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TBO: Assistants Show You Can Go Home Again


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Assistants Show You Can Go Home Again


Two veteran assistants have an opportunity to prove that not only can you go home again in the NFL, you can own the master keys.

Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, 58, and 64-year-old Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel are poised to make a huge impact this fall.

And if they do their jobs exceedingly well, the Chiefs and Redskins figure to become major players in the postseason.

Fired as Kansas City's head coach after the 2000 season, the fiery Cunningham returns to Arrowhead Stadium after three years as an assistant in Tennessee.

He'd better have a strong frame, because the weight - and fate - of a Super Bowl- starved franchise likely rests upon his shoulders.

It was difficult for Coach Dick Vermeil to fire Greg Robinson as K.C.'s defensive coordinator, but that 38-31 home playoff loss to the Colts forced a change.

General Manager Carl Peterson hasn't given Cunningham much to work with, but the Chiefs can take aim at their first championship in 35 years if their sorry defense can improve and move toward the middle of the pack.

Give Cunningham credit for taking this stressful job.

His dismissal was handled so clumsily, he learned of his firing by reading about it.

Cunningham was hurt deeply, but three years passed and he chose to bury his animosity and accept the challenge.

Cunningham's first priority is to restore some pride to a talent-challenged unit that allowed 5.2 yards per rushing attempt last year, one of the worst performances in the league's 84-year history.

Anyone who watched the AFC playoff game against Indianapolis quickly realized Robinson's players had no clue how to stop Peyton Manning that long afternoon.

Kansas City's defense played passively most of the way. When the Chiefs blitzed, Manning saw it coming well before the snap.

Despite 176 yards on the ground by Priest Holmes, the Chiefs disappointed 79,159 supporters in the first NFL postseason game without a punt.

Cunningham has a better idea.

He received the game ball from Vermeil after Monday night's 24-7 preseason victory against the Rams, who were limited to 68 yards against Kansas City's No. 1 defense.

The Chiefs hounded Marc Bulger with a variety of unorthodox blitzes as Cunningham's aggressive approach produced a defensive touchdown by linebacker Shawn Barber.

Yes, it was preseason, but a new attitude is evident at Arrowhead.

``We have the freedom to get up the field now and cause havoc,'' crowed DE Eric Hicks. ``This was more like the old days around here.''

Kansas City defenders may feel liberated, but Cunningham could run out of mirrors by midseason.

Young players like DT Ryan Sims must step up if the Chiefs hope to avoid wasting all that offensive firepower again.

In Washington, Coach Joe Gibbs returns to show owner Daniel Snyder what a balanced attack looks like in the wake of the Steve Spurrier era.

Bugel's acumen in developing young offensive linemen was a key to Washington's success from 1981 through 1989, when Bugel left for a head coaching job with the Cardinals.

Bugel also preceded Jon Gruden as Oakland's head coach, lasting only one season.

Now he's reunited with Gibbs in the nation's capital, where new running back Clinton Portis had better be ready to lead the NFL in carries.

``I'd say his tongue's going to be hanging out,'' Gibbs said of Portis' expected workload.

Like Gruden, Gibbs prefers a power running game that wears down opposing defenses.

Unlike Gruden, he has an elite back and a mammoth front line.

It's Bugel's responsibility to get the most out of young linemen like Derrick Dockery and former USF standout Kenyatta Jones.

The Redskins already have suffered a major blow with a potential season-ending injury to RT Jon Jansen, but Bugel has a knack for turning unheralded players into productive pros.

Two of his former ``Hogs'' in Washington, T Joe Jacoby and C Jeff Bostic, weren't even drafted.

Gibbs wants to ease the burden on new QB Mark Brunell, who turns 34 next month.

Washington ran the ball about as effectively as Tampa Bay in 2003, which is to say not very well.

Both teams attempted 421 rushes, and the Redskins finished with 1,653 yards, five more than the Bucs.

After two years out of the league, Bugel can't wait to prove old school is still in session.

``We've got a set of coaches who believe in us,'' said Jones, who has replaced Jansen as a starter up front. ``Coach Bugel's like a father for us. He reminds me of [uSF] Coach [Jim] Leavitt because they care about the players around here. When you do bad, you feel like you let Coach Bugel down.''

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