When the Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs line up for the national anthem this Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium, they might represent a mirror image of each other.
In many ways, these are the same team. Consider these similarities:
- Each team's star pass-catcher missed all of training camp due to contract holdouts.
- Both first-team offenses were stinko in the preseason.
- The Jaguars and Chiefs each finished last season 6-10.
But there is one major difference: The Chiefs won their opener; the Jaguars didn't.
In Kansas City's home-opener this Sunday, the Jaguars will attempt to avenge a 30-26 loss to the Chiefs at Alltel Stadium in week 16 of last season. Following that win, Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil proclaimed his team to be the best 6-9 team in the league, and he may have been serious.
So, what's at stake this Sunday? Well, with a win, the Chiefs can claim a fast start; the Jaguars need to win to avoid a slow start.
Eight of the league's 12 playoff teams last season began the year 3-1 or better. Only eventual Super Bowl-champion New England finished the first quarter of the schedule with a losing record (1-3).
"I have my concerns, but I think all head coaches have those concerns. I don't think anybody has ordered their Super Bowl tickets yet. We certainly haven't ordered our playoff tickets," Vermeil said. "I could be wrong, but I think when we line up and play the first three or four weeks of the season, we'll play consistently better football than we did last year at the same time," he added.
The Chiefs finished last season with three wins in their final four games, and a lot of "experts" decided the Chiefs could become one of the surprise teams in the NFL in 2002. Clearly, Vermeil's offseason emphasis had to fall on the defensive side of the ball, where the Chiefs were 23rd in the league overall and 27th against the run, and desperately in need of young bulk on their defensive line.
Vermeil made defensive tackle Ryan Sims the seventh pick of the draft, and Vermeil stayed on the line in the second round when he selected defensive tackle Eddie Freeman. After all, the Chiefs had star tight end Tony Gonzalez, NFL rushing champion Priest Holmes, and Pro-Bowl linemen Willie Roaf and Will Shields on offense. Just fix the defense, right?
But problems surfaced this summer.
- Gonzalez didn't decide to accept the "franchise" tag the Chiefs had put on him until the week of the final preseason game, when Gonzalez reported with a considerable degree of contract dissatisfaction.
- Contract negotiations with Sims and his agent, Hadley Engelhard became extremely adversarial. When the Chiefs finally got Sims to agree to a contract last week, Vermeil referred to Engelhard as "Engeldork" for delivering Sims "fat and out of shape."
- Wide receiver Sylvester Morris, who was a rookie star in 2000 but missed all of last season following ACL surgery, was placed on the injured reserve list recently and will spend another season recovering from the knee injury.
- Marvin Minnis, who as a rookie last year replaced Morris, continues to flounder in his recovery from a broken foot suffered in the May mini-camp, and Minnis will miss the first six games of this season.
So, Vermeil faces these questions:
- Can his defense hold up until Sims rounds into playing shape?
- Will Gonzalez overlook his discontent and play at a level high enough for quarterback Trent Green to do without a star wide receiver?
- Is Holmes capable of a performance similar to last season, when Holmes gained 1,555 yards rushing and caught 62 passes for 614 yards receiving?
- Are the Chiefs capable of becoming one of the NFL's surprise teams this season?
The Jaguars will help provide the answers to those questions this Sunday.