The Seattle Seahawks left the AFC West as part of the NFL division realignment in 2002. At that point, all four teams currently still in the West were .500 or better. The Oakland Raiders (of all teams) rode an eleven and five record straight to the Super Bowl, where Rich Gannon and company fell 48-21 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Bill Callahan was the head coach behind that 11-5 record and Super Bowl run, he was also the front man behind the 4-12 disappointment the following year. That was it for Callahan after a mere two seasons in Oakland.
Rick Mirer and Kerry Collins could not make up for the loss of Rich Gannon at quarterback, and the Raiders folded. Norv Turner came in and turned out 5-11 and 4-12 seasons in 2003 and 2004. Oakland management showed Turner the door, just as they had with Callahan. More recently, Art Shell and Lane Kiffin have had trouble winning games with the Silver and Black. Did the coaches really have that much to do with this drastic, post Super Bowl collapse?
The Kansas City Chiefs took advantage of the Silver and Black collapse and finished up at 13-3 under Dick Vermiel in 2003, after an 8-8 season the previous year. The Chiefs had two decent seasons in 2004 and 2005 and then made another playoff appearance under Herm Edwards. The 9-7 record of 2006 quickly evaporated into a 4-12 season permeated by quarterback sacks the following year. The fantasy sensation Priest Holmes went down as soon as he sprang up in 2001. Kansas City eventually hit hard times as well.
The Mile High city is home of the next recent disappointment. A 2002 Denver roster quarterbacked by Brian Griese and Steve Beuerlein finished with nine wins. Clinton Portis topped 1,500 yards in the ’02 season as well, and also eclipsed that total in 2003. The Broncos went on to reach the playoffs three consecutive years. With Jake Plummer at the helm, Denver could do no wrong. The 2006 season saw new prospect Jay Cutler take the field. Plummer helped pioneer the team to a 9-7 record, but the damage had been done, and Denver had found it’s new number seven. Plummer faded into the history books and Denver followed with a 7-9 season in 2007. The worst part? That 7-9 record also happened to be the second best in the division! Are the Broncos headed for a similar collapse? Let’s hope not.
Notice the AFC West team not mentioned: The San Diego Chargers. Aside from a 4-12 road bump in 2003, the Chargers did not venture under .500 from 2002 onward (in fact, the Bolts went a combined 10 games over .500 during that time). Currently, San Diego sits atop the division, well above its competition. What happened to this division that was once among the best in the league?
Well, the 2003-2007 drafts happened. While the Chargers have picked up fourteen important contributors from the halls of the draft since 2004, other teams have failed miserably. Take the Raiders for example. Age caught up to them, and after the Super Bowl Season, the team could not compete without Gannon at the helm. Now they’re searching for a reliable quarterback. The Raiders have had a top ten pick in the last four drafts, and have taken players like bust Robert Gallery and a lazy Jamarcus Russell.
Oakland has clearly had the hardest time of the AFC West teams finding success in the draft, despite being handed high caliber selections year after year. The threeother teams in the division lack a sense of stability, which has led to steps backward. The Broncos in particular are spending recent drafts making up for the weak classes of the early 2000s. George Foster tanked and the Maurice Clarett “experiment” wasn’t much of an experiment at all. The Chiefs are the most recent team to feel the burn of seniority. Kansas City has lacked high picks for a few years now, and that has crushed any possible depth. The quarterback situation in KC isn’t so stable either.
Right now, the Denver Broncos continue to hang on for dear life, not sure if they’re going to slip and fall, or climb up to the next ledge. A 7-9 record does not signify a total meltdown just yet, but as the second best record in the division, it certainly does not bode well for anyone other than the Chargers.
Denver has no real sense of stability just yet, but the one thing they seem to have that the Raiders and Chiefs didn’t is a quarterback. Jay Cutler was ready to come in and supplant Jake Plummer, so the transition in leadership wasn’t as stark as the losses of Rich Gannon and Trent Green. Denver’s defensive woes come from its youth on the defensive line, but the improvement will come in time. Players like LaDanian Tomlinson can take over a game, and do it year in and year out. Along with Shawne Merriman, LT is a perfect example of what good drafts can do to your team. It also helped the Chargers that others busted in the meantime.
The AFC West will continue its search for stability this off-season. Someday the Chargers could be next in line for a collapse (maybe when LT finally hangs up the cleats). Until then, teams will look to clean up through the draft. The Chiefs made a great long-term trade dealing Jared Allen for an extra first round selection, but they still have to use those newly gained selections well. Free agency doesn’t always bring the sense of steadiness that the development of drafted youth brings. Age and needs can destroy a franchise if teams do not pay attention to them. Although the Bolts have tamed the division for now, all it takes is a few efficient drafts for the wild, wild west to take over the league again.