KANSAS CITY — The Kansas City Chiefs have proved once more that no matter how high any offense might soar, all is lost when the defense can’t stop anything.
It’s a point they’ve made three years in a row — perhaps never more emphatically than this season.
A year ago, in a decision that’s come to haunt them, the Chiefs elected to keep most of the players from a defense that finished 32nd in the league in 2002 and 29th in 2003, each time wasting a virtuoso season by the offense.
Firing the coordinator, Greg Robinson, they counted on new coordinator Gunther Cunningham to fix the problem with a tougher attitude and different scheme.
And for the third straight year the offense finished no lower than second in the entire league, while a shoddy defense (ranked 31st in 2004) made certain there would be an 11th straight year without a playoff win.
Five members of the record-smashing offense were voted to the Pro Bowl, including three-fifths of what may be the NFL’s finest offensive line. Tony Gonzalez, who is establishing his credentials as one of the league’s all-time great tight ends, also was chosen.
A 3-8 start effectively eliminated Kansas City by Thanksgiving. Then a humiliating 24-17 season-ending loss to playoff-bound San Diego’s second team ended the season at 7-9.
There’ll be no standing pat this time. The Chiefs are in good salary cap shape and will be active in the free agent market, particularly in search of a cornerback, a tackle and a linebacker with the speed and skill to make plays sideline to sideline.
There might also be staff changes. Carl Peterson, experiencing the most disappointing season in his 16 years as president and general manager, has not hidden his displeasure with assistant coaches who recommended that so many players be retained.
“We chose to invest the majority of our dollars, cap and cash, in re-signing seven of our unrestricted free agents,” Peterson said. “Was that the right decision? Obviously, on defense it does not look like that was the right decision.
“Quite frankly, I’m not only holding players accountable. I’m holding coaches accountable.”
Head coach Dick Vermeil has promised to be back for his fifth year. So will Al Saunders, the coordinator of an offense that set club single-season records with 4,591 yards passing and 369 completions and erased the NFL’s single-season record with 398 first downs.
The defensive line, compared with the linebackers and secondary, played relatively well, although there’s been no bigger disappointment than tackle Ryan Sims. Taken No. 6 overall in the 2002 draft, Sims shows little indication of becoming anything special.
Rookie defensive end Jared Allen, a fourth-round pick, was a surprising bright spot with nine sacks.
Among the linebackers, only Scott Fujita displayed any consistent ability. The Chiefs are disgusted with oft-beaten cornerbacks Dexter McCleon, William Bartee and Julian Battle. Safeties Jerome Woods and Greg Wesley, signed to new two-year deals last winter, both had sub-par seasons.
The Chiefs’ two best players were dominating left guard Brian Waters, who is heading to his first Pro Bowl, and Gonzalez.
Now 28 and in his prime, Gonzalez set the NFL record for catches by a tight end with 102, leading the league in receptions. He also passed Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow for fourth place among tight ends in yards receiving.
“Nobody is playing the position better than Tony Gonzalez,” Vermeil said.
Much of the core of one of the NFL’s most powerful attacks, however, is drawing dangerously close to the end of its prime.
Quarterback Trent Green and Pro Bowl left tackle Willie Roaf are 34. Pro Bowl fullback Tony Richardson and Pro Bowl right guard Will Shields are 33.
Priest Holmes, who missed the second half of the season with a knee injury after setting the NFL record in 2003 with 27 touchdowns, is 31. So are wide receiver Eddie Kennison, who had his first 1,000-yard season, and steady center Casey Wiegmann.
The Chiefs better solve their defensive problems in a hurry. If they don’t, they will look back on this as a bittersweet era of wonderous offenses wasted by weak defenses.
“There are going to be some guys who won’t play in the NFL on this team right now,” said Waters. “And that’s hard. You feel for guys like that. Everybody wishes we had more games to prove that we’re a better football team than what our record shows.”