There was 2:55 left in the game, and the Kansas City Chiefs were backed up on their four-yard line, trying to hold on to a 17-14 lead. On the Denver sidelines John Elway was pacing up and down like an angry lion, eager to atone for the last pass he had thrown—a deep interception into double coverage.
"I could see Elway pacing the sidelines," Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith said afterward. "He looked hungry. After the game I went over to him and said, 'I could feel you, man. I could feel your hot breath.' "
Elway never got his chance. The Broncos didn't get the ball again. Steve Bono had to convert a third-and-eight from the six, then a third-and-five from the 20, and he did, each of his completions coming on a short, timed pattern with everything in sync. And that is the strength of K.C. coach Marty Schottenheimer's system: ball control, no blown assignments, a quarterback who doesn't screw up, with the whole thing fortified by sound defense. It's a system built for preserving leads. "That's what this offense is all about," Bono said.
It was just fine for Sunday's Broncos-Chiefs slugfest, with the Kansas City lines wearing Denver down on both sides of the ball. It's the high-percentage way to travel when you want to ensure an impressive regular-season record and an annual trip to the playoffs—provided, of course, that you have superior personnel, which the Chiefs certainly have. But then the second season arrives, the postseason, and that's where the Schottenheimer system tends to break down.
The mechanical approach can take you only so far. There comes a time when innovation is called for, a touch of dash—the quick strike, the ability to bring your team back in a heartbeat or to put points on the board quickly when you get caught in a shootout. Is Bono the man for that kind of action? Well, he played his worst game last year in the Chiefs' 10-7 playoff loss to the Colts. And around the league the book on the Chiefs still reads: solid in all departments except quarterback.
"Everything we're doing with Steve is geared to the playoffs," offensive coordinator Paul Hackett said in the locker room after Sunday's game. "He's picking up a little more each week—to get to that innovative level. There's going to come a time, maybe in the postseason, maybe in a few weeks, when we're going to have to put together a 60-yard drive in the last two minutes to win it. That'll be the test. That'll show us what kind of quarterback we have. Don't forget, he did bring us back today."
The comeback Hackett alluded to was a 67-yard drive that began with 8:16 left, a pressure situation, sure, but not really a nail-biting two-minute drill. To his credit, Bono was working with a jayvee set of receivers filling in for injured varsity stars Lake Dawson and Tamarick Vanover. It took Bono practically the whole game to get his timing down with the new guys, but he finally did, and a big reason was that the Denver rush had died, worn down by the Chiefs' 1,510-pound offensive line.
Sunday's game was a corporate victory, a triumph for an organization that has kept the heart of the team—the fine offensive and defensive lines—together during this era of free agency. "After this past off-season I was very surprised to see us all back together again," left guard Dave Szott said. "And very happy, too."
The defensive line was suckered by traps and misdirections in the first half as Denver's terrific little tailback, Terrell Davis, rushed for 130 yards, but then the line rose up and took command. Davis picked up 11 yards after the intermission. The Kansas City pass rush came on, and Elway, who has been saddled with a short-passing control attack this year, finally got tired of throwing little dink passes and just let one go for glory, and that was the last pass he threw in Arrowhead.
The night before the game Elway had admitted that the role of dinkmeister was making him a bit wacky. "I'm not used to it," he said. "I keep wanting to go downfield. It's all I've done in my career."