ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- So far, little of what the Kansas City Chiefs have shown this summer looks any different than what they've displayed over the past few years.
That isn't good news for the Chiefs. Since 2007, they have gone 10-38, their worst three-year stretch in the franchise's 50-year history.
Certainly, the Chiefs didn't show anything in Friday night's preseason opener against Atlanta that would indicate they're better than the team that finished 4-12 in 2009. On the way to a 20-10 loss, the Chiefs' offense showed few signs of life in the passing game. Their defensive front seven was manhandled by the Falcons' offensive line, especially in the running game.
The pressure to succeed has already turned up on Scott Pioli, in his second season as the Chiefs' general manager, and Todd Haley, in his second season as their coach, as well as on the entire roster, which has seen a great deal of turnover. Now it seems to have gone up another notch.
Another horrendous finish is unlikely to be tolerated by ownership, which is struggling to sell tickets. The expectations, in and around the team, are that if the Chiefs don't make the playoffs, they at least must show significant improvement.
"(Given) the expectations that we set internally for ourselves, there can't be any greater expectations set on the outside," Pioli said. "We don't really pay attention to the peripheral expectations because when you start paying attention to those things, that means you're losing focus on what you know you need to do. Our internal expectations are pretty darn big, and we know that we've got to get to a place where we need to be."
Said Haley, "I put an extreme amount of pressure on myself, and that didn't matter where I was (in charge of offensive) quality control or receiver coach or pass game coordinator, or (offensive) coordinator."
The players certainly feel a greater sense of urgency.
"We all, as a football team, have acknowledged that we feel like we're a better football team than we were before last year as well as the last couple of years," said offensive guard Brian Waters, who is beginning his 11th season with the Chiefs. "We feel like we're going the right way. It's just a matter of putting wins in the win column."
To that end, the Chiefs made what have widely been viewed as strong moves in the offseason, highlighted by a couple of key draft choices -- safety Eric Berry and wide receiver/running back/you name it Dexter McCluster -- and free-agent acquisition Thomas Jones.
Three of their bigger additions have been to the coaching staff: Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas. Not only do they bring plenty of experience, they also have a strong grasp of Haley's coaching philosophy and are able to help him carry out a vision that he mostly tried to carry out on his own last season.
"We work so hard, and it has been going right for us most of the time," defensive end Glenn Dorsey said. "There's always pressure to win; that's the name of the game."
» Knee trouble has Weis walking with a cane -- when he isn't driving a motorized cart -- but it doesn't keep him from the thick of the offensive action. He is, by far, the most vocal coach on the practice field, which is saying something because Haley is as vocal as they come.
On Sunday -- as quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and tight ends took part in a "blaster" drill where each carried the ball through a gauntlet of teammates hitting their arms with bags -- Weis, unhappy with the tempo, yelled, "That didn't seem very exciting to me." Fans cheered Weis' admonishment, and the players immediately responded with more enthusiasm.
As rookie receiver Jeremy Horne ran through with his head down, Weis spoke up again: "Is that how you're going to run? With your head down? Pads down, head up. Take care of the football." The crowd cheered again.
» How's this for a novel drill? Early last week, running backs coach Maurice Carthon staged a "Porta-Potty" drill. He had one back enter the Porta-Potty in full practice uniform, sit on the toilet with the door shut, and then, just as another back opened the door, Carthon, standing about 5 yards away, would fire the ball to him. The idea is to simulate what a back often experiences while going out for a pass -- being a confined area and suddenly, in a split-second of daylight, the ball comes to him.
And, contrary to speculation, the Chiefs didn't truck in a special Porta-Potty for the drill. Carthon employed the one already on the practice field for, uh, normal use.
» Cassel has been noticeably more assertive in practice. When he saw that tight end Leonard Pope hadn't gone in motion from the right to the left side of the formation as he was supposed to, the quarterback yanked him by the shoulder pad and yelled, "Get over there!"
» Crennel looks more fit and is moving better than he has in many years, thanks to some dieting and hip-replacement surgery. He likes the way the defense is coming together, although he'd like to see some improved depth.
"I actually like it," Dorsey said. "Coach Romeo brings a lot of fun to it, and I really understand what he's trying to get me to do. For me, (the biggest difference) is more patience. In a 4-3, you're attacking it; you've got one gap, hitting a man and getting off. But in a 3-4, you have to be patient and wait and wait and wait, because the running back is going to cut off of you. You pick a side, and the running back's going to run to the side you left open."
» It made sense that McCluster, a second-round pick from Mississippi, was one of the more impressive Chiefs in the preseason-opener because he has been one of the team's more impressive players throughout camp.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound McCluster makes explosive plays just about every time he touches the ball and is easily the most versatile player on the roster. In one practice, he lined up at more than a dozen different spots. He can work from a two-back set, a one-back set, in the slot, wide, tight, and just about anywhere else a team can make use of an ultra-fast, multi-talented athlete.
"We've put a lot on him as a rookie so far; he's been very diverse in the positions he's been playing and he hasn't been overwhelmed one bit," Cassel said. "I'm excited to see what he can continue to bring to the table."
» The Chiefs have found perhaps a better pass rusher than they might have expected from Cameron Sheffield, a rookie outside linebacker from Troy. Sheffield, the second of the Chiefs' two fifth-round draft choices, played defensive end in college. However, he has shown natural skills working from the edge in Crennel's 3-4 scheme.
» The Chiefs look as if they will get some strong contributions from a pair of rookie safeties -- Berry, the team's top choice out of Tennessee, and fifth-rounder Kendrick Lewis from Mississippi. Both have shown strong coverage skills and are tremendous hitters. Lewis' hit on Falcons QB Chris Redman on Friday helped force an incompletion.
» Haley apparently felt that, despite the team's struggles in the preseason opener (or, perhaps, because of them), the players needed a break from camp. So after they went through pre-practice taping, put on their pads and uniforms and took the field to prepare for Monday morning's practice, he called them into a circles and began throwing dog bones to some of the veterans. It was a symbolic gesture that they were due a treat.
When special teams coach Steve Hoffman made a 30-yard field goal off of a "tee" -- which actually was the toe of offensive quality control coach Nick Sirianni, who wore a Chiefs practice uniform -- Haley called off practice, ordered the players to change back into their street clothes and board the two buses waiting to take them to a nearby movie theater.
The players had four viewing choices: "Dinner for Schmucks," "The Other Guys," "The Expendables," and "Charlie St. Cloud." For the record, most of the team, including Haley, picked "The Other Guys," a comedy featuring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Popcorn, candy, and soft drinks were on the coach, but he was quick to warn the players not to get too carried away because they had a weigh-in coming.
The Chiefs have 55 players on their 80-man roster with fewer than four years of NFL inexperience. That includes 20 rookies.
Given the abundance of youth, it makes the presence of older veterans that much more valuable. The two most experienced players on the team, center Casey Wiegmann and linebacker Mike Vrabel, are constantly going out of their way to provide guidance and wisdom to their younger teammates.
Wiegmann, who is entering his 15th season, has stressed the importance of rookies being able to distinguish between pain and injury. After all, Wiegmann had suffered a broken foot during a bowl game in his senior year at Iowa and was told he would never play football again.
As he was leaving the Chiefs' training room recently, he noticed a rookie being treated for a sore ankle that had kept him out of practice.
"I turned to him and said, 'You've already missed more time than I've missed in 13 years,' " Wiegmann recalled. "He just kind of laughed at me and said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious.' "
Vrabel, who is beginning his 14th year, is a talking version of the defensive playbook that he learned by heart during eight seasons of playing in Crennel's scheme with the New England Patriots.
"I don't have to carry a playbook around; that's the one good thing," Vrabel said of Crennel joining the team. "What it does is it allows me to try to help bring a (younger) guy along, and maybe if I was studying a lot more and trying to have to learn it myself I wouldn't be able to help bring a few guys along. Now I have that luxury where I can say, 'Hey, remember this,' or, 'Let's think about that,' or, 'Don't forget to do this' on a certain call."
"We only won four games last year, and when we did win, we enjoyed it. It was a good feeling and it's a feeling that we all want to get used to. We're working hard right now. We deserve that feeling."