Edwards faces balancing act in Kansas City

New Chiefs coach Herman Edwards needs to balance winning now with working some younger players into the lineup.

Updated: March 28, 2006, 7:21 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Change is never a comfortable thing. Even in the NFL, where franchises turn over one-third of their teams every year and free agency has made roster reshaping a predictable rite of spring, major face-lifts are never an easy undertaking.

Which is why it was somewhat surprising that Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards, calm and congenial but perhaps also calculating, appeared so relaxed during a Tuesday morning breakfast.

This has been an offseason of personal and professional upheaval for Edwards. First he switched teams, moving from the New York Jets (after five seasons) to the Chiefs. And now he must change the makeup of a team that, for all its sustained success, has grown old and is in dire need of a transfusion of youth.

The task of maintaining a winning program, and doing so while incorporating new faces into the lineup, is a difficult daily double. But for Edwards, there's little choice but to green up the roster while trying to keep the Chiefs' win-loss record in the black.

"It's a really hard thing to do, but we've got to address it, definitely," Edwards said when asked about the aggregate age of his new team. "People say you can't do it overnight, to fix everything at once, and that's true. [But] if you don't hurry up and take care of things, when you go [down], you go [down] fast."

Edwards insisted he is "excited by the challenge" but also acknowledged it wasn't until recently that he came to understand the scope of what must be accomplished in roster-tweaking over the next few years.

In part because predecessor Dick Vermeil was so loyal to veteran players, and in part because some of the older veterans were among the best in the league at their respective positions, Edwards inherited a roster that has ranked among the oldest in the NFL each of the last five seasons. When Edwards took the job, after a prolonged and messy divorce from the Jets in which New York collected a fourth-round draft choice as compensation for allowing Edwards to walk away from the final two years of his contract, the Kansas City roster included 20 players age 30 or older.

All three quarterbacks on the depth chart were 30 or older when Edwards arrived, and starter Trent Green will turn 36 just before the start of training camp. One 30-something backup, Todd Collins, departed to the Washington Redskins via free agency. The durable Green has started all 80 games since arriving in 2001. But if he ever goes down with an injury, the top backup, 32-year-old Damon Huard, has thrown exactly one pass in the last five seasons and hasn't started a game since 2000.

There are some key players who are young -- centerpiece tailback Larry Johnson (26), defensive end Jared Allen (23), wide receiver Samie Parker (24) and linebacker Derrick Johnson (23) -- but there are not nearly enough of them. Maybe the most glaring oversight has been the failure to develop a young quarterback, which helps to explain the Chiefs' interest in former Detroit Lions starter Joey Harrington.

The collective tenure of the Chiefs, who have averaged 10 victories the past three seasons, wasn't a total shock to Edwards when he accepted the job and signed a four-year, $11.5 million contract. But it was a sobering dose of reality when he sat down to compile a depth chart.

Edwards is never going to bash Vermeil, his mentor, for eschewing the phase-in of younger players and leaving him a club collectively long in the tooth. And, truth be told, the cupboard isn't devoid of talent. The problem is, some of the talent is nearing its expiration date, and the younger veterans expected to step into the lineup simply don't have much experience.

Typical of a team that hasn't relied much on younger players in recent seasons, the Chiefs' old guys have gotten older and the projected replacements have grown stale while waiting for an opportunity.

"At first, when you look at it on paper, you don't think much of it," Edwards said. "But then you study it a little, and it's like, 'Whew. What happened here?' But it's a reality we have to address."

But here's the conundrum: Can Edwards, who took the Jets to three playoff berths in five seasons, keep the Super Bowl window open a while longer while ushering young players through the front door? And can he change the faces over the course of the next few seasons, through the draft and selective use of free agency, without altering the expectations of a fan base accustomed to annually challenging for a playoff berth? This isn't a league, remember, that readily accepts the old theory that sometimes you take a step backward to be able to eventually move forward again.

"Oh, yeah," allowed Edwards, "it's a tricky deal."

That said, it's the deal that Edwards has been dealt in his first season. And he certainly knows the potential pitfalls and the reality that he will be scrutinized.

Edwards, 51, is one of only two coaches from among the 10 who left their teams following the 2005 season to land on his feet in a head coaching gig for 2006. Dick Jauron, who went from interim coach in Detroit to head coach at Buffalo, is the other. Of the other eight, Vermeil retired, and the rest found employment either as assistant head coaches or coordinators. There is this reality as well: Not only is Edwards a retread head coach but also a black retread head coach.

The engaging Edwards doesn't pay much attention to those things. His strength lies in his celebrated motivational abilities; he is sort of a fire-and-brimstone preacher with a whistle hanging around his neck. His focus is on freshening the Kansas City roster while maintaining the past winning standards. And in an attempt to accomplish those goals, Edwards will rely on an old standby with a new face.

He wants to run the football -- and with Johnson on board and already elevated into the starting job he first assumed when Priest Holmes was injured at the midpoint of the 2005 season, Edwards feels he has the young set of legs to help him do so. The Chiefs, Edwards conceded, might throw the ball 10 fewer times per game in '06. Johnson, who finished last season with nine straight 100-yard outings, including two performances of 200 yards or more, could be transformed into a battering ram.

But at least he's a young battering ram.

"He's got the instructions," Edwards said. "I expect him to be a leader. Doing it for eight games [last year] is one thing, but now he's got to do it for 16, and he's got the bull's-eye on his chest. He's part of the transformation, and we're going to need more guys to get in line with what we need to do to get this team younger and better."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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