KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs made significant progress in Year 2 of the Scott Pioli and Todd Haley regime. A middling franchise that won just two games two years previously came from nowhere to finish 10-6, win the AFC West and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
That kind of improvement could be difficult to match this season.
]The Chiefs face a much more challenging schedule following their breakout year, one of the unpleasant side effects of success. They visit Indianapolis in early October, head to New England at the end of November, face the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week, then face a gantlet in December that includes a trip to the New York Jets and a game against the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Good luck with that, guys.
“Each year is a new year. We’re not going to get anything because of what we did in the past,” said Haley, who is growing more comfortable in his third year as head coach. “This is a new year, it’s going to present new challenges — it already has — obstacles and distractions and those kinds of things that can set your team back, and we have to take all of those challenges head on.”
One of the early distractions has been a reported locker room altercation between first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin and veteran running back Thomas Jones that left the Chiefs’ expected No. 2 wide receiver with his right hand heavily bandaged three weeks into practice.
Haley has been unwilling to discuss the situation, calling it “family business,” but the injury appears significant enough that Baldwin could miss the remainder of the preseason.
That’s a lot of lost time for a rookie, especially after the lockout wiped away the offseason.
It also deprives quarterback Matt Cassel the opportunity to build a relationship with one of his key targets not named Dwayne Bowe. After all, Cassel may be the biggest reason Kansas City experienced such success last season. He threw for 3,116 yards and 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, blossoming into one of the AFC’s best quarterbacks and earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
“You get another year in the same system under your belt, you get out here and work hard every day, the nucleus of players we have I’m very familiar with at this point,” Cassel said. “Now it’s just about making strides and making myself as good as I can be.”
The offensive line charged with protecting Cassel has plenty of question marks. Brian Waters, arguably the Chiefs’ best pass protector, was let go in the offseason. Jon Asamoah is expected to slide into a starting spot along with veterans Casey Wiegmann, Ryan Lilja, rapidly improving Branden Albert, and either Barry Richardson, Ryan O’Callaghan or newly signed tackle Jared Gaither.
Jamaal Charles pairs with Jones to form a dynamic tandem in the offensive backfield. Former All-Pro fullback Le’Ron McClain and the versatile Dexter McCluster create even more options.
“Every day has been intense in practice,” Jones said. “Guys are going 100 miles an hour.”
That goes for the defense, too.
Safety Eric Berry emerged in the secondary and the Chiefs were able to get cornerback Brandon Carr to sign his free agent tender. They join Brandon Flowers and free safety Kendrick Lewis to form a pass defense that has gotten better with each season.
While the Chiefs were not overly active in free agency, they did make a splash by signing top pass rusher Tamba Hali to a five-year, $60 million contract that guarantees him $35 million. He’s joined in the linebacker corps by Derrick Johnson, but they’re the only two stalwarts. Jovan Belcher, Brandon Siler, Andy Studebaker and Cameron Sheffield are competing for playing time at the other spots.
The three-man front is where the real questions remain.
Tyson Jackson, the third overall selection in the 2008 draft, is being counted on to finally live up to expectations. Glenn Dorsey has locked down the other defensive end position, while ex-Baltimore Ravens tackle Kelly Gregg was signed to plug the middle for a run defense that struggled in 2010.
There are capable backups along the line; the question is whether any of them can develop into solid contributors.
“It’s coming together good, but we have a lot of stuff we need to work on,” Belcher said. “We need to get better every time we step on the field.”
That couldn’t be any closer to the truth.
“If we want to get where we want to get to,” Haley said, “which is to be a great team and a team that plays in bigger games than we played in last year, and has a chance to play in them most years, like I said, we have to handle everything thrown at us this year and continue to get better.”
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Friday — ST. LOUIS, 7 p.m.
Sept. 1 — At Green Bay, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — BUFFALO, noon
Sept. 18 — At Detroit, noon
Sept. 25 — At San Diego, 3:05 p.m.
Oct. 2 — MINNESOTA, noon
Oct. 9 — At Indianapolis, noon
Oct. 16 — Bye
Oct. 23 — At Oakland, 3:05 p.m.
Oct. 31 — SAN DIEGO, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 6 — MIAMI, noon
Nov. 13 — DENVER, noon
Nov. 21 — At New England, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 — PITTSBURGH, 7:20 p.m.
Dec. 4 — At Chicago, noon
Dec. 11 — At N.Y. Jets, noon
Dec. 18 — GREEN BAY, noon
Dec. 24 — OAKLAND, noon
Jan. 1 — At Denver, 3:15 p.m.
HOME GAMES IN ALL CAPS