The future is now for AFC West clubs

The AFC West is a division that boasts 52 years of head coaching experience among the four head coaches. Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Shanahan, Dick Vermeil and Norv Turner also have 435 victories between them, and mostly, they try and get it done with offense. When you realize that if Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis and his 84 points scored was in this division last year, he would have been the fourth-leading scorer in the division behind running backs Priest Holmes (162), LaDainian Tomlinson (102) and Clinton Portis (86). Suffice to say, there is some serious scoring going on here.

The Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos are built to win now. Older veterans, quarterbacks with credentials and some of the top scorers in the NFL come from the AFC West. Tomlinson and Holmes may be the two most complete backs in the NFL. Last year Portis was the final piece of the trisect in scoring leaders in the AFC. Portis was traded to Washington for cornerback Champ Bailey this past offseason, and that raises two important points about the conference: Can Denver stay up with the powerful Kansas City offense or will they slip back into the pack? And, has there been an exodus of talent from the AFC West that has weakened them beyond repair?

Besides Portis, gone are receivers David Boston, Ed McCaffrey, tight end Shannon Sharpe, running back Charlie Garner, offensive tackle John Tait, punter Darren Bennett, and defensive players Eric Barton, Bill Romanowski, Bert Berry, Ian Gold, Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson (among others). Sure the West talent pool was hit hard, but there are some fine additions too. Defensive tackles Ted Washington and Warren Sapp joined the Raiders and hopefully can stop their opponents from running over them. Kerry Collins, Amos Zereoue, Troy Hambrick and Ron Stone were brought in to beef up the Oakland offense as well. Denver counters with Bailey and John Lynch on defense.

As I said, besides the Chargers, the others are built to win now with older veterans. Can all three teams make the playoffs or will one or two be left behind to answer the questions about signing older veterans with an eye on the present and not the future? Two could get to the postseason, but which teams will be left out in a division where 10 wins may not be enough to make it as a wild card?

Before I attempt to answer that question, I pose these five questions to be answered as I dig down into the rosters, schedules, and issues for all these teams:

  1. Will the massive Oakland overhaul pull the team out of the 4-12 doldrums of 2003 and put them back into the playoffs?
  1. Is the loss of Portis, Sharpe and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs going to put too much pressure on Jake Plummer to perform at a very high level for the Broncos to go deep into the playoffs?
  1. Will new Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham make much of a difference?
  1. Can San Diego actually put rookie quarterback Philip Rivers on the field this year with the Chargers O-line?
  1. Have the Chargers made a tactical error leaving the kicking and punting duties to unproven players with Dante Hall and Philip Buchanon in the division?

Let's take a close look at each team and attempt to answer these and other questions.

Denver

The Broncos have steadily increased their winning over the past three years, but now they face higher expectations without Portis. Well, at least they have a 6-2 home-field advantage and were 5-1 in the conference last year to lean on, but a number of issues have to be resolved. Plummer is better than many observers thought he would be, but Portis and Sharpe combined for 16 touchdowns in the divisional games. I don't believe Garrison Hearst and any Broncos tight end can deliver that kind of production. Plummer's blindside may be his left, but he makes a living executing the bootleg pass to his right. Second-year tackle George Foster, with no starting experience, will start at right tackle, which will create a "pressure point." Plummer was 9-2 as the starter but the 41-10 loss to the Colts in the playoffs raised questions about the defensive personnel and drove Shanahan to extreme spending business. Bailey and Lynch are Broncos as well as a host of older players. As for Bailey, he's an excellent player but teams can throw the other way, and that means third-year player Lenny Walls has to improve. Lynch is going to have to help on Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught nine balls for 120 yards and a touchdown last year against the Broncos. The Broncos also need to do a better job in the turnover ratio, where they finished up minus-4 last season, and nothing is more glaring than their nine pickoffs, worst in the NFL last year. Lynch and Bailey only had two each in 2003 and linebacker Ian Gold, second on the team last year with two interceptions, is now in Tampa Bay, so there has to be a team improvement.

Finally, can Denver move to 11 wins and the division title? It's going to be tough with valuable line coach Alex Gibbs now in Atlanta and a committee of running backs expected to fill the 1,905-yard void left by Portis. If Plummer gets hurt, the depth at quarterback leaves the Broncos in a world of hurt. Last year, the Broncos went on a three-game losing streak when Plummer was sidelined, and this year it would be more of the same. Denver will be in the hunt until the end of the season but its last three games against Kansas City (away), Tennessee (away) and Indianapolis (home) will hold its fate.

Kansas City

The Chiefs won 13 games and were relatively inactive in the offseason. They decided to let Tait leave and replaced him with Chris Bober from the Giants. NFL insiders felt it was a good move not to spend the money to retain him, but time will tell. Vermeil and company are going to make a second run at the Super Bowl with the same cast of characters and hope the defense plays better under new coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Say what you will about the 2003 Chiefs defense, but the unit got the ball back for the offense 37 times -- third best in the NFL. They Chiefs were exceptional in the secondary, where the starting four players -- Eric Warfield, William Bartee, Dexter McCleon and Jerome Woods -- combined for 19 interceptions, tops in the AFC for a starting secondary. I'm sure the Chiefs hope to match that number this year and I'm sure they're happy Portis is gone too. Last year, Portis rushed 52 times for 474 yards and six touchdowns against the Chiefs. Better than coming up for a plan for Portis is the fact he will not line up against them.

Kansas City boasts an excellent home-field advantage (8-0 in 2003) and a 5-1 division record that must continue in 2004. That 8-0 record will be tested this year when the Patriots and Panthers come to town. They also scored over 40 points five times last year and the Chiefs defense is going to need that kind of production once again if the division title is within reach again. What the Chiefs offense has is a classic conflict down in the red zone, which makes it almost impossible to stop them. They can split Gonzalez wide opposite their two wide receivers and force teams to commit close to five defenders to the three receivers and then hand the ball to Holmes, who scored 27 times last year and 21 the year before. Clog up the running game and Gonzalez gets thrown the ball -- he has 17 touchdown receptions in the past two years.

One area the Chiefs can't count on getting the same production from is the kick/punt return game. Last season, Hall scored four touchdowns on returns and teams are going to do everything possible to prevent that from happening again. His game-winning returns should be followed this year with kickoffs deep into the end zone and punts angled out of bounds.

Trent Green was the best quarterback in the division in 2003 and he should put up the best numbers again this year. He threw twice as many touchdowns (24) as interceptions (12). Look for Hall to make another jump in receptions in 2004. Last year, he caught 40 passes after grabbing just 20 the year before and could be on the verge of hauling in 60 passes, which could offset the opponents decisions to eliminate his dangerous return skills.

Finally, this team is built for now and they have the talent to win the division. Oakland will not be the 4-12 team they swept last year, the home schedule is tougher and Cunningham can't make that much of a difference without more talent. I like the Chiefs but probably with 11 or 12 wins.

Oakland

The Raiders were very active in the offseason and it started with bolstering a run defense that had lots of trouble all year in 2003. The 3-4 defense is being installed at least as a package to go along with the 4-3 they have used in the past. Washington and Sapp will be expected to stop the division's top running backs -- Tomlinson and Holmes combined for 644 yards and five touchdowns in four games against the Silver & Black.

LaDainian Tomlinson ran over the Raiders in 2003, something Oakland hopes to improve upon.
The Raiders' home-field advantage disappeared last year when they went 4-4. Worse than that, they only went 1-5 in the division. Rich Gannon missed nine games but the team was only 2-5 when he did play. Enter Kerry Collins this offseason and now the Raiders have competition and depth that no other team in the AFC West has. No matter who plays quarterback, the Raiders need more from wide receiver Jerry Porter and he needs to stay healthy. The team was 2-5 in the seven games he missed. What also must be of concern to the Raiders was the fall in production by Tim Brown. His numbers dropped from 81 receptions in 2002 to 52 in 2003. Of more concern is the fact he's only scored four touchdowns in the past two seasons combined.

Turner believes in a solid running game to set up the play-action pass attack with a real emphasis on throwing the ball downfield. Garner is gone and the committee of backs the team has now -- including Zereoue, Hambrick, Tyrone Wheatley, Justin Fargas and Zack Crockett -- all have a role in Turner's offense. The two offseason pickups, Zereoue and Hambrick, combined for 1,405 yards and seven touchdowns last season and make the running situation competitive.

Depth is the strong suit for the Raiders. As one personnel director said, "The Oakland offensive line backups Mo Collins, Adam Treu, Brad Badger, Barry Sims and Jake Grove are a better group than the starters in San Diego." I'm not sure of that, but it's close.

Finally, the Raiders will be much improved in 2004 and the offseason moves will put them back in the mix in the AFC West. There are still questions at linebacker as well as concern about whether anyone can replace the receiving production Garner brought to the offense (he caught 139 passes in the past two seasons). Say what you will about Jerry Rice being too old, but he moved the chains for a first down 44 times last year and averaged 16.9 yards on 16 third-down receptions, tops in the AFC. Oakland gets back to nine or 10 wins and battles Denver for the wild card.

San Diego

Coach Schottenheimer is coming off the worst season in his career and the team is in a rebuilding phase. Drew Brees is 4-16 in his last 20 starts and first-round draft pick Philip Rivers is waiting in the wings. The offensive line is about to be turned upside down and may have four new starters. As one GM said, "Would you ever totally change an offensive line that was in front of a running back that had three of the top 10 single-game performances in the conference last year? Yes, if the runner was Tomlinson."

The guy may be the most valuable player in the NFL. Every team facing the Chargers knows to stop Tomlinson. Yet, he still managed to score 102 points, rush for 1,645 yards and catch 100 passes. He had 2,370 yards from scrimmage in 2003 and needs some help before he burns out.

The defense was ranked 27th in the league last year, 31st in points given up and the Chargers are switching to a 3-4 front. There doesn't appear to be a stout nosetackle type to clog up the middle. Jamal Williams is a good young player but is more of a tackle than a nose. The rebuilding of this defense will not happen overnight. Finding pass rushers to replace Wiley and Raylee Johnson is another challenge San Diego will face.

Another area with some risk attached to it is the kicking department. Both the punter, Mike Scifres, and the kicker, rookie Nate Kaeding, have no real NFL experience. In a league of parity, that could be a short-term problem until the youngsters gain some experience. With some of the best returners in the league in their division, the caution flag is up for the Chargers.

Finally, the draft-day maneuvers to draft Eli Manning and then trade him to the Giants was a great step in turning this franchise around. Schottenheimer is an excellent teacher and he will develop his young talent, draft well again in '05 with the extra pick from the Giants and his own, which should be in the top 10, and the future is bright. If Schottenheimer can get this team to stick together and win in the second half of the year like he did when he was turning around the Redskins a few years ago, I would consider it a successful season.

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