Whether high or low or somewhere in between, whatever chance you think the Chiefs have of beating the Chargers this weekend is lower than if they still had Brandon Flowers on their side.
Flowers is a cornerback in his seventh year, and is coming off his first Pro Bowl. He is a hard worker, a model teammate, a sure tackler and so far this year the NFL’s best cornerback (by far) according to Pro Football Focus.
The Chiefs’ cornerbacks, with the notable exception of Sean Smith, have been mostly extras for other teams’ highlights. With a little better coverage, maybe the Chiefs could have beaten the 49ers or even the Broncos. Instead of going to San Diego 2-3, maybe they could be 3-2.
That’s all true, but so is this: no matter what, the Chiefs had to dump Flowers last summer.
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This is true for a lot of reasons. Most notably, the Chiefs saved at least $7.25 million in cap space this year and $7.5 million next year.
That money has already helped them sign their quarterback, Alex Smith, to a contract extension and is helping in their ongoing negotiations for an extension with star linebacker Justin Houston.
Flowers is a nice player, but he’s neither a quarterback who led the team to the playoffs last year or one of the best young pass rushers in a league that depends on quarterbacks and pass rushers.
Flowers called himself the best cornerback in football after the Chiefs cut him and he signed with the Chargers. That’s an incredible overstatement, even by pro athlete standards, and even with PFF’s current rankings.
Flowers was bad for the Chiefs last year, giving up a 101.6 passer rating in coverage, according to PFF. He and the team never admitted this, but some of that is surely because he was playing through an injury. To that point, it’s worth mentioning that Flowers missed the Chargers’ second game of the season and isn’t sure if he can play against the Chiefs this weekend.
But if you look beneath the surface a bit more, even beyond the injuries and beyond the cap space, you can see more of why the Chiefs let him go.
His down year in 2013 had more causes than just injuries, and his strong start in 2014 has more causes than (mostly) good health.
The Chiefs like physical, strong, tall cornerbacks to play the kind of press coverage that disrupts the timing of offenses and best complements their talented pass rushers.
Flowers, for all of his strengths, struggles in this kind of system and to the Chargers’ credit they usually allow him to play away from the line of scrimmage.
There’s something to be said for coaching to your players’ strengths, and, again, other than Smith the Chiefs’ corners are not distinguishing themselves without Flowers. But it’s also true that coordinator Bob Sutton’s defense depends in large part on the kind of press coverage that’s difficult for corners and that Flowers often seemed lost with.
Look closely, and you can also see that Flowers’ strong start to this season may be something like a bubble that’s about to burst. His best games this year have been against E.J. Manuel, rookie Blake Bortles, and Geno Smith.
Of his two interceptions, one was on a nice read of a late throw by Bortles. Flowers anticipated, jumped the throw, and made a nice play. The other was a Hail Mary by Smith at the end of the first half.
Last week, he was beaten badly on a double move by Oakland’s Andre Holmes that ended in a 77-yard touchdown. Flowers’ strength has been in playing conservative coverage. He’s always been a good tackler, and has value keeping receivers in front of him and preventing big plays. That just doesn’t happen to be the kind of coverage the Chiefs want from their corners.
This is another way that Flowers is a much better fit in San Diego. He can play off the line of scrimmage, and is comfortable playing on the left side, opposite Shareece Wright’s preference for the right side.
The Chargers have always been comfortable with shorter corners, and saw Flowers as particularly useful against smaller receivers like Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker with the Broncos.
They may turn out to be right about that, but the Chiefs saw a declining player who didn’t fit their system and no longer played up to his big salary.
In that way, the Chiefs’ decision to cut their best cornerback wasn’t all that difficult. It left a hole that Marcus Cooper, Ron Parker and Chris Owens are yet to prove they can fill.
But it also let them play with personnel that better fit the bigger priorities of their defense, and have money to sign better players with greater long-term impact on the franchise.
It will be strange seeing Flowers play against the Chiefs, rather than for them. But the NFL’s salary structure and the team’s needs at that position conspired to make it necessary.