The Kansas City Chiefs are playing with enthusiasm, for next year.
Head coach Dick Vermeil has infected his new team with his energy and his optimistic outlook, even though the Chiefs have struggled through one of the most difficult seasons in their history. When they were 1-6, they maintained their belief. At 3-9, they saw a ray of hope. Now, at 5-9, Vermeil has his Chiefs believing they'll be a Super Bowl contender next year.
"I'd like to think it's next season," Vermeil said of competing for a division title and a playoff berth in 2002. "
That's reasonable. If you ask Denver right now, I think they'd say it's reasonable. If you asked the Raiders, I think they'd say it's reasonable. If you asked Seattle, I think they'd say it's reasonable."
Vermeil is in his first year with the Chiefs after coming out of a one-year retirement that began with his St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl XXXIV victory. A man renown for building winning football programs, indications are he's doing it for the third time in his NFL career.
Most of the gains the Chiefs have made under Vermeil this season have been on the offensive side of the ball.
• Vermeil signed Priest Holmes in free agency last offseason, and Holmes has responded by leading the league in rushing with 1,347 yards.
• The Kansas City coach traded with his former team for quarterback Trent Green, and Green has responded by throwing for more than 3,305 yards and 14 touchdowns. The snag in Green's game is 21 interceptions.
• Most recently, Vermeil claimed off waivers wide receiver Eddie Kennison, who Vermeil had traded from St. Louis to New Orleans in 1998.
"Eddie Kennison will be equivalent to a high draft choice for us," Vermeil said.
Meanwhile, Vermeil inherited Pro-Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez from the previous Chiefs regime, and some shuffling along the offensive line has produced a promising unit. And don't forget, star wide receiver Sylvester Morris has missed the whole season following ACL surgery, and he will re-join the Chiefs offense in 2002.
"This is what the Kansas City Chiefs are going to be about. I promise you that," Vermeil said emotionally following the Chiefs' overtime win against Denver on Dec. 16.
However, much will have to be done on defense for the Chiefs to deliver on their coach's promise. The Chiefs have been in the bottom third of the defensive rankings through most of the season, and the personnel isn't nearly as promising as it is on offense. Clearly, Vermeil will turn his attention to defense in free agency and in the draft.
"We will continue to get better and better, and we will continue to work together," he said. "No, we're not going to the Super Bowl and we're not going to the playoffs, but when you line up to play us, you're going to have to play very well to beat us next week and the week after that. That's what we're about."
The win over Denver has been the high point of the Chiefs' season. It followed a narrow loss in Oakland the previous week, and the Chiefs' consecutive strong performances was the cause for their early-December rush of optimism.
"Every Friday, he used to call me from St. Louis, and he would tell me, 'I know we're losing, but we're getting better. I can see it. I can feel it. I can taste it,'" Chiefs President Carl Peterson said of Vermeil. The two came together for the first time in Philadelphia in the late-1970s, when Vermeil began putting together an Eagles team that would win the 1980 NFC championship.
"That's what's happening now. Dick can see things beginning to come together. We all can feel it with him. That's why I wanted him here," Peterson added.
In Jacksonville this Sunday, the Chiefs will attempt to add to their Vermeil feeling.