a lost season.

So much can happen between now and then, obviously, but the Chiefs have a chance to be very good in 2015. They’ll have an abundance of draft picks, and their classes from this and last year should be maturing. Even if it’s at the expense of the short-term, they should be doing everything possible to take advantage of their long-term prospects.

Football people often talk in terms of progress. Correct mistakes. Get a little better each day. Make every rep count. And so on. In seasons where teams are all-in for the Super Bowl, the future is never far from the minds of coaches and other decision-makers. The Chiefs can amplify that approach.

Officially, teams often wait until at least midseason to make judgments about whether they are playing for the postseason or playing for the next year. The Chiefs can get ahead on that, and it doesn’t turn this season meaningless. If anything, it will give the coming weeks and months more importance to the enduring plan.

In particular, they have a unique chance to see what they truly have with their quarterback. Alex Smith will be tested in ways the Chiefs did not expect before the season. Even if Charles doesn’t miss a game, the Chiefs have a makeshift offensive line and an injured defense likely to need more support. Smith will be pushed to his limits, coaches and executives able to see in real time where improvements are most needed to help their large investment in dollars and draft picks.

The Chiefs are committed to Eric Fisher, but can use this season to not only track progress toward being a good left tackle — and he’s showing signs of that — but make the specific technique and strength improvements needed to play the offensive line’s most demanding position.

Dwayne Bowe is now essentially on a 14-game tryout for 2015. He played last season out of shape and ineffective, no matter how often the Chiefs praised his blocking. Both inside and outside the organization, it is not seen as a coincidence that Bowe’s production dipped after signing that big contract and that he hired a team to help get in — wait for it — the best shape of his life this year.

The biggest salary (and cap hit) of that contract is due next year, and because of his suspension that money is no longer guaranteed. Depending on how he plays this year, the Chiefs could to ask him to take a pay cut or worse.

The Chiefs also have decisions to make on defense. Some of that is strategic, like figuring out the best ways to use Berry’s unique and versatile skill set. Some of that is personnel, like figuring out how much they can count on Marcus Cooper, how well Sean Smith maintains focus, how Ron Parker does with more snaps at safety, and how far Phillip Gaines progresses.

This season may end up as the perfect transition for Dee Ford, too. Like Gaines, Ford hasn’t played much yet, but that should change as we move along.

The Chiefs love Ford’s physical gifts — particularly his first burst — as well as his metabolism for work and commitment to football. But there is a mental evolution required here, one that Ford acknowledges, and the team hopes that being able to come along in bites and swallows will make for a better long-term product.

It’s especially important for them to be right with Ford, because Tamba Hali (nearly $12 million cap hit for 2015) is almost sure to be cut.

Assuming the Chiefs work out a contract extension with Justin Houston, getting Ford and the secondary in good places become the Chiefs’ most critical urgencies on defense.

The Chiefs are in a tough position this season, already. The coaches — and especially the players — can’t be openly prioritizing 2015 when they’re just two weeks into 2014. But the front office and scouting staff can start to think that way, to make sure they use this season to best position themselves for next year.

They don’t have to publicly say “rebuilding.” But the more they can use this season to position themselves for the future, the better they’ll be when the winds of the NFL are more in their favor.

This can be a losing season without it being lost.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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