Monday, August 13, 2007
Edwards putting his stamp on team with or without Johnson
By Jeffri Chadiha
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards doesn't believe in many rules, but he's adhering to one this summer: He won't spend much time talking about players who aren't in training camp. Basically, that means Edwards won't entertain too many questions about the one player who hasn't shown up for camp yet: Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson. After all, it's much easier for Edwards to focus on the players who will help his team than wonder whether Johnson's holdout will ruin his squad's chances.
See, the reality in Kansas City is that the Chiefs are going to go through some growing pains this season. They have 42 players on their roster with less than two years of experience and they need some stability in key places. Having Johnson in practice would help ease those concerns, but that doesn't look like something that is going to happen easily. He wants too much money (reportedly somewhere in the range of $28 million of guaranteed cash) and the Chiefs have too many issues about placing that much coin in the hands of a hard-charging running back who hungers for contact and turns 28 on Nov. 19.
The problem, however, is that the Chiefs need some semblance of continuity if they're going to smoothly make this transition from the aging team Edwards inherited from Dick Vermeil to the young, hungry bunch Edwards covets. And nowhere are there more questions than on offense, where Edwards wants to pound the ball and mix in efficient, play-action passing. Without Johnson, it's hard to see opponents fearing a unit that has only one other legitimate playmaker, Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Last season, Johnson produced 1,789 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns and an NFL-record 416 carries. But Edwards refuses to think the Chiefs can't find other ways to generate those kinds of numbers, even if it means a backfield by committee.
"We've gone from having Larry and Michael Bennett last year to having at least three guys who can do the job this year," said Edwards, who led the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and an AFC wild-card berth in his first season with the team. "We still have running backs here."
The most obvious option in Johnson's absence is Bennett, a former Pro Bowl back with the Minnesota Vikings who joined the Chiefs before the 2006 season via a trade with New Orleans. After receiving a career-low 36 carries in 2006, he said a full offseason with the Chiefs has made him more comfortable with the offense and his expanding role.
"One thing we all know is that Larry isn't going to be carrying the ball 416 times this season," Bennett said. "I felt bad that he had to do it last year because there were times when I could've helped handle the load more."
The Chiefs also see fifth-round pick Kolby Smith as part of the backfield rotation. Edwards has raved about Smith's talents -- specifically his vision, intelligence and blocking -- and he plans on giving the rookie plenty of reps during the preseason. Of course, there's also the matter of Priest Holmes. He returned to training camp after nearly 22 months of inactivity following a severe head and neck injury that seemingly had ended his career. So far he's listed on the physically unable to perform list. Whether he actually starts practicing full time and appearing in games is another question.
Holmes admitted that he hadn't been working out much during his time away from the team. He added that he returned only because he liked the idea of passing some wisdom along to the younger players.
"When I was a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens in 1998, I had the chance to be around a lot of veterans who helped me learn the game, people like Rod Woodson and Earnest Byner," Holmes said. "I felt confident I could come in here and help these young guys do the same things."
It certainly would be a heartwarming story if Holmes really did return to action, but the odds are against it. Since he's on the PUP list, the Chiefs have to decide if he's going to participate in practice by the third preseason game. If he can't do that, they'll either have to cut him or keep him on the roster until the fifth week of the regular season. That's quite a commitment to a banged-up 34-year-old who has yet to prove he can still contribute.
But the mystery around Holmes merely adds to the uncertainty surrounding the entire Chiefs offense. Two years ago, the Chiefs boasted a system that provided plenty of points and chunks of yardage. Now, Edwards is determined to mold a unit that can protect the football, control the clock and keep his defense off the field. It sounds good in theory. It would sound even better if all the pieces were in place by now.
Second-year QB Brodie Croyle is focused on becoming a solid game-manager and avoiding costly mistakes. Check out what else Jeffri Chadiha observed at Chiefs camp.
• Observation deck
• Training camp index
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.