Archive for Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Fly Route

January 12, 2006

The Chiefs took a step forward this week with the hiring of a solid head coach in Herman Edwards. That said, the goals of the organization and the dreams of Chiefs fans everywhere are still anchored next to impossible as Carl Peterson remains the man in charge of the team.

Kansas City will no doubt return a powerful offense in 2006 -- how could it not with Larry Johnson in the backfield? Still, I think Johnson, or rather his selection by Peterson in the 2003 NFL draft, is the heart of the Chiefs trouble.

I don't think Johnson's a bad running back. Obviously he proved himself with an incredible run through the second half of the season. Johnson showed he was worthy of a first-round choice, proved all his nay-sayers dead wrong and placed himself among the league's elite backfield options.

But the Chiefs could have done so much better with that first-round pick three years ago. Originally the 16th pick, Peterson and the Chiefs opted to trade down, packing their pick to Pittsburgh. Peterson recently told The Kansas City Star that he'd had his eye on Johnson the whole time, and after trading the pick to Pittsburgh, he was sure the Steelers would take the running back.

Not so fast.

The Steelers didn't take Johnson, and when Kansas City picked at No. 27, the bruising back from Penn State was still there for the taking.

At the time Peterson and the Chiefs caught a lot of criticism for the choice. A running back? The team had earned that initial No. 16 draft pick thanks to the league's worst defense. How was a running back to change that?

The pressure mounted for Peterson when Johnson struggled to even make the Sunday lineup for much of the 2003 season and it ratcheted up even more as the hot-tempered tailback feuded with Dick Vermeil.

Finally -- only after KC tried to ship Johnson off in a trade for defensive help -- the big man proved himself at the end of 2004 and all through the 2005 season.

So why do I think Peterson should not be let off the hook for that trade?

It comes down to what could have been. Peterson was "sure" Pittsburgh was going to pick Johnson at No. 16. Instead the Steelers felt they had to move up to grab Troy Polamalu, a safety from Southern California.

Turns out that was a pretty good idea. As the Steelers roasted Cincinnati Sunday in the first round of the playoffs, I couldn't help but wonder what Polamalu would look like in a Chiefs uniform.

He had a great game in the first round of the playoffs. He tallied six tackles, helped on one sack and grabbed a critical interception.

It was his third of the season. He had five picks last year.

Polamalu recently earned his second-consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl and was selected to his first All-Pro team Monday.

Polamalu brings everything the Chiefs needed that first season. He packs everything they needed in 2004, and everything they needed to make the difference in 2005, and it was all there for the taking in 2003.

He is a spirited defender who can administer a devastating blow or grab a key interception. In just his third season in the league, he's a major contributor on one of the league's best defenses.

Could anyone honestly imagine Polamalu serving Tiki Barber that silly pat-on-the-back tackle that Sammy Knight did as the Chiefs flushed their playoff hopes in a loss to the New York Giants?

If Polamalu's with the Chiefs in 2003, maybe he nabs one of Peyton Manning's passes in the playoff game. If he's there in 2004, maybe he inspires the defense with a huge hit in the first game of the season, preventing KC from sliding out of the playoffs before October had even begun. If he's with the Chiefs this year, maybe he doesn't bite on Dallas' oh-so-predictable flea-flicker or look like a Girl Scout chasing Barber and the Giants.

Sure Johnson's a great runner -- one of a kind -- but look through the league. Running backs are everywhere. New faces pop up every season, then are cut down just as quickly. A mediocre running back can still be effective. Pro Bowl safeties, they're a bit harder to find.

It was Peterson's decision, picking Johnson and trading away from Polamalu, and with Johnson's success, I'm sure the proud team president would tell you all about it. Until he's held responsible for that decision, the Chiefs will always be one win short.

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