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pbatrucker
12-03-2010, 10:59 AM
Lack of depth transforms some Chiefs into MVPs -- even rookies

By KENT BABB

The Kansas City Star


http://media.kansascity.com/smedia/2010/12/02/23/ChiefsBills0273_SP_10-31-10_JFS_12-03-2010_3V1IPC62.embedded.prod_affiliate.81.jpg (http://media.kansascity.com/smedia/2010/12/02/23/ChiefsBills0273_SP_10-31-10_JFS_12-03-2010_3V1IPC62.standalone.prod_affiliate.81.jpg)
JOHN SLEEZER
The availability of Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis (left) has become a barometer of the team’s ability to win.


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Kendrick Lewis stood in front of his locker this week and thought about the good and bad days of his rookie season so far. He talked about his value to the team, and how important it is to play — even if he is tired or sore.
“This whole rookie class had to grow up real fast,” said Lewis, a fifth-round draft pick who has started seven games at free safety. “You’re going to see things. Guys have to step up.
“We’re rookies coming in, true enough, but I know the position I was put in.”
The position that Chiefs rookies were put in isn’t much different from the one everyone else in the locker room had to embrace: Each player is important, and each is expected to take his job seriously. Players at some positions, though, have less margin for error, and whether they participate or not often has a bearing on the Chiefs’ chances of winning. Lewis plays one of those positions.
Safety is an unusual position for the Chiefs. It is one of the team’s most accomplished projects from last offseason, yet it remains its most fragile position because both starters, Lewis and top draft pick Eric Berry, are rookies — and there’s a sharp talent decline from those players to the team’s reserves. If one or both of them miss a game, the Chiefs are at a considerable disadvantage.
Some statistics stand out more than others, such as this one: When Lewis is healthy enough to play, the Chiefs are 7-1 this season. When his injured hamstring kept him out of the lineup, the team is 0-3.
Players at other positions have missed contests without similar consequences, but it underscores a problem the 7-4 Chiefs will contend with until at least the next offseason, when there’s another chance to reinforce the weaker spots. Some positions — safety, wide receiver, inside linebacker and offensive tackle — are shallow, and whether the team can keep its starters healthy and available could determine how the Chiefs finish this season and whether a playoff run is a possibility.
Lewis said that at certain positions with even one starter out of the lineup, the Chiefs are sometimes forced to change their game plan because their chances are delicately balanced. Perhaps that’s why, when the Chiefs were without Lewis and backup free safety Jon McGraw three weeks ago, Denver jumped to a 35-0 lead and passed for five touchdowns.
“A valuable player may mean a whole lot to your game plan,” said Lewis, who was limited in Thursday’s practice with an ankle injury. “You might not be able to call certain things.
“We’re just trying to get everybody healthy the ending stretch of the season. We need everybody. We’re trying to get to the playoffs. We’re trying to make a run for the big thing.”
Coach Todd Haley has said often that the Chiefs need all their players now. It’s more of a psychological ploy to convince players that being hurt and being injured isn’t necessarily the same thing, and if everyone is able to play, the Chiefs have a far better chance each Sunday than if even one key position is missing someone.
“That’s just part of what’s going to be the M.O. of our team,” Haley said. “That’s what’s been preached and taught to them and coached to them, that we’re not going to be a team that guys don’t practice and then they play — you’ve got to practice to play and to be a part of this, you’ve got to be playing.
“It’s very clear to them that this isn’t a real fun place to be hurt or dinged up, and it’s always going to be more fun practicing than not practicing.”
On this team, being healthy — or at least available — appears to be a point of pride for most players. The Chiefs usually have considerably fewer players on each week’s final injury report than that week’s opponent. Last week, the Chiefs had six players on their injury report, compared with Seattle’s 13. The week before, the Chiefs had eight players listed to Arizona’s 12.
In this locker room, missing time because of anything short of a serious injury is unacceptable, and players have begun to embrace that.
“Every game I miss,” Lewis said, “it hurts me so bad. I just hate seeing my teammates out there competing and me just sitting, watching, knowing that I can help them — knowing that I can be a valuable resource and can go out there and make plays and do things to better our chances of winning.
“You’ve just got to keep a strong mind.”
On Thursday, a reporter asked Haley about how a player continues to get hit hard and then, every time, pop right back up. That was not something the coach wanted to think about, and it was clear he knows that health — one of the few things a team cannot control — could have as much effect on the Chiefs’ immediate future as anything.
Lewis said he understands.
“That’s how valuable you are to the team,” he said. “How valuable you are to winning.”
@ Go to KansasCity.com for photo galleries, videos and updates on the Red Zone blog.

To reach Kent Babb, Chiefs reporter for The Star, call 816-234-4386 or send e-mail to kbabb@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/kentbabb.

Posted on Thu, Dec. 02, 2010 11:13 PM




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