When general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid walked through the glass doors at One Arrowhead Drive for the first time last year, and took over a franchise in disarray, nobody could have expected their turnaround to be so swift and so dramatic.
After winning two games in a season marked by tragedy, the Kansas City Chiefs rolled off nine straight wins. They finished 11-5 and made the playoffs for the second time in seven years. A city that had grown accustomed to failure was feeling good about itself, putting away brown paper bags that had become standard headdress on Sunday to wear jerseys and caps with pride.
Just one week into Year 2, that turnaround is starting to look like a mirage.
The Chiefs were dominated in their season opener last Sunday by a Titans team trying to rebound from its own miserable year. Alex Smith threw three interceptions, Jamaal Charles hardly touched the ball, two defensive starters were lost to season-ending injuries and a perilous lack of depth across the roster was exposed in a humiliating 26-10 defeat.
"Certainly," Smith said with a shake of his head, "a lot of adversity early."
There are several reasons for what appears to be an abrupt downward spiral, many extending far beyond one player or one game. They lend credence to the possibility that last year's magical run merely masked the fact that there is still far more rebuilding to do.
— The team Dorsey and Reid inherited was top-heavy with talent yet virtually devoid of role players. The grist that makes up a 53-man roster was sorely lacking. Eric Berry may be a Pro Bowl strong safety, but his running mates at free safety have been journeymen. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe is a budding star, but the rest of the defensive line has been a disheveled mess.
Meanwhile, many of the Chiefs' best players just happened to play increasingly irrelevant positions. Jamaal Charles is arguably the best running back in the game, but pass-happy offenses have rendered his skillset far less valuable than it was 20 years ago.
❯ Two straight drafts have failed to produce impact players. The Chiefs had the No. 1 overall pick last year and chose offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who has struggled through injuries and with the transition to the NFL. Their first-round pick this year, outside linebacker Dee Ford, played three snaps in the Chiefs' season opener.
There is also a lack of production deeper in the draft. Guys such as linebacker Nico Johnson, a fourth-round pick last year, are still toiling away on the practice squad.
❯ Two key players made themselves unavailable after getting into trouble with the league and the law. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was suspended for the season opener following an arrest last November, and right tackle Donald Stephenson will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
"I watched it at home," Bowe said Thursday, "and I wish I could have been out there to help my team, but things happen. You learn from them and try not to let them happen again."
❯ The Chiefs' salary cap situation. Dorsey and Reid were forced to cut Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers and allow Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert to depart in free agency, along with several other key players from a year ago. Meanwhile, they had little financial flexibility to plug the holes.
Photos from the Chiefs week one game against the Titans.
The few players they have given big money to have been ineffective. Bowe struggled last season, the first of a $56 million, five-year deal. Smith signed a $68 million extension, and then threw those three picks against Tennessee. And after Charles signed an $18.1 million extension before training camp, he was given just 11 touches in the season opener.
Throw in season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and starting defensive tackle Mike DeVito, things suddenly look ominous in Kansas City.
"I was shocked," Chiefs linebacker James-Michael Johnson said, when asked to assess their season-opening performance against Tennessee. "I thought we were going to do a lot better."
Reid vowed this week that "we're going to get ourselves right," but it's a promise that won't be easy to follow through on given what the Chiefs will see in the coming weeks.
After beating up on backup quarterbacks and cellar-dwelling teams last season, they now face the prospect of playing AFC West favorite Denver this weekend. They stay on the road against Miami before returning home for a Monday night game against New England. After that? Back on the road against playoff contenders San Francisco and San Diego.
"It's the NFL. We just have to focus on what we need to get done," Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali said, "and go out there and all the distraction, keep it away and get that job done. Right now, that's our guys' mindset. We're not too concerned with what happened in the past. We're more concerned with what's ahead of us, to get the job done."