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Michael Ash raises a pretty good point about Brian Waters
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|Last week, we peered into the Warpaint Illustrated crystal ball for a glimpse of what the future holds for some of KC’s defenders. This time we examine the offense.|
Which returning veterans will make an impact? Who will trend in the other direction? What about the new additions to the offense? Who will excite the masses or disappoint?
Veteran most likely to step up: Larry Johnson
When you think about it, Johnson’s situation with the Chiefs is similar to the circumstances Randy Moss and Corey Dillon found themselves in when they went to New England. Except instead of Scott Pioli bringing him to Kansas City in a trade, Johnson was already present when the new G.M. came to town.
When the Patriots acquired Moss and Dillon, both players – frequently criticized for their attitudes – understood it was time for them to shape up or ship out. In each case, the lure of winning a championship helped keep them in line.
For Johnson, the motives might be different, but the end result could be the same. After initially trying to orchestrate his way off the team, Johnson did a 180 several months ago and has been on his best behavior since. He might have bought into the changes the new regime has made, or – more likely – he’s realized no other team is going to pay him what he’s due to make on his current contract.
Either way, if the last few months are any indication, it appears Johnson plans to be a model teammate in 2009.
In Dillon’s first year with New England, he turned in the best season of his career, rushing for over 1,600 yards. After having the 27th ranked rushing attack in 2003, the Patriots rode Dillon to the league’s 7th best ground game in 2004.
In Moss’ first season as a Patriot, he posted the second-best yardage total of his career and gelled so well with Tom Brady he set an NFL single-season record with 23 touchdown receptions.
Going into a situation where they had no choice but to stay quiet, work hard, and focus on football, both malcontents re-established themselves as Pro Bowl caliber players and delivered top-flight performances. Perhaps the same can happen with Johnson.
A year ago, even as he complained that he was being phased out of the Chiefs’ offense, Johnson had a solid season. His yards-per-carry average was 4.5, his highest mark since 2005. While playing in the home confines of Arrowhead Stadium, he actually averaged a massive 5.6 yards per carry.
Johnson also rebounded from his foot injury by – for the first time in his career – breaking off three runs of more than 45 yards in the same season. That stat includes the longest run of his career, a 65-yard burst against Denver last September.
If a more disciplined and focused Johnson can build on the foundation he set a year ago, he could end up playing a much bigger role in the offense than people seem to expect.
Veteran most likely to slow down: Brian Waters
Todd Haley made an interesting statement in his final OTA press conference. He said the Chiefs will have to pass a conditioning test before they’re cleared to participate in training camp.
As we know, Haley has been stressing the importance of conditioning since offseason practices began, bringing about a total team weight loss of over 300 pounds. It’s safe to say that many of the players on the Chiefs’ roster are in better shape now than they were at this point of the year during previous seasons.
All that leads to an interesting situation with Waters, who has been absent from every team workout except the brief three-day mandatory minicamp. In his own words, the Pro Bowl guard has been doing what he needs to “maintain” his conditioning, but he admits he can’t work out by himself at the same intense level the team has adopted.
The problem with that is twofold. First, Waters’ efforts to “maintain” are surely based on what the acceptable levels were under the previous regime. Haley, quite obviously, has a whole new set of standards. What Waters considers “in shape” may be a far cry from what his new coach expects.
Second, while Waters acknowledged a need to step up his workouts before training camp, how motivated is someone in his situation actually going to be? He’s already admitted the difficulty of working out at such intense levels on his own. Is someone at-odds with the front office really going to devote himself full-time to that kind of regimen?
The bottom line is this: what’s going to happen when it’s Waters’ turn to take the pre-camp conditioning test?
If he’s able to pass, it would be a major statement about his commitment. But if he can’t, is he going to be on the sideline, working on conditioning drills while the rest of the team lines up and practices?
Because of his decision to skip the offseason workouts, Waters is already facing a situation where he’s a step behind the rest of his teammates. As they continue to work and improve their conditioning, it will be nearly impossible for him to catch up. The farther that division spreads, the more of an issue it could become.
With the exception of that three-day minicamp, the offensive line has already been without Waters for the entire offseason. Having that absence spill over into training camp is not in anyone’s best interest.
Addition most likely to impress: Bobby Engram
As a top-notch route runner with great hands, Engram spent the last several years playing a Tony Gonzalez-like role for Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle. When Hasselbeck needed a first down, he generally looked Engram’s way. When his number was called, Engram would make difficult catches in traffic, take big hits, then hop up and walk right back into the huddle.
Gonzalez is now in Atlanta, which makes it imperative for someone on the Chiefs’ roster to step up and become the new safety blanket. This will be particularly important on third down, as a year ago Gonzalez made 24 chain-moving catches on third down plays – the third highest total of anyone in the league.
Engram has been making those kinds of catches his entire career. He’ll line up as KC’s slot receiver this year, and that in itself is significant. After playing with Wes Welker a year ago in New England, Matt Cassel is used to having a reliable bail-out option in the slot. It shouldn’t be surprising if Engram ends up as one of Cassel’s favorite targets.
Certainly, though, no one expects Engram’s production to come close to Welker’s, or even close to the numbers Engram himself put up two years ago in Seattle (94 catches, 1,147 yards, six touchdowns). But since he doesn’t draw the sort of attention from a defense that players like Gonzalez and Welker do, he should have the opportunity to make a few big plays now and then.
If Engram can keep himself off the trainer’s table – a valid concern for any 36-year old – he has the chance to make Gonzalez’s departure less painful. That will endear him to Chiefs fans in no time.
Addition most likely to disappoint: Matt Cassel
Cassel wins this dubious honor mostly by default. Clearly, expectations are much higher for him than they are for Mike Goff, who – apart from Engram – is the only other new addition. With high expectations comes a greater chance of letting people down.
But if we were singling out the offensive player in general that’s most likely to disappoint, Cassel would still get the nod.
It’s just the unfortunate reality of the situation he faces. Cassel joins an offense that, with the departure of Gonzalez, has taken a step back. He’ll have a modest collection of offensive weapons and an offensive line that has struggled in recent years. It’s going to take a host of things falling into place for him to have a realistic chance at success.
Targets other than Dwayne Bowe have to emerge in the passing game. The offensive line, particularly Damion McIntosh and Rudy Niswanger, must improve. The playcalling has to keep defenses guessing, particularly in the second half when – week after week – last year’s offense would slow to a crawl. If these things don’t happen, it will be rough for Cassel.
It may not be fair for Cassel to bear the blame for those problems, since they’ve been in place long before he stepped foot in Kansas City. But that’s the nature of the position he plays. No doubt, many will expect him to strap the team on his back and carry them to success despite those issues, and they’ll hold it against him if he doesn’t.
Next Week: the 2009 season