KANSAS CITY — After two years of patient building and honing his third NFL team, Dick Vermeil carefully laid out a plan for the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs.
With an 8-0 record as the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team, it’s no surprise the Chiefs would pass Vermeil’s first-half exams with flying colors.
“To date, I think, we’ve done all the big-picture things that you have to do to one day be a playoff team,” Vermeil said.
The Chiefs, who host Cleveland (3-5) on Sunday, own one stat that in Vermeil’s estimation stands out above all others. The Chiefs are plus-18 in turnover differential, tops in the league.
“Ranked in order coming into the season, we said the first thing we had to do was play smart,” Vermeil said. “We end up plus-18 that first eight (games) to lead the National Football League in taking the ball away 27 times. That’s probably the No. 1 contributor to our success to date.”
Another priority when the season began: winning on the road, a place Chiefs struggled during last year’s 8-8 season.
“Last year we were 2-6 (away from home),” Vermeil said. “This year we’ve won on the road. We felt we had to keep former losing teams losing. Last year we lost to a couple of losing teams. This year we’ve kept them losing.”
In addition, Vermeil asked his team to win games in the AFC West, beat teams that finished last year at 9-7 without making the playoffs and teams that went 8-8.
So far, it has done all that.
Breaking even in the first eight games against teams that made the playoffs last year was another item on the list.
“Well, we’ve done better than break even,” he said.
One goal the Chiefs have luckily not needed to try to meet was to play well when without a starter.
The only injury to a starter came in the preseason, to cornerback William Bartee. Dexter McCleon was pressing Bartee for his job anyway, and has played so well in the first eight games he has solidly established himself as No. 1 on the depth chart.
“Dexter McCleon has played beyond expectations,” Vermeil said.
As the Chiefs begin the second half of the season and take aim at securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the goals will remain roughly the same.
“But we will reshape them just slightly. Just because a playoff team last year is losing this year, we don’t lose sight of the fact that they were a playoff team last year,” Vermeil said. “You do a better job of evaluating. Why are they not (a playoff team) right now? More often or not, it’s injuries, it’s turnovers, or strength of schedule.”
Throughout his team’s eight-game winning streak, Vermeil has never tried to hide the fact that there have been glaring deficiencies, such as total defense.
The turnover differential and Dante Hall’s four kick returns for touchdowns have made up the difference.