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Roster Rehabilitation

Posted Jan 6, 2011

Kansas City's roster has undergone a dramatic shift since playing the Ravens last season

Exactly how have the Chiefs gone from the 4-12 team that kicked off the Todd Haley era with a 38-24 loss in Baltimore last season, to a 10-6 division champion preparing to host the Ravens in a playoff game 16 months later?

There are a lot of reasons for the Chiefs rapid rise, but we can probably use THIS as a starting point.

You saw that correctly. Brodie Croyle connects with Sean Ryan (pictured above) to tie the Ravens at 24-24 with just over five minutes to play.

Or maybe THIS is a good place to begin.

That 50-yard hookup with Mark Bradley set the Chiefs up for a game-tying field goal on the series prior to Ryan’s score. Neither player on the receiving end of Croyle's passes made it to the 2010 offseason.

There are loads of plays like those from last year’s Chiefs/Ravens Week One matchup. In total, 13 players who started that game for the Chiefs are either (a) no longer with the team, or (b) no longer serving in a starting capacity.

Heck, barring a signing this week, seven of the Chiefs starters from that 2009 opener were out of football all-together in 2010 (Bradley, S Mike Brown, RB Larry Johnson, RG Mike Goff, RT Ikechuku Ndukwe, Ryan and DT Tank Tyler). Five of those starters were on the offensive side of the football, including the entire right side of the offensive line.

“It takes time and it takes work, but you set your expectations, you let the players know what’s expected of them and how we’re going to do things, and now, we’re two years into that process,” Coach Todd Haley said. “So, we made progress throughout last year, we made progress throughout a second offseason together, we’ve continued to bring in personnel upgrades that creates competition at as many positions as we can, and we’re making progress. We’re not there yet, but we are making progress.”

At its most basic beginnings, Kansas City’s two-season progression has been defined by a shift in its core players. Whether that change came in the middle of last season or at the end of this year’s training camp doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Chiefs are a dramatically different football team than the one that lined up against Baltimore 16 months ago.

Ray Lewis started that 2009 season opener at Mike linebacker for Baltimore, just as he has done for the better parts of 15 seasons, and has taken notice of the striking shift in Kansas City’s personnel over the last year.

The rise of Matt Cassel (who didn’t play in that game due to injury) and luring free agent Thomas Jones to mentor a budding star in Jamaal Charles are the first things that came to Lewis’ mind. He went on to note that the Chiefs have surprised the league due to the evolution of their young talent.

“If you look at their team, they are built to get something started over there,” the 35-year old Lewis said. “They are a sleeper team in the bracket that nobody had really even thought about and they came out (of the AFC West). But they did come out and it’s because of the young talent that they do have. When you sit back and watch them, they are talented across the board.”

While the Chiefs have changed drastically since September 13, 2009, the Ravens have continued to be the Ravens. It’s the tale of two franchises: one that is trying to arrive and one that has already landed.

Baltimore has undergone little change to the starters it marched out against Kansas City that day. The majority of former starters no longer playing significant snaps for the Ravens this season have found themselves on injured reserve this season; not on the streets of NFL free agency.

The Ravens are established. They’re a team that generally doesn’t need trickery or an altered game plan to beat opponents. They have built a Raven brand of football and, since John Harbaugh has taken over as head coach, that’s led to a lot of winning.

“For the most part, they do what they do, as the saying goes,” Haley said. “You can expect a strong running attack. I think for them as far as a unique skill player they do a good job of utilizing, and defensively, they are what they are which is a good a defense centered by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs. They just keep coming and they pride themselves on that, and that they’re going to win on defense most weeks.”

“What you see on film is that they’re a big physical team, they have an outstanding front seven,” Cassel added. “They’re an outstanding defense, and they’re the best defense we have seen at this point. We are excited about playing.”

In many ways, the Ravens represent the type of team that the Chiefs are striving to be – a team with an established identity who consistently competes for championships.

For the third consecutive season Baltimore has finished among the NFL’s top-three in fewest yards allowed and they’ve finished in the top-10 in total defense for the last eight seasons. They’re also one of only two teams (alongside Indianapolis) to have three players register at least 60 catches and RB Ray Rice has produced the third-most yards from scrimmage this year (159 yards behind second-ranked Jamaal Charles).

The Ravens are a proven commodity. It’s why they’re road favorites as they head to Kansas City this weekend.

“You can’t look into the media and look into the papers and look into the news,” LB Derrick Johnson said. “The Ravens have had a lot of success in the playoffs, and we haven’t. We haven’t been here lately. So, sure, they’re going to be favored, but that’s football. That’s why we play the game. We respect them a lot, so they should be [favored].”

At 12-4, the Ravens offer an excellent opportunity for the Chiefs to measure their organization progression and young talent against one of the most veteran-laced, upper-echelon teams in football. The test will take place under the national spotlight for added effect. Baltimore’s four losses this season have averaged a four-point margin and come against three teams with playoff byes (New England, Pittsburgh and Atlanta).

Baltimore is one of the best and the Chiefs are a relatively unknown commodity. As Lewis said, the Chiefs are a sleeper; a new team in the field that’s taken many by surprise this season.

But there’s something certain about this team when it comes to playing Baltimore as well. This is a much different Chiefs team that the one that the Ravens faced last season.

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