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On The Job Training

Posted Jan 4, 2011

Perennial playoff participants join the Chiefs in the AFC's playoff picture

Parity reigns supreme year-in and year-out in the NFL. Nothing proves it more than playoff time.

For the 15th consecutive season, at least five teams qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before. That’s roughly 50% turnover in title contenders from year to year. The Chiefs, of course, are one of five newbies to join the party in 2011.

A Wild Card Weekend matchup between the Chiefs and Ravens will not only be the first postseason game played at the New Arrowhead, but it will also mark the first for playoff experience for more than 60% of Kansas City’s roster.

Yes, the Chiefs really are that “young, developing team” that you’ve been hearing about throughout the better part of the past six months.

“We are a young and energized football team,” veteran G Brian Waters said. “I think, at the end of the day, we are definitely the Wild Card. When you look at the other guys who have made it, like Indianapolis, you’re talking about perennial playoff teams. We’re the team the really nobody really knows.”

Of the AFC’s six postseason qualifiers, only the Chiefs and Steelers failed to receive playoff invitations a year ago. Pittsburgh, however, won the entire show just two years ago.

While parity is certainly present, it’s the NFC that’s seeing the most turnover at the moment. The resurgent Chiefs find themselves surrounded in an AFC playoff field that’s filled with recurrent contenders.

For Kansas City, just 21 players have postseason experience and the franchise hasn’t hosted a postseason game since 2003.

“This is a team that hasn’t been in this situation in a while, hasn’t won a bunch of postseason games in a while, if any in a long time,” head coach Todd Haley said. “(In Arizona), we were in that situation with a team that didn’t have postseason experience, but yet we had some key guys on that team that were able to get that message out there and help a lot of guys that had never been in that situation understand how to function, how to do things and that was a big part of us making the run that we did and almost really, truly shocking the world.”

Waters is one of those 21 players, but like the majority of those who have played in Kansas City, Waters’ playoff roots don’t run deep. Waters and fellow offensive lineman Casey Wiegmann have spent the most of their respective careers with the Chiefs and have combined to play in 372 regular season games. As for playoff experience, Waters and Wiegmann have only made two postseason appearances a piece.

That’s generally the way things stack up across the Chiefs roster. Very few players have seen extensive playoff action. You’re either a veteran with 1-2 playoff games under your belt, or you’re a young player who’s never been to the tournament.

For the sake of championship inexperience, it’s easy to see why the Chiefs were attracted bringing veteran players like Mike Vrabel, Thomas Jones and Ryan Lilja to town. The trio combines to produce over 66% of the Chiefs playoff starts and Vrabel individually owns over 25% team’s playoff experience.

From top to bottom, the Chiefs roster totals 74 games of playoff experience. That tally includes everything from Dustin Colquitt’s one game of punting to Matt Cassel’s four appearances as a holder. All things considered, Vrabel accounts for 19 of the Chiefs 74 playoff games.

This is a team without much postseason lumber.

“At this point, there are a lot of things that we don’t have experience in as a football team,” said Waters. “We are a young football team. I think what we’ve been able to do is handle things as they’ve come. We’ve been able to get off to a good start to the season; we’ve handled having a couple of rough patches and we’ve been able to bounce back from a couple of losses.

“We’ve done a lot of things to bounce back from different situations,” Waters continued. “The great thing about this is that it puts pressure on us being that we know it’s a one-game season.”

Sometimes ignorance can be a valuable asset. Maybe that’s the case for the Chiefs with so many first through third-year players playing in critical gameday roles. There aren’t any preconceived notions heading into adverse situations and there’s been a load of on-the-job training throughout the year.

Maybe a youthful ignorance is one of the reasons that the Chiefs have been able to bounce back multiple times this season following disappointing performances?

“We had to deal with a number of difficult losses, tough losses,” Haley said. “That’s part of how you grow as a team and develop as a team.”

The inexperience factor will be highlighted all week leading up to kickoff; really, it’s what’s most interesting about this Sunday’s Wild Card matchup. Actually, it’s what’s most interesting about the Chiefs spot in the playoffs as a whole.

There is such a stark contrast in playoff experience between the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC contenders. Baltimore ranks right up there with some of the league’s most experienced.

Joe Flacco has quarterbacked the Ravens into the playoffs in each of his three seasons under center and won three road playoff games over that span as well. Throw players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Derrick Mason into the picture and the Ravens postseason experience continues to grown almost exponentially.

Though unable to match the depth of Baltimore’s postseason familiarity, the Chiefs do have a playoff-rich coaching staff and a handful of veterans who carry a powerful locker room presence. Every team has to start somewhere when it comes to building postseason maturity.

Why not the Chiefs? Why not now?

“The fact that we’re not an experienced football team hurts us, but it also helps us in the fact that nobody knows us,” Waters said. “We’ve played but one team out of that entire (AFC) group this year. A lot of those other teams have played each other routinely in the playoffs and we’re really the only one that doesn’t have a playoff history with anybody. We’re definitely a wild card.”

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