The Kansas City Chiefs boast the best coach in the AFC West, and their largely intact nucleus returning from divisional-round bracket advancement makes them a safe bet in a division that will be one of the league’s most interesting this season.
It’s hard to see them doing worse than 8-8 given the consistency they’ve displayed over the past three seasons. But their ceiling should be in question, and not just because of the usual Alex Smith-based factor.
Entering their third preseason game — the one that is built up to mean something in a month of mostly irrelevant football — the Chiefs are without several cornerstone players for various reasons.
The franchise’s potential will largely depend on whether or not these talents’ collective rehab efforts hold up.
Kansas City is counting on several key cogs re-establishing clean health bills at around the same time. Individually, this could be smart management given that most of the recovering players don’t have anything to prove in August. Collectively, it’s a risk, given the team’s reliance on the shelved group.
Justin Houston’s status overshadows the Chiefs’ season. Stripped of their most established corner after Sean Smith joined the Raiders, the Chiefs’ pass defense hinges on the All-Pro linebacker returning to form soon. But beyond the dynamic pass-rusher, the collective availability of Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles and Phillip Gaines looms as rather significant. Eric Berry doesn’t have to show fitness to get into games, but his sensible absence isn’t helping the Chiefs from a stability standpoint.
The AFC West features its five-time reigning champion looking more and more likely to make one of the most bizarre positional successions in league history, with the Broncos handing giving Peyton Manning’s keys to a man named Trevor Siemian. It houses a Raiders team that has generated a groundswell of belief despite scant on-field evidence of playoff-caliber play to this point. Two of its franchises may also be on the verge of making decisions to relocate.
This landscape clears a path for a Chiefs outfit that devoted much of its offseason resources to retention of a core that, based on the team’s financial makeup, should be expected to put the franchise on the brink of a Super Bowl within the next two years. The cadre of rehabbing stalwarts pauses this optimism, the Chiefs’ first-string offense’s preseason proficiency notwithstanding.
Kansas City’s management and training staff shouldn’t be doubted in its course of action regarding the respective itineraries of Houston, Hali, Charles and Gaines, though. It just might be a lot to ask to have them all ready to be their best versions throughout the season.
The latter two are returning from ACL tears that occurred more than 10 months ago, with Hali struggling with nagging knee trouble that plagued him last season. Deploying them in practice gradually but holding them out until Week 1 — which will be the case for Hali and Charles, and if Gaines doesn’t play Saturday, he will likely be shelved until September as well — shows patience.
The coaching staff eased Berry back to work last season, one that ended with the safety back in All-Pro form after being uncertain to play football again. K.C. also observed Derrick Johnson bounce back at age 32 from a torn Achilles en route to anchoring its run defense, with Dontari Poe making a quicker-than-expected return from offseason back surgery — albeit in a form not quite on his usual level — as well. Travis Kelce morphing from microfracture surgery survivor into a top-10 tight end certainly qualifies here, too.
So, the Chiefs have managed some collective bounce-back stories in their recent past that should support their courses of action.
However, coupling these latest rehab efforts with Houston’s more important recovery points to the Chiefs needing a lot of positive medical news soon. One of these critical components enduring an ill-timed setback poses problems.
This process wouldn’t linger as potentially troublesome if they were only projecting one or two projected starters. But having three high-profile standouts — and one disgruntled fourth holding out — and a potential No. 2 corner all coming out of injury rehab should be cause for concern.
While the Chiefs made a surprise effort and replaced Charles after his October knee injury, their recently extended backups can’t hit the gear the 29-year-old yards-per-carry maven does. Without Houston’s services, a declining Hali will be more important to the Chiefs than he’s been in years, as Dee Ford likely prepares for his first Week 1 start.
Gaines was expected to be the starter opposite Marcus Peters, the only surefire contributor among a crew that otherwise houses mid-level investments. The 2014 third-round pick is the furthest along in that group.
Houston resides as the Chiefs’ best player. His recovery effort, while overshadowing this group’s road back, amplifies his teammates’ efforts to return to game action. Because without the sixth-year linebacker, the margin for error thins for a team that already features a built-in one thanks to a Smith-led offense.
So, the hopes for rapid reassembly will fill the early-season schedule.
The Chiefs’ recent history of coaxing quality production out of recovering players should inspire confidence, but the team’s aura of stability won’t return until their latest collection of sidelined starters proves able to supplement a Houston-less operation.