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Old 06-21-2009, 01:22 AM  
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Babb: As training camp approaches, Chiefs’ O-line answers seem far away

As training camp approaches, Chiefs’ O-line answers seem far away
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star

The Chiefs moved closer to training camp last week, and the team’s most pressing question is the same one it faced before offseason practice and, really, throughout the last two seasons: How reliable is the offensive line?

First-year coach Todd Haley acknowledged last week that he is uncertain of the line’s readiness, even after three months of organized team activities and a minicamp. Haley’s hesitation centers in part on the lack of physical contact between the offensive and defensive lines during the less demanding offseason practices, leaving coaches to measure only mental awareness and unchallenged technique.

But the Chiefs’ bigger problem is that their best offensive lineman, four-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters, hasn’t made it clear he’ll play in Kansas City this season, and that leaves a gaping hole in a unit that couldn’t afford even a small hiccup.

For now, Haley is praising players who attended the team’s voluntary practices — Waters and linebacker Mike Vrabel did not — and the men he’ll count on to act as leaders in a position group that, even with Waters available last year, lacked calming voices. Haley said last week that 12-year veteran guard Mike Goff has stepped in, and Goff will have to keep it up as the questions grow louder.

“An excellent offseason guy,” Haley said of Goff. “He could slack off if he wanted to. He has been full bore. He has run every gasser that we have run. He has done everything exactly the way we want.”

What the Chiefs don’t want is to begin another season leaning on a patchwork and aging group of linemen, particularly when the team is spending nearly $15 million to find out whether Matt Cassel can be its long-term quarterback. Last year, the Chiefs’ top two opening-day quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries, forcing the team to scramble to find a suitable passer by signing a pair of free agents before Tyler Thigpen emerged as a dependable, if inexperienced, option.

But none of the Chiefs’ quarterbacks in 2008 made Cassel’s expected ’09 salary, which is guaranteed, and the team will struggle to learn what it needs to about Cassel if he spends time this season on the injured list or compensating for an undependable line.

“We’ve done some things well,” center Rudy Niswanger said, “but we’re definitely not where we want to be.”

Haley commended left tackle Branden Albert as much as anyone during offseason practice, saying that Albert’s ceiling appears limitless. That is welcome news for a team without an abundance of continuity or perceived upside on its line.

The Chiefs signed a handful of linemen during the offseason and drafted tackle Colin Brown out of Missouri, but Goff is the only addition expected to enter training camp as a frontrunner to start.

Whether Goff plays left or right guard depends on how the Waters soap opera ends. Waters and Haley reportedly shared a fiery exchange in March, leading to Waters’ asking to be traded or released. Waters appeared at the Chiefs’ mandatory minicamp two weeks ago but did not extinguish talk of a lingering rift between the lineman and the team.

Waters, the Chiefs’ only remaining 2008 Pro Bowler, said he always skips voluntary workouts. He said that he hadn’t performed much conditioning work before the minicamp, and he indicated that he was uncertain about what might happen during the three months before the Chiefs’ regular-season opener.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” Waters said at the minicamp.

One of Waters’ former coaches has a prediction: The guard will be in the Chiefs’ lineup on opening day. Dick Vermeil was Kansas City’s coach when Waters made the team as an undrafted free agent out of North Texas in 2000. Vermeil watched for five seasons as Waters became an outstanding lineman and a frequent Pro Bowler. Vermeil said, knowing Waters, that the chaos will blow over, and that Haley and Waters will make peace before the season.

“I see him having a great year and going to the Pro Bowl as a Kansas City Chief and ending up buying in and being a leader,” said Vermeil, who coached Waters for four seasons. “It’ll just happen in a matter of time as he gains respect and they (coaches) gain respect for him.

“He’s not just some dumb offensive lineman. He’s a bright guy, and he will evaluate the whole process as it’s going along, and he’ll buy in. He’ll see that this is a good way.”

The Chiefs have less than six weeks to find out whether Vermeil’s instincts are right. Either way, they finished one important offseason phase no closer to knowing much about their offensive line.

“There’s an extremely long road ahead,” Niswanger said, “and a lot of work has to be done between now and then.”
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