Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs: A tale of two teams

Redskins RB Clinton Portis carries the ball during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Oct. 18, 2009, in Landover. (Photo: Associated Press)

Let’s continue a bit longer with our discussion from Tuesday: Why the Redskins Still Aren’t Very Good.

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Long story short

Both were 4-12 last season. But only one of them has a playoff-caliber look this season.

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I’ve found myself thinking about the Kansas City Chiefs a lot lately. You remember the Chiefs, don’t you? They came into FedEx Field a year ago with an 0-5 record and left with a 14-6 victory, one of many Uh-Oh Moments for the 2009 Redskins.

(The Chiefs’ top rusher in that game, with 83 yards, was Larry Johnson. Name ring a bell? But we’ll deal with him in due course.)

The Redskins and Chiefs both finished the season 4-12. The Redskins even picked one spot ahead of the Chiefs in the draft (fourth to Kansas City’s fifth). But here they are, 11 games later, and the Redskins are 5-6 and all but out of the NFC playoff picture, while K.C. is 7-4 and in first place in the AFC West.

How’d THAT happen? Why don’t we take a closer look and see if we can figure it out? 

In a way, you’re talking about two parallel universes here in terms of how they approach team building. The Redskins, on Dan Snyder’s watch, have been your classic live-for-today team, and the Chiefs, under general manager Scott Pioli, are trying to put together something more lasting. Granted, Pioli got started a season earlier than Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan did, but does anyone really envision the Redskins being 7-4 a year from now and – here’s the best part – leading the NFL in rushing with an average of 174.3 yards a game (26.2 more than anybody else)? Just to refresh your memory, the Redskins are currently 26th in the league in that department at 90.7 yards, barely half of K.C.’s total.

Anyway, when Pioli came over from the Patriots in 2008, his first big move was to trade a No. 2 draft choice for a quarterback – just as the Redskins did this offseason. He opted for 26-year-old Matt Cassel, who had filled in fabulously for injured Tom Brady in New England the year before. Allen and Shanahan, of course, spent their second-rounder on 33-going-on-34 Donovan McNabb, a guy they hoped could write a John Elway/Rich Gannon/Billy Kilmer-type ending to his career.

The results are just beginning to filter in, but Cassel is now the fourth-rated passer in the NFL, has a touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 22-4 and may well have his best seasons ahead of him. McNabb, on the other hand, is the 27th-rated quarterback in the league – and would probably be happy to make it to the New Year behind his leaky line.

This brings us to the second point of departure between the Chiefs and Redskins: how successfully they’ve retooled their offensive lines since last season. K.C. lost right guard Wade Smith in free agency (he’s now clearing the way for Arian Foster in Houston) and also decided to demote center Rudy Niswanger, who came to them as an undrafted free agent in 2006. To replace the two, Pioli brought in Ryan Lilja, the starting right guard for the Colts in the last Super Bowl, and Casey Wiegmann, the 37-year-old center, most recently for the Broncos. (FYI: Wiegmann went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2008, Shanahan’s last season in Denver.)

The upshot of this maneuvering is that the Chiefs are running the ball as well as they ever have. They’ve even managed to weather a couple of injuries – first to right tackle Ryan O’Callaghan (a waiver-wire pickup from the Pats) and then to left tackle Branden Albert (one of their No. 1 picks in ’08). They simply plugged in Barry Richardson (an ’08 sixth-rounder) at O’Callaghan’s position, and then, when Albert got hurt, shifted Richardson to the other side and reinstalled O’Callaghan (now healthy).

Contrast that with the Redskins’ overhaul of their O-line. Jammal Brown, coming off hip surgery, has been problematic at right tackle, and Artis Hicks and Kory Lichtensteiger have been nothing special at the two guards. And naturally, the team hasn’t been able to fall back on its depth when guys have gotten hurt because, well, it hardly HAS any depth – due, as much as anything, to the trading of too many draft choices, to Living Too Much in the Moment.
So you have the Chiefs reworking their offensive line and getting better, and you have the Redskins, in the same offseason, reworking their offensive line and NOT getting better (though top pick Trent Williams has real prospects for the future). Swell.

Finally, both clubs wanted to add running back help after last year – and both, interestingly, went in the same direction. The Chiefs signed veteran Thomas Jones after Jets let him go, and Redskins scooped up Larry Johnson and Willie Parker, two other available thirtysomethings.

When a back reaches a certain age, it’s hard to predict how much longer he’s got, but Jones was clearly the best of the three gambles. After all, he rushed for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, both career highs, and, freakishly, had shown no signs of slowing down. Johnson and Parker, on the other hand, had been in and out of the body shop and looked like they might be on their final tank of gas.

You know how it turned out. Larry and Willie couldn’t cut it, while Jones has been a terrific complement to young Jamaal Charles. And even though he hasn’t been getting as many carries as before, Thomas is still on pace for 1,036 yards, giving the Chiefs a chance at two 1,000-yard rushers. (Charles already has 1,021, ranking him second in the league.)

Something to think about when you’re apportioning the blame for what’s happened to the Redskins. It’s just not about Cerrato’s Crummy Players or the inability of McNabb to lift the offense on his shoulder pads. It’s not nearly as simple as that. There were plenty of personnel decisions made that, in retrospect, wouldn’t win anybody any prizes, certainly not NFL Executive of the Year.

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