Chiefs starting to air it out — ever so slightly

KANSAS CITY (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs will never be confused with the “Greatest Show on Turf,” not so long as Todd Haley is calling the shots.

The former wide receivers coach actually prefers a ground-based offense, as evidenced by the way Kansas City led the league in rushing last season. But when All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles went down with a season-ending injury, it forced Haley to change his mentality ever so subtly.

With the emergence of rookie wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin over the past two weeks, those subtle changes have become much more pronounced.

Baldwin hauled in a 39-yard touchdown catch in a 23-20 overtime win over San Diego, and finished with five catches for 82 yards. It was only his second game of 2011 after an altercation with a teammate during training camp resulted in a thumb injury that had kept him out most of the season — but it was the first sign he may be exactly what Kansas City had hoped.

“I’m excited about Baldwin’s development,” Haley said this week. “I said that even before he’d been out and had a chance to play, but again, a unique set of circumstances and a position, for rookies, not always a slam dunk to come in and be an easy go of it. On a big stage Monday night — though he’s not perfect, he has a lot of work to do — he showed some gumption in making some big plays.”

The Chiefs drafted Baldwin with the 26th overall selection in part because they wanted a big target to complement Dwayne Bowe, one of the breakout stars of the league last season.

They added former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston through free agency, giving quarterback Matt Cassel a reliable threat down the middle of the field. But when Charles went down with a season-ending injury, along with pass-catching tight end Tony Moeaki, the offense struggled to pick up first downs — not to mention touchdowns — and the result was three straight losses.

Kansas City finally got on track against bottom-dwellers Minnesota and Indianapolis, but Baldwin’s return coincided with the Chiefs going on the road and beating Oakland a couple weeks ago.

He’s also a big reason the Chiefs knocked off San Diego on Monday night, when Haley opened up the playbook and began taking some shots down field, stretching the defense more than he has all season.

“The thing that you notice about Jonathan Baldwin is he’s so big. He’s a big target and he’s a guy that can throw it up and go up and get it in different areas,” Cassel said. “At the same time, he’s a guy that’s still learning this offense and he’s still getting acclimated. This was only his second NFL game and his first game was probably a little bit of shellshock.”

There are certainly moments when Baldwin looks like a rookie.

During the Chargers game, a pass from Cassel slipped right through his fingers and into the hands of Eric Weddle, one of his two interceptions. Baldwin promptly told Cassel that he owed him one — a sure sign of maturity, Cassel said.

“The main thing was just us getting the W. That was the main thing. We played hard and to come up with the W, that was real big,” Baldwin said. “That’s what everyone was focused on.”

It would have been easy for Baldwin to get left behind while his thumb was in a cast. The former Pitt standout spent long days on an adjacent practice field, toiling away on his own while the rest of the Chiefs went through training camp. It was even more frustrating when the season began.

But Haley never gave Baldwin a chance to get down on himself. The notoriously hard-to-please coach worked him as hard as anybody, and the results have already shown up.

“He just wants the best out of everyone, you know? I respect that,” Baldwin said.

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