The start of a new season always brings excitement, even at the NFL level. But with that excitement comes a level of uncertainty as every team seeks to establish its level of play in an effort to emerge as one of the league's elite. Regardless of what has transpired in the past, each year provides a new opportunity to do so.
With that said, the Patriots will be facing even more uncertainty than normal when they host the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Herman Edwards' club just might have trouble gaining access to the locker room when it arrives considering the surplus of young players dotting the roster.
The Chiefs will take on the reigning AFC champs with 32 players on their roster who will be 25 or younger at kickoff, including 15 rookies and one first-year player. Nearly two-thirds of K.C.'s roster (33 players) will have two or less years of NFL experience heading into the game. So the Foxborough-area security folks could be forgiven if they're checking IDs at the door before letting these kids into the stadium.
"They have a lot of guys we haven't seen on film," defensive end Richard Seymoursaid. "They have a lot of guys that didn't play in the preseason and it looks like they're going to play. We'll be prepared for them all."
All of that means even less familiarity than normal for an opener since Bill Belichickand his coaching staff don't have much in the way of past track record to base their game plan on.
"I think that until you actually face them, you can watch them on film, but it always helps to have played against them," Belichick said. "This is a case where the majority of the players on that team we haven't played against. There is a lot of newness there. There are a lot of unknowns. That is the way it is on opening day anyway, but I think more so with the number of young players they have and being able to attack them. We just hope we will be ready to adjust."
In terms of the known quantities, the Chiefs may not have much in the way of numbers but what does exist is quality. Tight endTony Gonzalezremains one of the game's best, as does bruising running back Larry Johnson. Wideout Dwayne Bowe, although just in his second year, showed as a rookie that he's a playmaker to be taken seriously. On defense, linebacker Donnie Edwardshas been showcasing his versatility for going on 13 years now, and corner Patrick Surtainenters his 11th season as one the league's best cover men.
Other than that, there's a bunch of youthful exuberance. For the Patriots offense, that means getting up to speed quickly on a defensive line that features ends Turk McBrideand Tamba Haliaround tackles Tank Tylerand rookie first-round pick Glenn Dorsey. McBride and Tyler are second-year men while Hali is the "elder statesman" of the group entering his third.
"I think the first game is always different. You never know what they're going to do," center Dan Koppensaid. "You don't have a lot of tape on them so that presents a lot of challenges in itself so we'll just have to go with what we have, prepare the same and react to it on the field. You have to just go in and play. They have young guys in there but they're good. We have film on them, what little we have, and we'll have to use that."
Belichick added that Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunninghamlikes to rotate bodies up front, although Alfonso Booneand Ron Edwardsare both entering their eighth seasons so the staff has a little bit more information on them than the starters.
While the Patriots offense may have some feeling out to do against their unknown counterparts, the defense has its job well defined with Johnson figuring to key the Chiefs attack. He missed much of last season with a foot injury and was limited to just 559 yards on 158 carries, but he's a proven workhorse capable of controlling tempo virtually on his own.
Fortunately for New England, he must try to do so running behind an offensive line that was completely overhauled in the offseason. Rookie first-round pick Branden Albertis expected to start at left tackle despite missing much of the summer with a foot injury. He is only one of four new starters up front for Kansas City, which might make life difficult on Johnson. Still, the Patriots hold plenty of respect for the Chiefs ground game.
"They have a lot of great backs and it starts with Larry Johnson. He's proven himself in this league – 1,800 yards one year, 1,550 the next," linebacker Mike Vrabelsaid. "When you look at him, the drop-off isn't much after him with Kolby Smith, [Jamaal] Charles and [Dantrell] Savage and right on down the line. We understand that they have good running backs and don't want to give those yards up."
That might be the most important element to Sunday's matchup. By limiting Johnson, the Patriots defense would put the game in the hands of Brodie Croyle. The third-year quarterback out of Alabama has some athleticism to his game but he's yet to win as a starter in six tries. If Johnson can't get much going, it's unlikely that Croyle would be very effective with a swarming Patriots defense keying on him.
If Croyle is able to pick his spots, however, he might find some open receivers with Gonzalez, Bowe and former Ravens speedster Devard Darlinggoing against a re-worked Patriots secondary. If that's the case, the young upstarts could hang around longer than most expect.
Movers and shakers
As Belichick alluded earlier in the week, the Patriots roster remained in flux. On Thursday the team released tight end Jason Pociaskand re-signed tight end Stephen Spach. Spach had been let go to make room for Pociask, who was claimed off waivers on Sunday.
The team also let go of practice squad tight end Tyson DeVreeand added punter Reggie Hodges. Hodges has played in eight career games with St. Louis (2005) and Philadelphia (2005) after the Rams took him in the sixth round of the 2005 draft out of Ball State. He has 41 career punts and a 37.4-yard average with two touchbacks and nine kicks downed inside the 20.
Not only was Tom Bradyback on the practice field once again on Thursday, but it would appear as if he's as healthy as he's been in several years. After being listed on injury/practice participation reports for as long as anyone can remember with a right shoulder ailment, Brady was removed completely from the list with neither his much-ballyhooed right foot injury nor his chronic shoulder problem appearing.
The complete list for Thursday included the same four members from Wednesday: wide receiver Sam Aiken, center Dan Connolly, tight end Benjamin Watsonand defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith– all listed as having missed practice with knee injuries. Kicker Stephen Gostkowskialso was not in uniform although his absence was noted as "not injury related." After being limited on Wednesday, reserve guard/center Russ Hochsteintook part in the entire workout despite his groin injury. Kevin Faulkcontinues to serve his one-week suspension.