KANSAS CITY — The ride Andy Reid took the Kansas City Chiefs on last season was fun while it lasted. After winning just two games prior to his arrival, the downtrodden franchise rattled off nine wins to start the season and made the playoffs.
Now, the Chiefs have to pay for all that success.
The cash-strapped organization had to watch helplessly as three Pro Bowl players and several other key pieces departed in free agency, their big bounce-back seasons resulting in big-money deals elsewhere. And with little money under the salary cap, Reid and general manager John Dorsey were forced to plug holes with a bunch of unproven football vagabonds.
Throw in the fact Kansas City is facing a much tougher schedule and is no longer going to sneak up on anybody, and the goal this season becomes simple: avoid a precipitous backslide.
"What happened in the past, you can't do anything about it," Pro Bowl pass rusher Tamba Hali said. "We just have to build on it. Coming out here and working hard, listening to our coaches. They're putting us in this position to have success again."
Success or failure could come down to the play of two positions: an offensive line that has been reshuffled, and a defensive backfield that has been retooled.
On the offensive line, Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert joined starting guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz in chasing free-agent dollars. That trigged a series of changes. Second-year pro Eric Fisher has slid from right tackle to left, and Donald Stephenson moved into the lineup at right tackle. Sixth-round draft pick Zach Fulton has emerged as a new starting guard.
Stephenson is suspended for the first four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, though. That's resulted in yet another shifting of players and positions, and it's possible nothing will be settled until the regular-season opener Sept. 7 against Tennessee.
"I just care about getting the best five out there," Reid said of his offensive line.
As for the defensive backfield, Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers was released in a cost-saving move. Ineffective free safety Kendrick Lewis signed with Houston. That created a pair of openings the Chiefs have struggled to fill.
Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry's nagging heel injury hasn't helped matters.
"The competition has been good and I think it's helped all of them," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of his secondary. "We are going to need all those guys."
The offensive line and the secondary are unquestionably the groups to watch in Kansas City this season, but here are a few other story lines to keep an eye on:
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY: Quarterback Alex Smith and linebacker Justin Houston are both eyeing new contracts with free agency looming. The Chiefs have been negotiating with their agents, but those discussions will likely be tabled now that the regular season has arrived.
SACK CITY: The Chiefs' pass rush struggled once Houston went down with a dislocated elbow late last season. That combined with his pending free agency was a big reason the Chiefs used their first-round pick on Dee Ford, a pass-rushing linebacker from Auburn.
The Chiefs have tried using Houston and Ford on the field alongside Hali in obvious passing downs, a blitz package they hope will be able to help bail out their suspect secondary.
BOWE'S NO SHOW: Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will be suspended for the season opener after his arrest last November. He struggled to adjust to Reid's offense last season, making the $55 million deal he signed seem like a mistake. The Chiefs need him to bounce back in a big way.
CHARLES IN CHARGE: Jamaal Charles signed an $18.1 million, two-year extension before training camp largely as a reward for last season. He had nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 19 touchdowns. He will be counted upon just as heavily this season.
TOUGH ROAD: The Chiefs had a pillow-soft schedule last season. It's about as stiff as a brick this year. Games against New England, San Francisco and Seattle, along with two against Denver are tough enough, but the Chiefs also play just twice at Arrowhead Stadium in the first seven weeks.
"Where we wanted to be at this time, we're right there," Reid said. "They've got to pile on through the rest of these practices and get ourselves ready to play in a game."