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Two hours after the biggest game of his coaching career, Gunther Cunningham leaned hard into a chair in his Arrowhead Stadium office on Sunday, took a long pull from his can of Miller Lite and recalled the conversation he had had the previous Monday with Chiefs defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer. Their talk had been brief, as both men were still smarting from Kansas City's loss to the Oakland Raiders the day before. In that game the Chiefs had scored 17 second-quarter points to go up 17-7, then had played an inexcusably conservative second half and lost 20-17. "I knew if we didn't start attacking people, we were going to lose our players," Cunningham recalled. "So I walked into Kurt's office and asked, 'Whose idea is it to play so much zone?' He said it was sort of his idea, because of all our new guys. 'That's bull——,' I said. 'Let's open this thing up, and do the stuff we've wanted to do. We have to, or we're going to lose 'em all.' "
Given that the Chiefs' next opponent was the juggernaut of the 6-0 St. Louis Rams, Cunningham's decree seemed untimely. But the Chiefs' shockingly decisive 54-34 upset of the Rams at Arrowhead—combining a blitz-filled defensive scheme and a pass-happy offensive game plan—backed up their coach's bark with ample bite.
Staked to a 20-0 first-quarter lead, the K.C. defense took control early against a banged-up St. Louis line, hitting quarterback Kurt Warner on nearly every play, intercepting two of his first six passes and never allowing him to find his rhythm. (The Chiefs also ended the Rams' NFL-record streak of 31 straight quarters with at least one score.) "They said no one could blitz him," said Cunningham a bit defiantly, "but there's no man alive I wouldn't try to blitz. Warner's a great player, but there was no way he could stand up to that pounding."
As they prepared for St. Louis last week, Kansas City coaches had thought the Rams might be vulnerable to certain weakside and up-the-middle blitzes, particularly when they went to their five-receiver sets. But get to Warner too late—as the staff saw time and again on tape—and a defense would get rolled over by a machine that was averaging nearly 44 points a game. Thus Cunningham had thrust Schottenheimer into a potentially disastrous plan: Drop the safer zone coverages for a pass rush that might collapse the pocket but could also expose a secondary that often featured three rookies.
"I know what I want to do, but it'll take a lot of faith on the part of the coaching staff," K.C. linebacker Donnie Edwards said last Friday. "We've only been blitzing about 15% of the time. I want to bring it more. I was told before this season that I'd get a shot from a number of looks, but we haven't brought it all yet, and the other teams know it. Against Tennessee this year I would get in a three-point stance and bluff the blitz, and [Titans tight end] Frank Wycheck would just laugh and say, 'Ah, Donnie, you know you're not coming.' That's got to stop."
Edwards got his wish. The Chiefs blitzed about 35% of the time, sacking Warner and backup Trent Green two times each. A fifth-year linebacker who has admirably filled the leadership void left by the death last February of All-Pro linebacker Derrick Thomas, Edwards had a game-high 14 tackles in spearheading the containment of St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk, who finished with an inconsequential 67 yards rushing and 32 yards receiving.
Edwards also was a major player in the biggest moment of the game. Trailing 27-14 with 20 seconds left in the first half, St Louis had driven to the Kansas City eight-yard line and seemed certain to score before intermission. Amid the roar of sold-out Arrowhead, however, Warner fumbled the hurried snap, and Edwards scooped up the ball. Meanwhile, a wincing Warner grabbed at his throwing hand. He had broken his right pinkie on the play and did not return. (He is expected to miss four to six weeks.) "That play turned the tide," said Edwards.
Galvanized by the fumble recovery, Cunningham, normally low-keyed during the team's halftime talks, exhorted his staff, particularly offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, to continue applying pressure. After the Oakland defeat several players privately criticized Raye's predictable play-calling. Taking the second-half kickoff on Sunday, though, the "new Chiefs," as Cunningham called them afterward, arrived. Starting at the K.C. 35, quarterback Elvis Grbac hit wideout Derrick Alexander on three consecutive plays that covered the 65 yards, the last pass a crisp 30-yarder for a 34-14 lead.
That quick drive was the best evidence yet that the 30-year-old Grbac, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, may be coming into his own after an uneven three years in K.C. (He was a backup with the San Francisco 49ers the four seasons before that.) "I think I've grown a lot since 1998, which was essentially a debacle for me," he says of a year in which he was plagued by injuries and inconsistency. "I had a coach [ Marty Schottenheimer, Kurt's older brother] who wouldn't even start me at home."
Grbac thought that season would be his last with the Chiefs. But then Cunningham, promoted after Schottenheimer's resignation, surprised many by pledging allegiance to his quarterback, and Grbac, for the first time in his career, held on to the starting job the entire season. " Elvis understands protection better than any quarterback I've ever seen," says 17-year veteran Warren Moon, who replaced an injured Grbac (bruised elbow) in the fourth quarter on Sunday and helped ice the game with a late touchdown pass. "He has surprising mobility, and he's very accurate. He's making throws this year that he might not have even tried last year."