The Cards have been dealt, and the Kansas City Chiefs are standing pat with their straight. Elsewhere around the table teams are drawing to Hushes and full houses. But can you knock Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer for resisting change with a squad that ran up an NFL-best 13-3 regular-season record in 1995?
At the close of training camp the Chiefs listed 42 players back from last year's 53-man roster, a remarkable number in this era of free agency. We're happy with what we've got, management was saying. We just have to figure out how to win in January.
The only change anyone suggested, albeit quietly, was at quarterback. Steve Bono received little criticism during the regular season, when he threw for 3,121 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he saved his worst game for the postseason, a 10-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs. He threw three interceptions. He was 11 of 25. Granted, lots of things went wrong that day. And who knows how much Bono was bothered by lingering injuries to his passing hand (strained ligaments in his right ring finger and a bruised right thumb suffered in an early December game)? But the whispers persist: Is Bono the man to take the Chiefs all the way?
Last season he was master of the dink. Only Boomer Esiason of the New York Jets had a lower yards-per-completion average than Bono's 10.65, and Esiason was playing on a team with no down-field speed. Bono was, too. His leading receivers were fullback Kimble Anders and tight end Keith Cash. Lake Dawson, the primary wideout, caught 40 balls, which ranked him 53rd among NFL wideouts. This year Tamarick Vanover, the flashy kick and punt returner, will join Dawson as a starter at wide receiver. Plus the playbook will be reduced. "I've always believed that more is not always better," Schottenheimer says.
Kansas City found all sorts of weird ways to win last year. In September it won consecutive overtime games, one week rallying against the New York Giants with an offense that consisted of swinging the ball to Anders, the following week edging the Oakland Raiders—but only after Oakland wideout Tim Brown collided with the umpire, allowing Chiefs cornerback James Hasty to intercept a pass and return it 64 yards for a TD. Later in the year K.C. toppled the San Diego Chargers on Vanover's 86-yard overtime punt return, did in the Houston Oilers on defensive back Mark Collins's last-minute 34-yard fumble return and sealed a victory over the Denver Broncos on defensive end Vaughn Booker's 14-yard fumble return for a score.
Why quibble? Wins are wins, and the Chiefs, in making a concerted effort to sign their own veterans in the off-season, particularly their fine young offensive linemen, held to a steady course. Schottenheimer wouldn't trade his offensive line of, from left tackle to right tackle, John Alt, Dave Szott, Tim Grunhard, Will Shields and Ricky Siglar for any other in the game, and that includes the Dallas Cowboys' unit. Kansas City led the league in rushing with a 36-year-old tailback, Marcus Allen, and allowed only 21 sacks of a slow-footed quarterback.
The Chiefs also led the NFL in fewest points allowed and were second in total defense in 1995. In the biggest change on the defensive side of the ball, Derrick Thomas has moved to strongside linebacker, and Anthony Davis, a skilled cover man, has taken over Thomas's weakside position.
On paper K.C. is chalk to make the Super Bowl, but I don't see the Chiefs going there with this quarterback.
Ten games into the 1995 season, the Oakland Raiders looked as if they would make a Super Bow I run. Then quarterback Jeff Hostetler aggravated a shoulder injury against the Cowboys, and an 8-2 start gave way to an 0-6 finish. It was bad enough that the Raiders packed it in, but it was worse when a lot a players admitted as much. "We need people with character," said cornerback Albert Lewis after the season. Added guard Kevin Gogan, "We've got guys who just don't care."
Coach Mike White accepted a lot of blame. "The coaches didn't prepare the backup quarterbacks well enough," he said. "Poor conditioning. We never recovered from the Dallas loss. Our game plans focused too much on the opponent." I'm not sure what that last sentence means, but certainly there's enough blame to go around.