Once among the most revered and successful teams in professional sports history, the former brilliance of the Kansas City Chiefs has been, in the words of the old narrator, subsequently destroyed by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.
A brief history of the franchise is in order.
(1960-1973; avg record 9-5-1) After winning the American Football League championship in 62, AFL founder and team owner Lamar Hunt moved the franchise from Dallas to Kansas City in 63. The Chiefs were THE team in the AFL, winning their second title in 66, then playing in the first Super Bowl in 67, and then winning it in 70. With the legendary Hank Stram coaching and stud QB Len Dawson returning from an early-season knee injury, the Chiefs easily won SB-IV over the Vikings 23-7. It would be the Chiefs last championship to date. Dawson would go on to be named NFL Man of the Year in 73 (he also won AFL MVP in 62), remains the Chief of all Chiefs, the George Brett of football. These were the golden early days of the franchise, as nine of ten Chiefs to have their numbers retired played together during these years. On the heels of this success, Lamar Hunt built Arrowhead Stadium–the premier outdoor football stadium of its time and still one of the best–in 72.
(1974-1988; avg record 6-9) Over the next 15 years, KC legends Hank Stram, Len Dawson, Bobby Bell, Otis Taylor, Willie Lanier and Jan Stenerud retired, and the franchise didn’t win a single playoff game—appearing only in 86 to lose a wild card games to the Jets. The Jets! Vomit loaf. These were the first of the Dark Ages of Kansas City football.
(1989-1997; Avg Record 11-5) I’m rounding up a bit on the average record because this is a blog not a history book, but this was a great time to be a kid in Kansas City (I was ages 5-13 during this golden era). This is essentially one team in my mind: Derrick Thomas (the second greatest Chief of all time and one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history) and Christian Okoye (the Nigerian Nightmare, subject of some of the best posters in sports history) were drafted together in 89, Marty Schottenheimer was the mastermind of the slow, grinding offense and tough blitzing defense, and brief but substantial appearances were made by all-time greats Joe Montana and Marcus Allen. During these nine consecutive winning years, we made the playoffs seven times but only made it to the AFC Championship Game once, with Montana and Allen in 93. “Marty Ball” was great for regular season home games against the lowly Raiders, but could never hold up in playoff road games against Elway, Marino and the Bills.
The 95 season stands out more than any other year for me. Montana had retired but Steve Bono filled in as an Alex Smith like QB: quiet and consistent. Pro Bowl RB Marcus Allen was chasing the career touchdown record and fullback Kimble Anders was a screen pass catching machine. Marty Ball was winning with running and defense, and after five game stretch where they gave up only three total touchdowns, the Chiefs were 10-1. After non-divisional road losses to Dallas and Miami, the Chiefs finished 13-3 (with an avg scoring margin of 23-15) and gained the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Hosting the lowly 5-seed Colts (feat. QB Jim Harbaugh), who had just won in San Diego, the Chiefs were expected to win big–especially with Colts RB Marshall Faulk out with an injury. It was simple: if the Chiefs offense could simple score a couple touchdowns, or even just one with a few field goals, we would win. According to my memory, it was about -15 degrees outside, and our old offense (Marcus Allen is a legend but was no young man by this point) was painfully rigid. After a missed field goal inside 40 yards by That Kicker Whose Name I Still Can’t Say, the first half closed at a boring 7-7. After an early Colts FG in the third quarter, the Chiefs continued to make slow progress, and That Kicker missed a second FG from inside 40 yards. I’m pretty sure Bono threw three interceptions in the second half, but our defense continued to hold. With four minutes left in the game, trailing 10-7, Marty made a QB change. Did you read that? After getting a #1 seed with his starting quarterback, Marty PUT IN THE BACKUP QB trailing by 3 with four minutes left in a playoff game! I’m not mad over the decision. I liked Rich Gannon; I’m just saying it was a bold move. What happened? Gannon drove the Chiefs from his own 18 (I had to look that up), moving the chains and eating up the clock in true Marty Ball fashion, and settled the team in to the 25 yard line with less than a minute to go. Enter: That Kicker, for a standard 42 yarder. Surely no one misses three kicks of roughly 40 yards in the playoffs! His one job, worth HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS even in 95, is to make this kick 9 out of 10 times! Nope. That Kicker shanked his third chip shot of the afternoon, and I went up to my bedroom and cried face down on the carpet until my mom came up to check on me.
That was 18 years ago today: January 7, 1996. It should have been an hard-fought 16-10 win on the road to the Super Bowl. Instead our former brilliance was subsequently destroyed by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.
(1998-2012; Avg Record 7-9) This decade and a half lacks an overall identity. It wasn’t as dark as 74-88, with three playoff appearances and a handful of great memories, but still the Chiefs didn’t win a single playoff game. The best season was 2003: the Chiefs started 9-0 behind a great running game and solid defense, losing at home to the Bengals three days after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated (read more than 100 evidences of the SI Jinx here). The Chiefs finished 13-3 behind Trent Green, an Alex Smith like QB, quiet and consistent. Again, the Chiefs had a Pro Bowl RB in Priest Holmes, who had an NFL-record-at-the-time 27 touchdowns that season. Again, the Chiefs a bye week and home game in the playoffs, and again, it hosted the Colts at Arrowhead Stadium. The Colts were a much more formidable opponent this time; they went 12-4 behind a young Peyton Manning and crushed the Broncos 41-10 the weekend before. But still, things were looking up. I was in my freshman year at Mizzou, and the KC Royals had just had their best season since 89. (They almost made the playoffs!—that is, before an EPIC post All-Star break meltdown).
Chiefs-Colts 2.0 was the opposite the 96 matchup. It was the first playoff game in NFL without a punt; Manning threw for 300+ yards and 3 TD’s; Holmes had 200+ total yards and 2 TD’s; KC kick returner Dante Hall had 2 TD’s; and even Green had a good day (200+ yards, 2 TD’s). After trailing by two touchdowns for most of the game, the Chiefs came within a touchdown with four minutes remaining. It would have been a great time for the game’s first punt, but the Colts continued to move the chains before taking a knee to seal our defeat. That was January 11, 2004, and I don’t think I cried too much.
2013 (record 11-6) The Chiefs’ 2012 season was a nightmare and not the Nigerian kind–even one of our linebackers shot himself in the stadium’s parking lot. But the addition of Andy Reid, Alex Smith and Eric Fisher seemed to indicate a major turnaround. I’m still absorbing the tragedy that was our season, but the parallels to 95 and 03 are painfully obvious.
Season: 95; Start: 10-1; Finish: 13-4; Avg. Scoring Margin: +8; QB: Steve Bono; RB: Marcus Allen; Playoffs: 3-point loss to Colts
Season: 03; Start: 9-0; Finish: 13-4; Avg. Scoring Margin: +9; QB: Trent Green; RB: Priest Holmes; Playoffs: 7-point loss to Colts
Season: 13; Start: 9-0; Finish: 11-6; Avg. Scoring Margin: +8; QB: Alex Smith; RB: Jamaal Charles; Playoffs: 1-point loss to Colts
I still can’t talk about this past weekend’s game—Chiefs-Colts 3.0. I can’t talk about the Charles-Houston-Flowers-Davis injuries. I can’t talk about the fumble touchdown, about the Luck, or about Bowe’s right foot landing on the line. I just can’t. While watching the game with the only few Chiefs fans here in Louisville, I put my phone in their kitchen to not be distracted by any messages/tweets from my Colts-loving “friends.” After the game (well, about 20 minutes after the game, when I could finally get off the couch), I had over twenty messages—-about half truly offering condolences and the other half just being downright mean. How did that happen? What are we, Cleveland?? All I can do is just move through the same old stages of grief, beginning by embracing the reality: Saturday afternoon’s collapse pretty much sums up the past 20-some years here in the Chiefsland.
First Half of Season: 9 wins, 0 losses, 12 points per game allowed
Second Half of Season: 2 wins, 6 losses, 30 points per game allowed
First Half of Chiefs-Colts 3.0: +28 scoring margin, +168 total yards, +4 turnovers
Second Half of Chiefs-Colts 3.0: -29 scoring margin, -191 total yards, -1 turnovers
There it is, folks. It hurts like hell, but the numbers don’t lie. (One of the stages of grief is researching obscure stats late at night.) I guess two things are certain:
1. Ours is a corrupt, fallen world.
2. It sucks to be a Chiefs fan right now.