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3 Kansas City Chiefs
Michael Silver
August 17, 1998
With a new system that diversifies their offense, the perennial playoff flops hope to have more poise under pressure and avoid another January disaster
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August 17, 1998

3 Kansas City Chiefs

With a new system that diversifies their offense, the perennial playoff flops hope to have more poise under pressure and avoid another January disaster

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Schedule

Sept.

6

OAKLAND

13

at Jacksonville

20

SAN DIEGO

27

at Philadelphia

Oct.

4

SEATTLE

11

at New England

18

OPEN DATE

26

PITTSBURGH (Mon.)

Nov.

1

N.Y. JETS

8

at Seattle

16

DENVER (Mon.)

22

at San Deigo

29

ARIZONA

Dec.

6

at Dever

13

DALLAS

20

at N.Y. Giants

26

at Oakland (Sat.)

As anxiety dreams go, it'S a doozy. Elvis Grbac is standing on the turf of chilly Arrowhead Stadium, trying to drive the Chiefs to a game-winning touchdown in an AFC divisional playoff against the Broncos, when suddenly his world turns to mush. The final seconds are ticking away, he can't hear the play call in his helmet radio receiver, and everyone in the joint—Grbac's teammates, his coaches and 77,000 unsettled fans—is screaming for the quarterback to do something. He wants desperately to block it all out, take charge and rally his team to victory. But Grbac is numb and, in a sense, naked, stripped of aggressive options by a Kansas City offense he calls "constrictive."

This isn't a dream though. It is harsh reality, the memory of a 14-10 defeat last Jan. 4 that added to the Chiefs' nine-year litany of postseason misery under coach Marty Schottenheimer. The sordid season-ending sequence, which ended when Grbac's end-zone pass to Lake Dawson into double coverage on fourth-and-two from the 20-yard line fell incomplete, exposed the flaws in a team that finished with the AFC's best record in 1997. To the organization's credit, the bulk of its off-season energies were directed toward avoiding a similar disaster.

Grbac, who was flourishing in his first year as a starter until he broke his left clavicle in the ninth game and missed most of the rest of the regular season, should have much less cause for anxiety this year, because the departure of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett to USC brings a shift in philosophy. To replace Hackett and his West Coast-style offense, Schottenheimer promoted running backs coach Jimmy Raye, who previously served as offensive coordinator with the Rams ('84), the Buccaneers ('85-86) and the Patriots ('90). Whereas Hackett's players were seldom drilled to anticipate and execute certain audibles, Raye has installed an offense that gives the quarterback much more freedom to change calls at the line of scrimmage.

"This year we're going to try to win on every offensive play," Grbac says. "That means everyone on the field will be prepared to improvise and attack."

An improved receiving corps will make the job easier. Andre Rison, released by three teams in the two previous years, resurrected his career in '97 and became the Chiefs' first Pro Bowl receiver since Carlos Carson in 1988. But as defenses caught on to Rison—he had just 29 of his 72 catches and two of his seven touchdowns in the second half of the season—no other viable receiving threat emerged to keep opponents honest. "It got to the point where we knew pretty much every coverage that we were going to get: It would be rolled to Andre's side," Grbac says.

Kansas City addressed that issue by signing fifth-year man Derrick Alexander, fresh off a 1,000-yard season for the Ravens, and elevating its No. 1 pick in '97, Tony Gonzalez, to the starting tight end spot. "Tony is big and athletic," says Raye, "and if he stays healthy, he could become the standard by which [tight ends] are judged."

If Raye has his way, the Chiefs' fate in important games won't come down to Gonzalez or Rison, or to Grbac's ability to call audibles. Like any old-school disciplinarian with a yen for physical play, Raye aims to stay on the ground when possible. "I want us to be able to run the ball in the fourth quarter," he says, "when the other team knows we're going to run."

Kansas City should get plenty of chances to do that, because its defense seldom gives up enough points to let games get out of hand. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham may be the best in the business, and his fast, punishing unit of last season has been fortified by adding former Raiders defensive tackle Chester McGlockton.

Whether K.C. can grind out yards when necessary is the question. The offensive line is solid, anchored by guards Will Shields, who made the Pro Bowl, and Dave Szott, who should have. But the retirement of Marcus Allen and the release of former first-round draft pick Greg Hill leave the halfback job in the hands of the inexperienced Donnell Bennett. The 236-pounder says he is fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered as a rookie in '94. He battles asthma and does nightly breathing exercises in an attempt to control his condition.

"I've dealt with adversity all my life," Bennett says. "I have to stay on top of the asthma because I don't want it to be a hindrance to me getting 100 yards in a game. I'm at the point where if I relax, block out everything and concentrate real hard, I can control it."

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