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Reflections on training camp visit

Attitude is on the menu in River Falls

Posted 8/5/04

by Frank Pagnotti

The 2004 Kansas City Chiefs will likely return 21 of 22 starters from last years team that finished 13-3. However, while there was very little roster turnover, the makeup of this team is completely different from last year.

The reason?


Gunther Cunningham replaced Greg Robinson back as the Chiefs defensive coordinator in the January and has brought back the fiery attitude that he was his trademark back when he was with the Chiefs from 1995-2000.

Attitude was something that Robinson never preached. Defense was like a chess game for Robinson - he would wait until an opponent made a move before he would react. Cunningham, on the other hand, wants to smack the opponent in the mouth before they have a chance to pick up their game piece.

That aggressive type of behavior has stuck out the most during the few days I attended Chiefs training camp in River Falls, Wisconsin.

This camp has shown a calmer Cunningham. This really isn’t your father’s Gunther Cunningham. Gone are the trademark yellow glasses, foul mouth, and the huge dip of tobacco in his lower lip. He has even has delegated more authority to his assistant coaches, something that Cunningham couldn’t do when he was a head coach.

He isn’t even the biggest screamer on the field in training camp. That distinction now goes to linebackers coach Fred Pagac.
Don’t mistake calmness for weakness though. This defense has just as much attitude as Cunningham’s defenses had in the past and attitude is 90% of football.

The defense folded against top-scoring offenses last year such as the Vikings and the Broncos. However, early on in this camp the defense is standing up to the NFL’s top scoring offense. They are getting physical more physical than Olivia Newton John and showing the attitude that Cunningham demands.

It’s too early to tell during the early stages of training camp if the Chiefs defense can do a complete turnaround from last year and field a top 10 defense.

But they are certainly on their way.

Here are some players that have caught my eye during my time at training camp:

DE Eric Hicks- No one has missed Cunningham more than Hicks. He had a 14-sack season under Cunningham in 2000, but only has accumulated 17.5 sacks since. He looks a lot quicker off the edge, and has added some new pass rush moves to his arsenal that has stifled any lineman that has tried to block him. Hicks looks a lot closer to the player he was in 2000 rather than the mediocre one he was for the last three years.

DT Junior Siavii- Siavii was the Chiefs top draft choice in 2004. Coaches expected him to be raw and take a while to be a presence on the defensive line. However, Siavii has other plans for the 2004 season. He has been a force on the d-line, creating havoc against anyone who blocks him - just ask backup center Chris Bober. Bober was trying to guard him during 7 on 7 drills and Siavii threw him right on his back during one run play. Cunningham even said that Siavii has made some plays that he hasn’t seen since he coached Chester McGlockton. That’s a pretty big compliment considering how high he was on McGlockton.

QB Trent Green- Green threw for over 4,000 yards last season and 24 touchdowns last year, but Dick Vermeil expects those numbers to be even better in 2004. Judging by the way Green looks during training camp; Vermeil’s prediction is right on target. Green is displaying pinpoint accuracy and a better deep this year. That additional arm strength can be attributed to the added muscle he has put on in the off-season.

RB Larry Johnson- I was Johnson’s harshest critic last year, but he has even shut my mouth this training camp. He looks stronger, faster, and more confident entering his second season. He is hitting the hole much faster, and even has displayed incredibly soft hands in passing drills. He should end up being the #2 running back behind Priest Holmes this season.

LB Scott Fujita- Fujita has been the best linebacker in camp. He has really warmed up to the coaching of Fred Pagac, and looks faster and stronger. He has also been really exceptional in coverage drills. Next to Hicks, Fujita looks to be the one who has benefited the most from Cunningham’s arrival.

RB Priest Holmes- There’s not a whole lot Holmes can improve on coming off his 27-touchdown performance last year. However, he looks a lot faster and wants more long runs this season. That can be attributed to the fact that his hip injury is finally 100% healed.

OT Kevin Sampson- It’s looking like Sampson may turn out to be one of the steals of the 2004 draft. During pass rush drills on Saturday, Sampson completely dominated R-Kal Truluck, who is one of the fastest pass rushers on the Chiefs roster. Don’t be surprised if he becomes one of the top reserves on the line during his rookie season. He has come a long way in just a short amount of time.

DT Eric Downing- Much like Siavii, Downing has been a space eater for the defensive line during camp. He looks quicker, bigger and faster this year over his last three seasons with the Chiefs. He was once considered a player on the bubble, but if his play early in training camp is any indication, then he should easily make the regular season roster.

TE Kris Wilson- Wilson has silenced a lot of critics with his play early on in training camp. He has incredible hands, displays good speed, and is a surprisingly a good blocker. Wilson has been a pleasant surprise because I questioned why the Chiefs would use a second round pick on another tight end. He is going to create a lot of match up problems for defenses when the Chiefs have him and Tony Gonzalez on the field.

Now for the players who need to step up:

CB Eric Warfield- Warfield has been a Jekyll and Hyde-type player this training camp. One day he looks great, the next he looks awful - which has been his problem his whole career. Warfield needs to find some consistency to keep his starting job as Vermeil has said that Julian Battle is competing for his job.

OT John Welbourn- Welbourn was acquired in a draft day trade with the Eagles and is expected to fill the void left by John Tait. Welbourn has been working as the first team in camp, but his pass blocking has to improve for him to make Chief fans forget about Tait. He has shown his signature mean streak during run plays, but he has looked flat in his pass blocking. He is going to have to improve that area if the Chiefs line doesn’t expect to miss a beat.

K Morten Andersen- It was reported that Andersen reported to camp in great shape; but his play on the field doesn’t show it. He has missed several field goal attempts, and his leg doesn’t look strong at all. He is a liability from 40 yards and out, and the Chiefs might be better served to go with Lawrence Tynes, who has a displayed, a very strong leg. It’s going to be interesting to see how this position shakes out. Smart money is on Andersen winning the competition, but the Chiefs finally may be tired of punting outside of 45 yards.

FS Jerome Woods- I was waiting for Woods to stand out on defense considering how he thrived in Cunningham’s system earlier in his career. However, that never happened. He was out of place several times in pass coverage, which reminded me of his play last year despite being voted in to the Pro Bowl. Woods was one of the biggest advocates of Cunningham returning; now he has to stop playing like he is still in Robinson’s system.

Here’s how I expect the 53-man roster to shake out:

Quarterbacks- (3) *Trent Green, Todd Collins, Damon Huard

Running Backs- (4) *Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Derrick Blaylock, *Tony Richardson

Wide Receivers- (6) *Johnnie Morton, *Eddie Kennison, Dante Hall, Samie Parker, Marc Boerigter, Richard Smith

Tight Ends- (3) *Tony Gonzalez, Jason Dunn, Kris Wilson

Offensive Tackles- (4) Willie Roaf, John Welbourn, Brett Williams, Kevin Sampson

Guards- (4) *Will Shields, *Brian Waters, Jordan Black, Donald Willis

Centers- (2) *Casey Wiegmann, Chris Bober

Defensive ends- (5) *Eric Hicks, *Vonnie Holliday, Gary Stills, Jimmy Wilkerson, Jared Allen

Defensive Tackles- (5) *Ryan Sims, *John Browning, Junior Siavii, Lional Dalton, Eric Downing

Linebackers- (6) *Scott Fujita, *Shawn Barber,* Mike Maslowski, Kawika Mitchell, Keyaron Fox, Monty Beisel

Cornerbacks- (5) *Eric Warfield, *Dexter McCleon, Julian Battle, William Bartee, Cliff Crosby

Safeties- (3) *Jerome Woods, *Greg Wesley, Shaunard Harts

Special teams- (3) Morten Andersen, Jason Baker, Kendall Gammon
* Indicates projected starter

This roster shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone as it’s roughly the same one that the Chiefs fielded in 2003.

The one good thing about keeping the same roster is that the Chiefs and their fans are finally going to see if it was truly the talent, or if it was the coordinator that has made this defense the laughing stock of the NFL.

Some feel that the Chiefs don’t have enough defensive talent for Cunningham to work with. They say he doesn’t have that dominant pass rusher like the late Derrick Thomas, or a shutdown cornerback like a James Hasty or Dale Carter to make his defense work.

What would Cunningham say to those detractors?

“I’m going to say the same thing to them that I did in 97,” he said. “They told me all the stars were gone (in 1997) - I said turn around because all the new ones are coming.”

“I just believe in the players and they know that. As long as they can understand where I’m coming from, they will play, and play well.”

I’ll bet that Gunther turns out to have the last laugh after the 2004 season.

(Frank Pagnotti covers the Kansas City Chiefs. He can be reached at