KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Cassel is banged up. Tight end Tony Moeaki is done for the year, and nobody knows when wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin will be back from a thumb injury. The offensive line is at turns old, inexperienced and lacking any depth.
Yet the Kansas City Chiefs somehow believe their offense is even better than last year, when it featured the most potent rushing attack in the NFL. Go figure.
“We looked sharp in practice, coming off a couple days off, and I thought we got better as a team,” said fullback Le’Ron McClain. “We have a lot of confidence going into this week. We didn’t win the game like we wanted to last week, but as a team we got better.”
The improvement hasn’t been easy to notice.
The offense was shut out by Tampa Bay at Arrowhead Stadium in their preseason opener, when the starters played only a handful of snaps. It managed single touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams, struggling to get into any kind of rhythm.
Then came the Chiefs’ preseason finale against the Green Bay Packers, when coach Todd Haley finally gave his starters carte blanche to work out the kinks. Cassel hurt his ribs getting sacked in the second quarter, Moeaki went down with a season-ending knee injury before halftime and the offense again found it difficult to move the ball against the Packers’ second-team defense.
The result was a 20-19 defeat that gave Haley a glimmer of hope.
“I feel like we were able to move through training camp and the preseason in a very productive manner for our team as it relates to the 2011 season,” he said, “which is really what training camp and the preseason is all about, getting ready for the start of the season and the entire season.”
It begins in earnest Sunday against Buffalo.
Cassel is expected to be under center despite hurting his ribs when he was sacked by 340-pouned Packers defensive tackle Howard Green. Cassel was a full participant in practice Monday, even though he appeared to skip some of the more aggressive stretching, and players had Tuesday off to give him even more time to rest whatever aches and pains he may have.
If he’s limited in any way, the Chiefs will turn to journeyman Tyler Palko or fifth-round draft pick Ricky Stanzi. Neither has much NFL experience, but the Chiefs declined to sign a veteran backup. And this is a team that lost 31-0 at San Diego last season behind Brodie Croyle when Cassel was out following an appendectomy.
“We’ve taken baby steps forward and we’ve continued to get better every day and every week and we’ve had some progress being made,” Palko said, “and now it’s time to game plan and get ready to go, and as an offense we’re moving in the right direction.”
Whoever lines up behind center will be missing some help. Moeaki emerged as one of the Chiefs’ top pass-catching threats last season, but he was placed on injured reserve after he hurt his knee in the second quarter against Green Bay. Baldwin has been out for several weeks after hurting his right thumb during a locker room altercation with running back Thomas Jones.
Offensive linemen Ryan Lilja and Barry Richardson have been banged up during training camp, while 38-year-old center Casey Wiegmann is beginning his 15th season in the league.
None of it seems to bother Jones, though. He’s back for another season to form a potent backfield combination with Jamaal Charles. Together they ran for more than 2,000 yards last season, their big-play ability helping the Chiefs win the AFC West two years after winning just two games.
“We’re just focused on the next game,” Jones said. “We did some things we can learn from, we did some good things (against Green Bay). That’s what the preseason is for. We’re excited about the game. We’re not even focusing on the preseason.”
Good thing, too, because it wasn’t very good. The Chiefs finished 25th in total offense, 28th in rushing offense, averaged only 4.3 yards per play and accounted for four total touchdowns, second-fewest in the league and only one better than the Oakland Raiders.
Despite all the injuries, the age of some of the players and the inexperience of others, Haley has confidence in the Chiefs’ offense. Many of the questions surrounding it existed last season, and everything came together once the games started to count.
‘’I’m happy with the guys we have here and the work we’ve done to this point, but we have a lot of work to do,” Haley said. “The fact that we’re at home, the fact that it’s an AFC opponent, that all adds into the sense of urgency that we have this week as we get ready for Sunday.”