KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The running game has disappeared. Matt Cassel looks completely lost. The defense has struggled to stop anybody, and even the special teams are looking anything but special.
The Kansas City Chiefs are winless through two games — two demoralizing, one-sided losses to begin the year — and now visit the Saints to start off a brutal stretch that should decide whether the season is still salvageable.
“I don’t know if it’s a must-win, but we’ll look at it as a must-win because we want to win it,” Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel said Monday. “We won’t fall off the Earth if we lose, but I won’t tell them that because I want there to be a sense of urgency.”
There’s certainly a sense of urgency.
The Chiefs follow their trip to New Orleans with games against San Diego and Baltimore, two teams looking like contenders, and then visit Tampa Bay before an already useful bye week.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest problem, perhaps because there are so many of them.
Jamaal Charles dinged up his left knee, the same one that required reconstructive surgery last season, in Sunday’s 35-17 loss to Buffalo. The former Pro Bowl running back only carried six times for three yards, and was also ineffective in a season-opening, 40-24 loss to the Falcons.
Crennel said Charles is expected to play against the Saints.
Even so, Peyton Hillis has been underwhelming after signing as a free agent, and a retooled offensive line has been plowed under regularly.
The pedestrian running game has put increased pressure on Cassel, who was already under fire after a miserable 2011 season cut short by a hand injury sustained in Week 10 against Denver.
Cassel threw for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo, but most of them were meaningless — the Chiefs were in a 35-3 hole late in the third quarter. And a good chunk of his 258 yards the previous week against Atlanta came with Kansas City trailing big in the second half.
It would help Cassel to have somebody open down field.
Former first-round pick Jon Baldwin didn’t catch a pass in the opener, and then made more news for jawing with Buffalo defensive backs on Sunday than with his play.
Dwayne Bowe, who skipped the offseason and part of training camp because he was upset with being franchised, had a nice game statistically against the Bills. But most of his catches — and both TDs — came when the game was decided, and then he pointed to the name on the back of his jersey after scoring late in a lopsided loss. Not exactly the kind of team-first mentality easily embraced by a struggling team.
“I’m not going to minimize our problems. I’m not going to say, ‘Everything will be OK if we just fix this.’ It’s not, and the longer we do that, the longer it’s going to take to get the problem fixed,” said right tackle Eric Winston, who signed as a free agent in the offseason.
“Everybody needs to step up. Everybody needs to play better,” he said. “If everyone takes that kind of attitude, everyone takes that hard look at themselves, then we’ll get better. But until we do that, I’m not going to say this guy or that guy needs to get better.”
He’s certainly not going to single out the defense, even if everyone else seems to be.
Matt Ryan threw for nearly 300 yards and accounted for four touchdowns at Arrowhead Stadium, and it often appeared that Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White were running routes against air. Even former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez got into the touchdown act that day.
The Chiefs played the game without Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali, suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and top cornerback Brandon Flowers.
Both of them were back against Buffalo, and both of them were non factors.
“It’s a long season. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Flowers, who has been slowed by a foot injury. “We can turn this thing back around and end up 14-2 and we would be the best team and this and that. So we just have to buckle down and turn things around.”
Winning the next 14 games certainly would appease a weary fan base.
It would probably ensure that Crennel, now 26-43 as an NFL head coach, will be back on the sidelines next season, and that general manager Scott Pioli will have another year to tinker with a roster that looks good on paper but, at least so far, has looked miserable on the field.
“The good thing, if there is a good thing, is that there are 14 games left,” Cassel said. “We’re going to do everything that we can to be critical of ourselves, evaluate ourselves and get better as we move forward.”