- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Last year, the Chiefs tried to fix their defense with a "Gun," hiring former Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator. This year, in what could be Dick Vermeil's last stand as a coach, the Chiefs tried to supply the Gun with some bullets.
The Chiefs spent $14.46 million on cornerback Patrick Surtain, linebacker Kendrell Bell, safety Sammy Knight and defensive end Carlos Hall. They drafted lightning-fast linebacker Derrick Johnson, the Texas standout, in the first round. On the field, the Chiefs' defenders look fast. They better be. The Vermeil days are winding down, and the Chiefs want this to be the right going-away present to a great coach.
"He initially came out and said it could be his last year, and then he kinda retracted a little bit by saying, 'We'll see how the season goes,'" quarterback Trent Green said. "I have a hard time believing that he will come back after this year. I think it will be his last year. I hope he doesn't retire, but last year was really hard on him, emotionally and physically. He really put himself out there from the emotional standpoint."
What Vermeil ultimately decides will be determined by the play of the defense. Though the offense has some concerns with age on the offensive line and uncertainty at wide receiver, the Chiefs must improve defensively or Vermeil definitely won't be back for another year. The past two years have been tough. Vermeil fired his close friend, former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, after the 2003 season. The Chiefs' defense ranked No. 32 in '02 and No. 29 in '03. Cunningham was hired to fix the schemes, but it turned out the team lacked players, not coaching.
The Chiefs finished No. 31 on defense last year, which led to their disappointing 7-9 record, a six-game drop from the previous year. The Chiefs held a physical Tuesday night practice in which the defense excelled. Surtain made his usual interception of the day. Derrick Johnson chased defenders all over the field with his speed. Knight set up the secondary and made plays. Bell stabilized the right outside-linebacker position.
"For the first time since I've come back, you could see it on the field," Cunningham said. "[Veteran safety] Jerome Woods put his arm around me on the sidelines and said, 'Boy, Gun, it's obvious, you got some players.' It was good to hear. There was a lot of enthusiasm. The new guys have made a difference. Steve Williams is a pretty good caddy. He's got Tiger Woods. I've got Patrick Surtain, Sammy Knight, Kendrell Bell and Derrick Johnson."
With Vermeil's retirement on the horizon, coming together quickly on defense is vital. The Chiefs have a tough opening schedule -- the New York Jets at home, Oakland and Denver on the road and a home game against the Eagles.
Since Vermeil has been head coach, the Chiefs have improved offensively each year from fifth to fourth to second to first. But too often touchdowns scored were followed by touchdowns allowed. Green looked back at last year and couldn't figure out why the Chiefs didn't finish games better.
"We couldn't finish most of those games," Green said. "I wish I could pinpoint why. I think there were 14 games where we entered the fourth quarter tied or with the lead, but I think we finished 7-7 in those games. We were never out of them, but we'd have to get that final drive to get the field goal or touchdown. That's the biggest difference from our 13-3 season."
The offense was overworked while the defense underachieved. In practices, the Chiefs had the right work ethic. But on the field, they made dumb plays. High-paid starters couldn't kick-start it to finish. Young players made mental mistakes. Perhaps the most annoying trend was that opponents got away with running repeat plays with similar success.
The only answer was to bring in new (and good) players.
"The talent is definitely here," Surtain said. "You can definitely see it. I think from one to 40, it's a better team here than the Miami teams I've been on. There are so many guys who can play, and that gives you confidence and it adds depth. I think we are going to be special."
Surtain has been to two Pro Bowls and was an alternate last season. At 29, Surtain was sent packing by the Dolphins in a salary-cap purge. It cost the Chiefs a second-round choice. Because Surtain can match up against top receivers such as Randy Moss, the Chiefs had no choice but to make the trade.
"Patrick just understands," Vermeil said. "There are very few practices where he hasn't intercepted a pass."
The acquisition of Knight appeared strange because the Chiefs have two of the highest-paid safeties in football, Woods and Greg Wesley. Both are well-liked by the coaches. But the safeties didn't make plays last year. Coverage problems at cornerback last year let receivers get too many open receptions, but the problem was made worse by the inability of the safeties to either anticipate or get to the ball to help the cornerback with a hit or a deflection.
"My job is to come up with big plays and get guys lined up to play," Knight said. "With the Dolphins, I didn't get to do much of that because they lined me up so deep away from the play. Plus, you don't get many tackles behind Zach Thomas. Here, I can be in the box making a play and helping out on pass coverage to mix it up."
The 2004 Chiefs forced only 21 turnovers. The Chiefs didn't force one quarterback fumble. For a defense that has aggressive schemes, that's embarrassing.
Bell comes from Pittsburgh as the secret weapon. He has rare skills as an inside linebacker. He is big and strong against the run. He has pass-rushing skills as a blitzer and from a three-point stance to disrupt quarterbacks. He also has the speed to drop into coverage.
"I'm in more coverage now, but you get a mix of everything in this defense," Bell said. "You get a couple of stunts with defensive linemen. Even though I'm playing on the outside, I still have that feel of being an inside linebacker."
But groin problems destroyed his 2004 season, limiting him to just three games. The Steelers felt he was too protective of his groin injuries, though Bell said the problem was that he was too impatient and kept reinjuring himself by rushing back too soon.
The Chiefs don't care about Bell's injury history. He makes plays. The other night, a young offensive lineman, Jeremy Parquet, got in Bell's face after a play. Parquet wouldn't stop. Bell shut him up by picking up his 321-pound body and giving it a body slam.
The most exciting defensive acquisition might be first-round choice Derrick Johnson, the No. 15 overall pick in the draft. Longtime Chiefs front-office execs haven't been this excited about a player since another Derrick, Derrick Thomas, terrorized quarterbacks on every down.
Johnson's speed and range are like few others in the league. He runs a 4.4. In high school, he ran a 10.5 in the 100. In full pads, Johnson is a heat-seeking missile. The Chiefs will give him a $150,000 bonus if he earns Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and it would be an upset if he doesn't get the money.
"To watch him almost startles you when you compare him to other people running," Vermeil said. "He moves and reacts. He just goes to the ball. He can bend his knees and drop his shoulders. There are two or three different things he does in practice every day that you don't see done. He might be our fastest player."
Johnson fell to No. 15 in the first round supposedly because he didn't take on many blocks at Texas. Instead, the scheme called for him to run around blockers and make tackles.
"That just makes me work harder to prove people wrong," Johnson said. "I have something you can't coach. I have the speed God gave me. I'm very coachable. I'm able to take on blocks the right way, but my job is running around and making plays."
Cunningham laughs at the criticism of Johnson. Cunningham was the Titans' linebackers coach from 2001-03 and turned Keith Bulluck into one of the best defenders in the game. Bulluck had the label of not taking on blocks. Donnie Edwards was one of Cunningham's favorites in the coach's earlier stint in Kansas City, and Edwards ran around blocks and made plays.
"He's going to make plays, so I guess I'll have to vote for him as Defensive Rookie of the Year," Cunningham said. "I can't see him not making plays. He's one of those guys who has such great recovery speed that if he makes a mistake, he can still make a play. I've had some of the best linebackers in the NFL during my career, and every one of them has been like this guy. They are all athletes."
Defensively, the Chiefs should be in the top 15, if not higher. Again, there is urgency. The Chiefs aren't playing for the future. It's now or never because Vermeil most likely will retire at season's end.
Vermeil will make his decision after the season.
At least this year, Vermeil enters with his Gun's a-blazing.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Dick Vermeil says he might want to return after this season. Whether he does will depend on how much better the revamped Chiefs' defense is in 2005.