That first season Vermeil also had to put out brushfires. One of them involved cornerback Eric Warfield, a reckless kid with some talent, who had been cited for DUI in December 2001. The coach called him in. "He told me, 'You've got so much talent! No matter what happens, I've got your back,' " recalls Warfield. "He caught me off-guard. So personable, so honest. I saw him put so much of his heart into his work, I never wanted to let him down. Now I think I've really corrected my life." Warfield has started all 41 games of the Vermeil era, picked off 12 passes, deflected 32 others and become one of the most reliable and physical corners in the AFC.
Vermeil's first two teams in St. Louis won a total of 11 games. His first two teams in Kansas City won a combined 14. Entering Year 3 in both cases, the coach told anyone who would listen that his team would be good. For that to happen with the Chiefs, Vermeil knew, he'd have to make changes on a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2002, a unit that gave up a league-high 4.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to complete 65.4% of their passes. In free agency he targeted a speed linebacker, a cover corner and a rush defensive end.
Last March 1, Philadelphia linebacker Shawn Barber disembarked from a flight at Kansas City International Airport for a two-day visit with the Chiefs. On the three free-agent trips he had made in 2001—to the Eagles, the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants—he'd been met by a driver holding a placard with BARBER written on it. He was expecting a similar greeting in K.C., but there was Vermeil. "Shawn," the coach said, extending his right hand, "welcome to Kansas City."
Usually on such visits the position coach or a player will take the recruit to dinner. Vermeil and Carol did the honors—on consecutive nights. Usually the position coach will take the player on a tour of the facility, but Vermeil did that too. Usually the player will be in town one, maybe two days; Barber stayed four days. He signed before he left town. "I haven't been here long," Barber says, "but Dick gets involved in every aspect of your life. Our relationship is incredibly strong."
With free-agent finds such as Barber, cornerback Dexter McCleon and defensive end Vonnie Holliday, Kansas City is better on defense—25th in yards allowed, but fourth in points allowed per game (16.7)—thanks largely to a league-high-tying 29 takeaways.
Vermeil lives for turnovers. "I just faxed this to Parcells," he said, handing over a single page headlined WEEK NINE TURNOVER BREAKDOWN. "I fax it to him every week. He appreciates what this means. Look at this: 103 games played this year with a turnover margin of plus-one or more, and those plus teams win 83 percent of the time! Look what happens if you're minus on the road! You win 10 percent of the time!" He continually preaches to the players. They've responded with a plus-34 margin over the last 25 games, including an amazing plus-7 in a 38-5 win over the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago. Vermeil opened his postgame speech that day by crowing about being plus-7 (the Chiefs intercepted five passes, recovered two fumbles and didn't turn the ball over), and defensive end Eric Hicks yelled out, "What's the winning percentage on that, Coach?" Vermeil gave the 280-pounder a hug.
Last Saturday, on the eve of the Chiefs' 41-20 win over the Browns, with talk about the possibility of his team's going undefeated spreading around town, Vermeil told his players, " Martin Luther King said, 'You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the next step.' That's all. All we've said since training camp is we have to win one in a row." It's beginning to look, as it did in 1999, like Dick Vermeil is back on the road to the Super Bowl.