There won’t be many arguments that in year one under GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey that there is a lot of work left to be done to get Buffalo’s roster where the decision makers would like it to be. In the midst of a winless season the payoff is unlikely to come this season, but not many undertakings forged the right way provide instant gratification.
Nix has said more than once that the situation in which the Bills find themselves will not be fixed overnight. But if one looks at where the Kansas City Chiefs were around this time two seasons ago it wasn’t all that different from where the Bills sit now.
“They hadn’t been to the playoffs for a while and they were trying to change some mindsets,” said Bills head coach Chan Gailey. “That was one of the biggest challenges. They’ve done a good job of getting their team to where it is today. We’ve got that same challenge to turn the mindset around and to have an opportunity to go win a championship.”
Entering Week 8 of the 2008 season the Chiefs, under then head coach Herm Edwards, were 1-6 with a very winnable home game against Tampa Bay. They would lose, in overtime, 30-27.
Much like the 2010 Bills they had to make a change at quarterback early in the season and their defense struggled to stop anyone ranking 31st overall, 30th against the run and 29th in points allowed in 2008.
Their offense, after starting slow, began to produce points on a weekly basis beginning in Week 7, which started a stretch in which the Chiefs scored 20 points or more in five of their next six games under the guidance of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.
They had a dynamic rookie tailback with breakaway speed in Jamaal Charles, who would play a complementary role to a veteran back in Larry Johnson. They had some talent at the skill positions and a rookie left tackle with tons of promise in Branden Albert.
The roster however, was far from complete and in the end the Chiefs finished a dismal 2-14, which was bested only by the winless season of the Detroit Lions (0-16) and matched by the St. Louis Rams (2-14).
Drafting third overall, Kansas City, which had landed five starters with their 2008 draft class, aimed to address some key holes in 2009. The Chiefs addressed their forthcoming switch to the 3-4 defensive front taking LSU DE Tyson Jackson with the third overall pick and traded their second-round pick to New England for QB Matt Cassel and veteran OLB Mike Vrabel. They also landed their kicker with their last pick in the draft in Ryan Succop.
Winners like Cassel and Vrabel were entrusted with changing the losing culture that existed at Arrowhead for the better part of the past decade as the Chiefs had just one more winning season in that time span than the Bills.
“I think it was just understood that that was part of what I was going to try to bring to Kansas City,” said Vrabel. “Just like everybody else I was doing my part and trying to prepare each week and do the things that help you win on Sunday.”
Cassel, who would lead the offense, had proven himself on an NFL field stepping in for an injured Tom Brady in New England for the final 15 games of the 2009 season, but he struggled to adjust in year one of Todd Haley’s offensive scheme. Kansas City would be marginally better than they were a year prior compiling a 4-12 record and for a third straight season would draft in the top five the following spring.
But in the last month of that 2009 campaign the team committed to finishing strong even though the postseason was no longer in the picture.
“I think we built off of the way we finished last year,” Vrabel said of their start here in 2010. “We had a really good December. When everything was lost and we kind of started over and Todd did a great job of saying, ‘This is the fourth quarter of our season and our season is going to be over, but the way that we finish this season is going to go a long way to how we do next year and who we do it with.’ I think guys took that to heart with the way we played.”
Prior to the 2010 draft the Chiefs added a pair of proven veterans to their offensive line in Casey Wiegmann (Denver) and Ryan Lilja (Indianapolis) and signed veteran tailback Thomas Jones to fortify their rushing attack following the departure of Johnson.
Chiefs’ GM Scott Pioli then took an aggressive approach to the 2010 draft, making six trades, which included moving TE Tony Gonzalez, QB Tyler Thigpen and DT Tank Tyler off their roster. In exchange Kansas City had stockpiled four picks in the top 70 selections and five in the top 95.
The Chiefs focused on the skill positions putting a premium on speed drafting SS Eric Berry, WR Dexter McCluster and CB Javier Arenas with their first three picks. Future starting guard Jon Asamoah and TE Tony Moeaki were both taken in round three.
“Our focus number one was getting good football players in here,” said Haley. “Number two was getting the right kind of guys in here and that’s dependable people on the field and off the field. Then speed was another area that our team had some deficiencies in in my opinion.”
Four of their top five draft choices have roles as rookies with McCluster and Arenas already showing game breaking ability on offense and special teams respectively. Moeaki is also beginning to emerge in Kansas City’s passing game.
The collective efforts of the past two seasons and offseasons have built Kansas City into a promising player in the AFC West as they currently sit atop the division with a 4-2 record. The Chiefs are the number one rushing team in football and their run defense, which ranked among the league’s worst two seasons ago is now sixth best in the NFL. But in no way does Haley believe the Chiefs have arrived.
“Right now we’re simply a team that hasn’t been a very good team trying to transition into a good team and that’s where we are,” he said.
All NFL GMs have different models as to how to turn a franchise around, but Kansas City’s blueprint does not appear all that different from that of Buddy Nix’s as he rebuilds a Buffalo franchise back into a contender.
“I understood and saw the pain and suffering and saw how difficult it is to change a lot of young men’s thought processes,” said Haley in addressing his team’s unsuccessful past. “And that’s really the difficult part. When you’re trying to change somebody’s ways that are pretty comfortable, that’s not fun. Change is not fun. Change is not pleasant for anybody. That part of it was the most difficult for sure and right now I’m grateful that we’re through that portion of the foundation laying.
“As the good teams have shown through the years is to just stay the course, to not waver and to have a plan. We’re making progress and that’s the name of the game.”
Just watching what the Bills are putting on tape in year one under Gailey, the Chiefs can see a Buffalo team trying to travel the same path they were on just a year ago.
“They’re trying to do that,” said Vrabel. “They’re trying to change their culture. They’re doing it each week. This is a team that’s fighting taking the Patriots down to the end, taking the Ravens down to the end. Just continuing to play, continuing to fight and I know with that kind of attitude and that kind of resilience it’ll get turned around.”