Looking for an encore

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 28, 2011



Tyson Jackson, former veteran of the West St. John Rams and LSU Tigers, is back in Edgard these days making the most of his downtime.

With the NFL lockout raging on, Jackson and his teammates with the Kansas City Chiefs don’t have anywhere to officially report at the moment until things are settled. The former high school state and collegiate national championship player recently helped co-sponsor the Rudolph Dinvaut Golf Tournament with friend and former WSJ and LSU teammate Quinn Johnson, and has been working out on his own to stay ready.

But when Jackson does get to return to work, he’ll be returning to a team on the rise —one that has found success earlier than anyone would have expected.

The ascent of Jackson’s Kansas City team came as a surprise to almost all after winning a total of 10 games from 2007-2009. In 2010 alone, conversely, the Chiefs won 10 and sealed the AFC West crown over the San Diego Chargers, who were heavily favored to take that honor in the preseason.

It all started with a game against those Chargers in Arrowhead on Monday Night Football in the first week of the year. The Chiefs were outgained in total yardage 389-197. But the Chiefs generated enough big plays offensively and on special teams to get a lead. Then, in the final minute of play, the Chiefs defense stopped Philip Rivers – who went on to lead the NFL in passing – and the Chargers offense on fourth down from the KC 6-yard line, sealing a shocking 21-14 victory.

“That was intense,” said Jackson. “Just a few seconds left, we get pressure … (Rivers) is scrambling around and tried to get it to the receiver. Fortunately for us, the ball fell in the wrong direction for them. Just a classic, down to the wire NFL game and a great start for our team.”

It was the first monumental stop of the season for Jackson and the defense, which was just getting its legs under it under new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

“That’s such a rivalry,” said Jackson of the Chiefs and Chargers. “To play them to open the year on Monday Night Football, and to play like we did … we didn’t execute all the X’s and O’s like we wanted to. But we showed resiliency and came out with the victory. Sometimes, you like to see your team win a tight game. It shows character, shows that the guys with you are willing to fight for one another.”

The successful first week proved a trend and not a fluke. The Chiefs ran out to a 5-2 record in their first seven weeks, holding five of those teams to less than 20 points.

Even as such a young team, the Chiefs began to play with confidence. Part of that had to be attributed to some additions to the coaching staff. Under head coach Todd Haley now resided two coaches with championship pedigrees: Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, both of whom coached under Bill Belichick during the New England dynasty of the early 2000s.

“They just had that winning tradition. They’re used to it and they expect it,” said Jackson. “It made it easier for us players to relate. Every week, we came out with a game plan and prepared to the point where nothing felt complicated. There wasn’t much to think about when the ball was snapped, because you knew what your objective on each play was.”

Jackson noted that while the Chargers game started to make a truly successful season seem more tangible, that he and his teammates started to see something potentially special brewing in the preseason, when in its third week the KC defense gave the Eagles fits throughout in a 20-17 loss.

“We didn’t win that game, but you could just see us getting 11 hats to the ball, allowing no holes for the back to run through. The secondary played real well. We could see that with a touch here and there we could be pretty good.”

Moving to Crennel’s defense wasn’t as major an adjustment for Jackson as he dealt with a year prior. At LSU, Jackson played in a base 4-3 alignment. But as a strong defensive end whose best assets included his size and strength, the Chiefs saw him as the ideal 3-4 end and drafted him No. 3 overall in 2009.

“It’s a totally different responsibility,” said Jackson. “In college, it was about disruption, getting upfield. The 3-4 is an old school defense. It’s not designed for the lineman to make plays. We’re there to open things up for our linebackers. But we all understand, if we’re strong as a defensive line, it can make it impossible to run the ball.”

The Chiefs went through a rough patch after their strong start, dropping games to division foes Oakland and Denver, the latter a 20-point defeat. But the Chiefs quickly righted the ship and won their next three games trouncing Seattle and Arizona before gaining a measure of payback against Denver in a 10-6 win.

Those kinds of low-scoring wins weren’t out of play for the Chiefs, whose young defense had hit its stride and gave its team a chance even when the offense was having an off day. Jackson plays on the line alongside former LSU teammate Glenn Dorsey. Tamba Hali has evolved into one of the NFL’s elite passrushers. Brandon Flowers moved into the elite at cornerback, and safety Eric Berry lived up to expectations at safety after being drafted No. 6 overall in last year’s draft.

It’s a young core, and one that finished the year with one of its best performances, even if it didn’t look like it on the scoreboard. KC finished the season 10-6 and advanced to host Baltimore in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. The Ravens won 30-7 in a game that the Chiefs offense just couldn’t get rolling, turning the ball over five times, gaining just 161 yards and converting just one third down.

Even so, the defense held firm and the Chiefs were within striking distance until late in the third quarter, when Baltimore finally opened up a 16-point lead with a Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin touchdown pass.

“We learned that we can play with anyone,” said Jackson. “We did a lot of bad things in that game, on both sides of the ball. But we hung with them, even so, the whole game. We know we didn’t execute, and we know if we clean up those issues, things will be different in the future.”

Jackson said that the exciting thing about the Chiefs defense – and the majority of its team, for that matter – is it’s youth. He said that he feels with this core, the team can push to contend for a long time.

He noted second year coach Todd Haley as a “very intense” individual who “tells it like it is” when a mistake is made. At the same time, Jackson said that when credit is due, Haley is quick to issue that praise.

Offensively, the Chiefs are led by Matt Cassel, Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles, the latter of which finished second in the league in rushing a year ago.

“The best part about it for me is that I don’t have to chase that guy around,” Jackson laughed. “It takes a team effort to take him down. He’s so patient, and when he declares where he’s going it’s hard to stop him.”

While the Chiefs bowed out early, Jackson did get to experience later playoff success through a close friend. Quinn Johnson’s Packers advanced to and won the Superbowl over the Pittsburgh Steelers, something that made his former LSU and West St. John teammate swell with pride.

“I’m so happy for Quinn,” said Jackson. “Knowing him all my life, seeing someone like that reach his goal and do it so soon … that’s who he is. I’m happy to call a guy like that my friend.”

Both Edgard natives now play the waiting game, like all other NFL players, coaches and fans, to see where the league’s labor talks will go.

Jackson said that he realizes he has no control over things, but that when the call comes to return to work, he’ll be ready to answer.

“It is what it is, but you don’t stop preparing,” said Jackson. “I’ve been working out with a few guys and just pushing my way through the situation. I just hope for the best, but I’m making sure I’m physically ready for when we get going again.”