Expiration date

More Robinson: Chiefs season preview

RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Even the tools of greatness fade. Chisels dull, paint brushes fray and hands become arthritic. The trick of the creator is to grasp the last moment – to not wake up on a Monday morning with the realization that he slept through Sunday's last hurrah.

It's a cruel lesson in the NFL, where franchises, coaches and players are notoriously absent-minded about the expiration date on dominance. So maybe it's a surprise to see the Kansas City Chiefs so self-aware, with a head coach unafraid to make his own retirement seem imminent and an offensive roster that doesn't kid itself about a bottom-heavy hour glass.

The window is closing on one of the league's most prolific scoring creations, and the Chiefs are determined to enjoy every waking moment.

"There is an air that if they don't win it soon that it might be too late," coach Dick Vermeil said, reflecting on the urgency felt in the Chiefs' training camp. "Will Shields may not be not here, Willie Roaf may not be here, Eddie Kennison, too. … We talk about it. There's nothing that generates effort in training camp better than a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose and a focus to win."

Not that Kansas City didn't have all those things last season – or back in 2001, when Vermeil brought together quarterback Trent Green and running back Priest Holmes and laid the foundation to an offensive line that would become the team's central nervous system. The Chiefs felt the need to be great then, too.

Yet, here they are, entering the 15th anniversary of training camp in River Falls and seeming like parts of the roster have been around exactly that long. Shields and Roaf, the anchors of an offensive line more stifling than the Great Wall of China, have pondered retirement and likely won't be back in 2006. Kennison will be 33 in January, and even relatively low-mileage stars like Green and Holmes enter the season at 35 and 31, respectively.

Without a doubt, time has crept up on an offense that has packed the league's most impressive scoring punch over the last three seasons.

"We like to say we're not one of the older offensive teams, but we're one of the vintage teams," Vermeil said. "If you study the history of the National Football League, some of the finest offensive teams in the league were very experienced."

Likewise, many were also remarkably close to falling off a ledge. One need only look at AFC West rival Oakland, which had its own impressive "vintage" offense earlier this decade.

Much like Vermeil, former Raiders coach Jon Gruden hitched his wagon to stars late in their prime, lifting the team to prominence on a mixture of talent and experience. But the same Raiders team that rode a geriatric wave to a Super Bowl in 2002 saw a dropoff soon after, as Pro Bowlers like offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, quarterback Rich Gannon and wide receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown began to retire or decline.

The Chiefs aren't to that point just yet. Watching practice for five minutes is enough to see the hallmarks of greatness are still there.

On Sunday, Holmes looked spectacular in camp despite coming off an injury that caused him to miss half of 2004. Paired with budding backfield mate Larry Johnson, the Chiefs could throw new wrinkles into the offense – like one seen Sunday when both lined up in the backfield and Johnson eventually split out as a wide receiver.

As for Green, who is coming off arguably the best season of his career (4,591 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and a 66.4 completion percentage), he has the typically confident air of a veteran who could recite his offensive playbook as easily as the alphabet. None of this should be a surprise, not for a team that set an NFL record for first downs (398) in 2004 and ranked No. 1 in either points or yardage for the third consecutive year.

But there are signs 2005 could be the offensive pinnacle before the slide, and that's a major reason the Chiefs splurged cap dollars to bring in players like linebacker Kendrell Bell and cornerback Patrick Surtain. Vermeil has already been cutting back on reps for many of the older offensive players, while trying to stimulate depth that could bail out Kansas City if an aging star suffers injury. There are insurance policies for someone like Shields, who strongly considered retiring this offseason and has become a concern after missing a handful of practices because of back issues.

"Nobody really talks about it, but you get that sense [of urgency]," Green said. "I think the organization feels that way, as well. They haven't exactly come out and said it, but with the moves they made and the veteran players they brought in … it's pretty clear that we're going to make as serious of a run as we can now."

It won't be easy, not with the AFC West seeing significant offseason additions in Oakland and the continued maturation of San Diego's young core. Kansas City will have other outside issues swirling all season, too – like the need for a new stadium or, at the very least, renovations that would be funded at least partially by the state government. And there is always the looming reality that the Chiefs' offense still relies heavily on Green, who has been remarkably healthy but would cripple the team if he suffered a season-ending injury. Add the thought of playing six 2004 playoff teams in the first eight games of the season, and the ticking clock only gets louder.

"I've talked with some of the other guys about their frame of mind and how long they want to play," Green said. "The special part of this group is what we've been able to accomplish the last three seasons. I know some of the guys are thinking about retiring. We know that this group as a whole, this may be our last year together. There definitely is a sense of urgency."

At one point, Shields likened it to the team having a "six-shooter and you're running out of bullets."

The Chiefs may not be able to overcome the overwhelming balance and strength of the AFC, but it won't be because aging players didn't see their last opportunities coming, or – as Shields might have put it – been smart enough to see the ammunition running out.