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Old 11-05-2006, 02:32 AM  
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MERRILL-- The comfort zone

The comfort zone

After all the changes — coaches, QBs, the offensive line and defense — the Chiefs have hit their stride.

By ELIZABETH MERRILL

The Kansas City Star

Rain soaked his uniform, and Dante Hall went home and crawled under the covers. The Sunday highlights were banned because he’d fumbled, his quarterback was in the hospital, and his fancy white uniform was trashed. Hall flipped on “Desperate Housewives” and closed his eyes. He was asleep before 10 o’clock.

Really, Sept. 10 was a bad day for everybody in Kansas City. Mike Solari eased into his seat in the booth upstairs, his first game as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, but heard … boos.

At one point, coach Herm Edwards says he called up Solari and said this:

“Mike, are you up there? Are you alive? Are you OK?”

If the NFL is a 16-week series of hopeless situations and Pollyannaish optimism, then this sudden harmony in Kansas City is by no means schizophrenic. Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson started the week with a hilarious Halloween cut-up of his coach in front of dozens of microphones, defensive players spread love to the offense, and Edwards pondered a possible 5-3 record at the halfway point.

The thing about hitting your stride is that it smacks you when you’re not looking. The Chiefs have won four of their last five, and many of them didn’t even know it. The 499 yards last weekend against Seattle? It was the best since last year’s offensive explosion. But the offense isn’t talking about it. The No. 9 defensive ranking? It’s what the club had yearned for during the Dick Vermeil era, but the defense is acting as if they expected it.

“We’re coming together,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “When one side of the ball needs to make a play, they make a play. We’ve always gotten along. But on the field, we’re playing off each other now.”

Edwards, who came to Kansas City in January aiming to lift the franchise into the postseason, was expected to make this a defensive-rooted team. That was supposed to be their identity. What he has on Nov. 5, at least by all outward indications, is what he really wanted.

“We’re a team,” Edwards said. “I don’t want to say we’re a defensive team because we’re not. We’re a football team.”

•••

They met on Monday, hours after the season-opening loss at Cincinnati, and Edwards said one expression permeated the room. Panic.

The Chiefs had lost Trent Green, their ironman quarterback who’d made 81 straight starts. Green lying unconscious on the grass for more than 10 minutes still weighed heavily in their minds. Damon Huard would be their quarterback, only Huard was inconsistent in camps before and hadn’t completed a pass in five years.

In six days, the Chiefs would play Denver at Invesco Field, a place they’d been humiliated for the better part of five years.

“Everybody panicked,” Edwards said. “And I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ Well, I’m going to get them focused and I’m going to give them a plan of how to beat Denver.

“That’s the thing I talked about the next day. I never even mentioned Trent’s name in the team meeting. I said, ‘Here’s the deal, here’s what we’re going to do to play Denver.’ And I started talking about Denver. It got them thinking about that, and then we kind of got going.”

If there was one moment that was a turning point to the first half of 2006, Edwards said it was that game, in the mountains, on a day the Chiefs left with a 9-6 overtime loss. The offense gained confidence in Huard, who would have the bye week to adjust to his role as a starter. And the Chiefs, who had relied on the NFL’s No. 1 offense for two years, realized they could lean on the defense.

Teams stacked against the run to stop Johnson, who went into the year with the hype of a possible 2,000-yard season. In Pittsburgh, he reached possibly the lowest moment in his NFL career, running for just 26 yards in 15 carries.

If Edwards calls Denver the turning point for the team, Hall says the week between Pittsburgh and San Diego was the seminal moment for the offense. With a 38-point loss fresh in their minds, the Chiefs played a Chargers defense that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Johnson ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and the Chiefs took a 30-27 win.

Around that same time, Solari decided to do something different. He called the entire offense in to watch film together.

“When we’re together in a group like that,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said, “Larry sees what blocking schemes work better, and we see what Larry likes.

“It works in the passing game, too. Damon will actually conduct some meetings as the quarterback. He’ll say, ‘This is what I’m reading when we get this coverage.’ We know what he’s seeing, and he knows what we’re thinking.”

•••

Solari’s promotion to offensive coordinator this winter came with little buzz. A former offensive line coach, he’s a Dodge Charger to Al Saunders’ Lamborghini, granite to last year’s glitz.

From the start of the season, Edwards promised that Solari would be much better in week eight than he would in week one. Last weekend’s win over the Seahawks was the stuff that would’ve made Saunders’ eyes light up.

Gonzalez, unhappy at times with his touches in the Saunders era, had his second straight 100-yard receiving day. He has developed a connection with Huard. He tells him to throw it high and he’ll stretch his 6-foot-5 body and catch it. At times, Gonzalez has looked like the old basketball star at Cal, and his enthusiasm has been collegian.

Gonzalez says the difference is Johnson because the running game opens up everything. No wait, he says, it’s the offensive line, a pieced-together unit that has finally established some continuity. Or maybe it’s Solari.

The Chiefs were facing fourth and 1 last weekend on the Seattle 34, and Edwards decided to go for it. He asked Solari to figure out the play he wanted. Solari asked what Edwards thought.

“What do you feel good about?” Edwards said.

Solari rattled off a couple of plays.

“Which one do you feel really good about?” Edwards said.

Solari called for a pass to Kris Wilson, a 17-yard completion.

“I just think he’s getting more comfortable,” Edwards said. “At times you can hear his confidence compared to the first game. He’s a whole different guy now. I can tell you that just on the phone.

“Now I can hear him hollering. And he was mad it took us three plays to score down there on the 2. We scored a touchdown, and he was mad. Why’d it take us three plays to score? He’s hollering that at the players. And I say, ‘Mike, they can’t hear you.’ ”

•••

Brian Waters always seems to be racing somewhere lately. He finally plopped down Friday, after the last practice, and shrugged over a question on team identity.

He doesn’t know whether football teams have one. Take last year, Waters says. The Chiefs’ stamp was their highfalutin offense. Waters was a Pro Bowl guard on that offense, and Kansas City had more numbers than a drunken frat boy’s black book. But they weren’t playing into January.

“The numbers will tell you this offense has been great over the years,” Waters said. “But if you look at it in the big games against good teams, we haven’t done that well. We want to be a consistent football team.

“I want to be a good football team. I want to have the same identity that people talk about when they talk about the New England Patriots, when they talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, teams that consistently go to the playoffs. None of those teams have been No. 1 at this or that. They just play good, solid football consistently, week in and week out. That’s something every player has kind of been jealous about with New England.”

Waters has a serious look on his face as the crowd disperses. For another couple of minutes, he goes on with his passionate rant. He says this game today against the Rams is huge because the Chiefs rarely seem to beat a good team on the road in November or December.

About 30 minutes later, Edwards said practically the same thing. He even used a Patriots reference. No, they haven’t completely found themselves. But they’re beginning to sound alike, and for Edwards, that’s harmony.

“I think we’re starting to become a physical team, and that’s good,” Edwards said. “They understand that it is a team, it all works in cohesion together. That’s how they see it’s heading. I think that’s how you win in this league.”
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Old 11-05-2006, 02:48 AM   #2
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...and Kansas City had more numbers than a drunken frat boy’s black book...
Whoa there, let's not get too metaphorical Elizabeth.
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Old 11-05-2006, 02:58 AM   #3
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I agree though, today could be a big day. I don't think a loss kills us, well it probably would force us to finish 8-0 to have a shot at the division, but a win would be huge. It's why we supposedly brought Herm here, was to win games like today. A win today could really help us run off a winning streak and a playoff run. It's also a chance for Huard to do something away from Arrowhead. Really a chance for everybody to do something away from Arrowhead.
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Old 11-05-2006, 03:03 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by tk13
I agree though, today could be a big day. I don't think a loss kills us, well it probably would force us to finish 8-0 to have a shot at the division, but a win would be huge. It's why we supposedly brought Herm here, was to win games like today. A win today could really help us run off a winning streak and a playoff run. It's also a chance for Huard to do something away from Arrowhead. Really a chance for everybody to do something away from Arrowhead.
Why do you think we have to finish 8-0 to win the division?
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Old 11-05-2006, 03:19 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Vanilla Thunder
Why do you think we have to finish 8-0 to win the division?
If we lose today? We'd be 4-4, with two teams ahead of us. I'd imagine it'd take 12-4 to win the division. Maybe not. I still think we have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. San Diego and Denver still have to play each other twice, among other tough games. I still think one or two of these "upper tier" teams is gonna collapse. Too many games against each other. Den/SD, Bal/Cincy both have to play twice, New England/Indy tonight. Cincy still has to play the Colts, Broncos, and Chargers... Jacksonville has to play Indy, NE and KC in the final month, etc, etc. They're all good teams, and I probably talk about the schedule too much, but they're all playing each other, somebody has to lose all these games. It's don't think it's going to be possible for all of them to go 13-3/12-4.
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Old 11-05-2006, 03:28 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by tk13
If we lose today? We'd be 4-4, with two teams ahead of us. I'd imagine it'd take 12-4 to win the division. Maybe not. I still think we have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. San Diego and Denver still have to play each other twice, among other tough games. I still think one or two of these "upper tier" teams is gonna collapse. Too many games against each other. Den/SD, Bal/Cincy both have to play twice, New England/Indy tonight. Cincy still has to play the Colts, Broncos, and Chargers... Jacksonville has to play Indy, NE and KC in the final month, etc, etc. They're all good teams, and I probably talk about the schedule too much, but they're all playing each other, somebody has to lose all these games. It's don't think it's going to be possible for all of them to go 13-3/12-4.
So you could see us making the playoffs, but not the division if we lose this game. That could be.
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Old 11-05-2006, 06:54 AM   #7
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"I want to be a good football team. I want to have the same identity that people talk about when they talk about the New England Patriots, when they talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, teams that consistently go to the playoffs. None of those teams have been No. 1 at this or that. They just play good, solid football consistently, week in and week out. That’s something every player has kind of been jealous about with New England.”

you and all Chiefs fans, Mr. Waters....and that's why CP replaced DV with Herm, and not AS....though I wanted AS at the time..

of course, if we lose today this article is meaningless...we're just another 8-8 team that can't win on the road...
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Old 11-05-2006, 06:58 AM   #8
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Old 11-05-2006, 08:16 AM   #9
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Around that same time, Solari decided to do something different. He called the entire offense in to watch film together.
I thought this was an interesting little tidbit.

It seems to have really helped the offense grow as a unit.
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