The Fly Route
I'm not sure the National Football League's AFC West division has ever been beset by so many questions.
Each of the division's four teams face crucial and potentially fatal problems heading into the first week of the NFL season, and I'll do my best to figure out what's going to happen.
The Kansas City Chiefs may be facing more questions than anyone else. Fans seem divided on what needs to be worried about the most -- an aging offense that may or may not still possess the explosive power it had in years past, or a defense that seems to spring new leaks faster than management can find free agents to plug holes.
I think the offense is where the worry is best spent.
The talk for the last two years has been all about if or when the offense would finally grow too old to blow past the rest of the NFL. I don't think Father Time will prove the problem, though I think a new coaching staff will. Herman Edwards was a great hire and will be a good coach, but losing Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders, the local masterminds behind KC's dazzling attack will prove more of a problem then losing either offensive lineman Willie Roaf or Trent Green's last brown hair.
Maybe Mike Solari will some day be a legitimate offensive coordinator in the league, but the jump from offensive line coach to offense coordinator is a big one and one I don't expect him to make seamlessly. Without Vermeil or Saunders around to help with the transition, I think the going will be slow for the Chiefs in the season's first weeks. The offense of years past wasn't ever made up of many superstars. Green has forever flown under the radar at quarterback, KC hasn't had a great receiver since Prohibition and I'll be forever convinced Priest Holmes was a quality back, but in the long run, a system back.
Larry Johnson is strong enough to still get his yards, but I can't see the rest of the system staying in place now that the string have been removed. The Chiefs offensive players didn't exist in a vacuum, and I think in the end, that's what will define KC's season, not the defense.
The San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, have the task of replacing one of their top players and team leaders. I've been a Drew Brees believer -- believer, not fan -- since I saw him riddle a great Kansas State defense in the 1998 Alamo Bowl.
I also have been a Philip Rivers fan since he lit up an average Kansas defense in the 2003 Tangerine Bowl. Still, I'm not convinced Rivers' ascension to the starting quarterback position will be easy. It certainly wasn't for Brees, who struggled during his first few years. Rivers has a better group around him than Brees did early on, but I don't think he'll be able to lead the Chargers to more wins than they had in 2005, thus leaving the Bolts again out of the playoffs.
I have a lot of questions about the Denver Broncos. I see the potential to be the division's best team, but I also see several chinks in the armor that could spell trouble.
First, I don't know that Jake Plummer can do it again. He was magnificent through much of the 2005 season and I didn't really blame much of the AFC Championship loss on him. He doesn't have to be better than he was. He doesn't have to be better than up-and-comer Jay Cutler. Plummer just has to be the same.
I also am not totally sold on Denver's defense. Champ Bailey is, of course, the best cornerback in the league, but the Broncos got rid of Trevor Price because he didn't pick up enough sacks last season. These types of moves often work well for the Broncos, but I'm not sold on this one. Price rarely sacked the quarterback, but he seemed to constantly pressure the quarterback.
Denver lived and died on the all-out blitz through much of the season and it often paid off big. When the rushers couldn't reach the quarterback before he got rid of the ball, Bailey or Denver's other corners were often able to break up passes or grab key interceptions. This always had the potential for disaster, but Price seemed to cause enough problems even without actually forcing sacks that I thought he was worth the price. Maybe a new look will result in more sacks, but I'm not sure it will result in more mayhem, and that was the real secret of Denver's success.
There's more than one or two questions for the Oakland Raiders. Is Aaron Brooks actually good? Do they have any people that like to tackle? Does their existence remove the AFC West from any "Best division in the league" talk? Do the rest of the West teams actually have to travel all the way to Oakland, or can they just take their win and save the gas?
Really though, Oakland was bad last year and didn't do anything to make me think they'll be better. Brooks is a nice pickup, but he needs a lot more supporting parts than he'll find in Oakland. Oakland may be better than it was a year ago, but it no doubt still belongs at the bottom of any list.
As for my prediction for the season -- I'll take the game that will make everyone want to stab their eyes and ears out, the New York Giants against the Indianapolis Colts. It'll be all-Manning, all-day and not a soul across the nation will love it.