Cecil Lammey called the AFC West a two-team race on Chop Talk on Sunday night. Many sportswriters are inclined to agree. While it's unwise to ever count out Philip Rivers and the rest of the San Diego Chargers, the reality is that the franchise failed to take care of business when the division was handed to them on a silver platter year after year. Now? Thanks to the front office work of John Elway and Scott Pioli, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are the talk of the AFC West.
While the Chiefs and Broncos are considered the favorites to vie for playoff spots from the division, the two teams are a clash in cultures and styles. The bitter rivals have set themselves against each other not only in the natural competition that comes in the AFC West but in the ways in which they hope to rise to success. It's a tale of two offseasons, two varied approaches that seek to either follow or disregard one of the most commonly quoted maxims in the NFL: Is the quarterback, by far, the most important position on the field?
INTO THE OFFSEASON: Kansas City Chiefs
After three seasons of Matt Cassel (well, 2.5 with the injury for half of 2011), the Kansas City Chiefs front office and coaching staff has to realize the ceiling of their starting quarterback. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2010, but that was largely against a cupcake schedule with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones leading the league in rushing. In short, Cassel was very effective by limiting his mistakes and playing smart, efficient football.
When Cassel was injured last season and Todd Haley somehow got over his fascination with Tyler Palko, the Chiefs enjoyed moving the chains with Kyle Orton under center and Orton won 2 of his 3 games to end the season with the team under interim-turned-head coach Romeo Crennel. It was the final piece of evidence that something had to change.
While his time as a starter has been under head coach Todd Haley and a change in the offensive staff might help a bit, the opinion of the masses is that Cassel is now the weakest link on the Chiefs roster. At this point it'd be hard to find anyone who believes that the Chiefs have a guy with more potential to grow into if given more time or more weapons.
INTO THE OFFSEASON: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos had the opposite problem of the Chiefs. Chiefs Nation has largely been ready to replace Matt Cassel for a while now, but the Broncos rode the arm/legs/charisma/prayer of Tim Tebow to the division title last year. After subbing in Tebow for Orton a handful of games into the season, the Broncos went from worst to first and even upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL playoffs. All in all, a successful first year for John Fox.
However, the tension between Elway and Tebow was always present since the team could never fully stand behind their quarterback. It was easy to understand why someone so unorthodox, someone who played horribly for long stretches, could frustrate the team's Hall of Fame icon and head coach. The Broncos won as much as they did because the defense came together and the running game was solid. Tebow made a few highlight plays. but they were always in position to win because those other elements were there.
Thus, even though the fan base might not have been convinced of the need for a move as much as the front office, the Broncos became resolute that something was going to change in the offseason.
THE MUTUAL DECLARATION
Once the season was over, both teams made it clear that they were going to upgrade the quarterback position. The Kansas City Chiefs made a very rare public statement declaring that they were intending to bring in competition for Matt Cassel in the offseason. For a team that never publicly comments on specific players or really much of anything, it was interesting that the team was so forthcoming about a perceived deficiency.
Once Peyton Manning hit the open, the Denver Broncos were front and center with not only their interest but with their courtship. It was surprising to many that the Broncos were able to have a front row seat for the caravan and even able to host Manning's first visit after being released by the Colts. With the presumption that the Dolphins and possibly Cardinals would lead the pack, the Broncos became the first darkhorse contender for Manning that soon gave way to becoming the odds-on favorite.
The Chiefs also made their own interest known in Manning, along with a few other franchises like the Titans and Seahawks, although Manning never paid much attention. The important point, however, was that it was clear that both the Chiefs and Broncos were likely to have a new starter this offseason at quarterback.
DIVERGENT PATHS TAKEN: Denver Broncos
As for the Denver Broncos, well, they finished what they started. They set out to woo the best free agent to ever hit the market in NFL history and wound up with the biggest prize of all. Peyton Manning signed a five-year, $96 million contract with the Broncos in mid-March that brought a new level of hype to a town already saturated in it and created enough of a distraction to finally deal Tim Tebow to the New York Jets.
When the flurry of moves were finally over, the team had a completely new offensive identity -- one that made them not only the favorites to repeat in the West but to go deep into the playoffs. It was then the Broncos started adding a few more pieces like tight ends Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme to round out the offense and Tracy Porter and Justin Bannan to help on defense.
But the holes are still numerous for the Broncos even after the recent 2012 NFL Draft. The team traded out of the first round completely and then used one of their second round choices on developmental quarterback Brock Osweiler. The front office apparently believes he's their man for the future and they want him to learn from one of the best in NFL history. However, the defensive line and secondary are both suspect and the team could also use depth in several places.
DIVERGENT PATHS TAKEN: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs made a public play for Manning and then watched every free agent possibility sign elsewhere. Manning found a new home in Denver, but the team also watched Kyle Orton sign with Dallas, Chad Henne with Jacksonville and Jason Campbell with Chicago. Within a couple days, the Chiefs were left with no viable options on the open market for a starting quarterback.
When it came to the NFL Draft, the Chiefs options were limited when news leaked that the Washington Redskins had traded the farm to the St. Louis Rams for the rights to the No. 2 choice -- Robert Griffin III as it turns out. When Matt Barkley and Landry Jones decided to go back to USC and Oklahoma respectively, the choices dropped considerably for first round quarterback shoppers. Thus the Chiefs kicked the tires on Ryan Tannehill, Osweiler and Kirk Cousins among others.
Yet when it played out, the only move the team made at the most significant position on the field was to sign Brady Quinn in the least heralded FA signing the Chiefs made all offseason. Instead, the team used their time and resources to invest in every other position on the field. Peyton Hillis was matched with Jamaal Charles. Stanford Routt replaced Brandon Carr, who went to the Cowboys for $50 million. Kevin Boss was paired with Tony Moeaki. Eric Winston replaced Barry Richardson at right tackle.
The Chiefs then drafted along the trenches for the first three rounds, bolstering the interior on both sides with the high-risk, high-reward selection of Dontari Poe as the impactful choice of them all. In the end, the Chiefs addressed every other position group on the field than the one they said they would (sans Brady Quinn).
At this point, it's impossible to tell. But it's an interesting maneuver to see how both teams went at it. The Broncos courtship of Manning took a very long time in the world of free agency. While Peyton was dining in Arizona and talking to Bud Adams from Tennessee, the Broncos had to largely sit and wait for their high-priced date to choose. Meanwhile other teams like the Chiefs could address several other needs, playing it both smart and safe.
This doesn't, of course, even begin to address the health issues with Manning under center. However, the potential of Manning is a risk that's well worth it in the eyes of the Broncos and frankly most people around the NFL. The reason? The maxim that we stated earlier: the quarterback is the most important position on the field. The belief is that, at some point, the burden to win (or lose) falls on the shoulders of the one charged with moving the chains. And a team either has their guy or they do not.
The Chiefs stated in so many words that they do not have that guy currently on their roster, but then they went out and did everything else to improve the team. The Broncos might have missed out on some other opportunities, but they grabbed the greatest prize of all. Which team will end up on top? It remains to be seen but as two division rivals face each other in 2012, the way they got there will become an interesting subplot to follow.