Opportunity is knocking because as the Chiefs embark on rebuilding the franchise, there appears to be precious little standing in their path to the top of the division. Look around and it’s not hard to realize that the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders all have their own problems, some which are more serious than anything the Chiefs are dealing with.
Maybe an easy road to winning the division isn’t in Kansas City’s best interests. A weak division might ill prepare the Chiefs for playoff matchups against teams like the Colts, Steelers and Patriots. But let’s be realistic – after 2-14 and 4-12 seasons, and one division championship since 1997, any AFC West title is going to look good in the trophy room at Arrowhead Stadium, no matter how it was acquired.
And really, the timing couldn’t be better for Clark Hunt, Scott Pioli and Todd Haley. It’s no secret the fan base in Kansas City is restless, and certain people are already questioning the new regime. Throw in the fact that the new Arrowhead Stadium will likely bring higher ticket prices, and it becomes obvious fairly quick: the Chiefs need to win, and need to win sooner rather than later.
A weak division can facilitate that, and give the new Arrowhead leadership a little breathing room. Just imagine how popular Hunt, Pioli and Haley will be if the Chiefs finish 9-7 next season. And hey, even if the Chiefs lose in the first round of the playoffs again, people can deal with that. In Kansas City, it's the norm!
So just how exactly is the AFC West ripe for the picking? Let’s take a look, team by team.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Let’s start off with the most obvious weakness – Norv Turner is still San Diego’s head coach. Don’t buy into the hype over the fact Turner has won three playoff games in two years with the Chargers. Turner stumbled backwards into Philip Rivers and reaped the benefits any coach would. His past coaching history is far too spotty for anyone to think the Chargers are going anywhere under his leadership. What’s the old saying, a tiger can’t change his stripes?
Then there’s San Diego’s defense, which was completely exposed last season without Shawne Merriman. Will he even be back at 100 percent this year? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. As if that wasn’t enough, San Diego’s massive nose tackle, Jamal Williams is on his last legs. Williams has been the central force in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense for five years now, but he’s a 10-year veteran with bad knees and a ton of miles.
So there are questions about Merriman, questions about Williams, and now word has leaked that Chargers might be trying to dump their young, talented cornerback, Antonio Cromartie. Can you name anyone else significant on San Diego’s defense, someone that isn’t a roleplayer? Suffice it to say the Chargers’ defensive woes may just be starting.
Of course, there’s no questioning Rivers or the offense, especially with LaDainian Tomlinson’s contract situation resolved. Certainly the Chargers appear to be Kansas City’s toughest opponent in the division for now. But the defending AFC West champions are anything but a juggernaut.
And in case you've already forgotten, the Chargers bested Kansas City last year in two games by a combined two points. Not exactly a huge margin of victory.
The Broncos, much like the Chiefs, are giving it the old New England try this offseason. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen tabbed ex-New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to take the place of the fired Mike Shanahan. It looked good at first, because after all, Shanahan had one playoff win in the last decade. Surely it was time to make a switch, right?
Unfortunately, Bowlen may not have anticipated just how big that switch might be. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about McDaniels’ tiff with Denver’s franchise quarterback, Jay Cutler. The word is that he’d rather have KC’s new quarterback, Matt Cassel, and the Broncos were actively involved in trying to acquire the former Patriots’ backup quarterback last month.
Of course that didn’t sit well with Cutler, whose outrage is understandable. His lack of maturity, however, means the situation has thrown the Denver franchise into a maelstrom of unease. Do the Broncos try to smooth things over with Cutler, or start over with a new quarterback? What would they have to sacrifice to move up in April’s draft and pick Mark Sanchez or Matt Stafford?
Even if McDaniels chooses to keep Cutler, will their working relationship be amicable enough that it fosters a winning atmosphere? What happens the first time the head coach and his quarterback disagree on a play call gone wrong? Will McDaniels ask Cutler to wear a Matt Cassel mask during practice? There are too many potentially destructive scenarios.
To put it bluntly, Bowlen may have bitten off more than he can chew by firing Shanahan. And Denver’s terrible defense, which was quickly gutted of Shanahan-era failures, has been "fixed" by a glut of incoming free agents, including 36-year old safety Brian Dawkins. Was John Lynch unavailable? Chiefs fans are well acquainted with the merits of fixing a defense through free agency.
Did you hear the news about the Raiders? Al Davis still runs the franchise, JaMarcus Russell still runs the offense, and Tom “Yessir, Mister Davis,” Cable is still the head coach.
Oh, but there’s good news. Oakland threw the bank at a punter and a cornerback this offseason. That should get them out of the cellar, don’t you think?
It might be unfair to dedicate so few column inches to the Raiders, who have now managed to avoid being swept by the Chiefs two years in a row. Certainly when you've lost nine in a row to another franchise, winning two in a row is a great accomplishment.
Maybe the Raiders should be taken more seriously? Perhaps, but then again, Herm Edwards is tucked safely away behind a desk at ESPN, and Gunther Cunningham is exiled in Detroit, so maybe I've already written too much about the Raiders.
So, is it really that hard to fathom? The Chiefs, while they have problems of their own, are not coached by Norv Turner, have nowhere to go but up on defense, aren’t dealing with a potentially franchise-destroying quarterback situation, and are not owned by Al Davis.
When you consider all of that, the AFC West might just be sitting there for Pioli and Haley to take by storm. The opportunity is there, and it really couldn’t come at a better time.