The four defensive backs enjoy an almost instinctive sense of communication. "We can almost feel what we're going to do," Cherry says. "Sometimes I don't even have to make a call, and we'll shift out of what we were in. It's because we know each other so well, live and breathe football together. The good thing is that the coordinators I have played for understood that and gave us freedom on the field. If I played for a rigid type of coach, I'd have problems."
Basically, the Chiefs play man-to-man, and they're comfortable with the cornerbacks playing a tight bump-and-run, but everything is subject to on-the-spot adjustments. "Two years ago San Diego was hurting us with pick plays near the goal line," says Cherry. "The book says you play man-to-man deep in your own territory, but I switched us into a zone to nullify the picks. It confused them. We held three times on the goal line."
If Cherry is the mind of the secondary, Burruss is the muscle. At 6 feet, 209 pounds, he is the consummate strong safety. He likes to take on big people. They talk about his battles with the Chargers' 6'6", 250-pound tight end, Kellen Winslow, and about the hit he put on Cincinnati's 270-pound fullback, Pete Johnson, in an exhibition game in Burruss's second year. Johnson was bearing down on him under a full head of steam. Burruss met him chest high—it's a point of honor with him to go high on the big guys—and sent him flying. "Flat-backed him" is the term Burruss uses.
All of Kansas City's defensive backs are hitters, but what lifts Burruss to a higher plane is his extraordinary athleticism. He always scores highest on the physical tests the Chiefs run in camp. He can cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, and he set three school track records at Charlottesville (Va.) High. Not long after he broke in as a rookie starter in 1981, the word started going around that maybe, just maybe, he was the best in the business. But aside from that team MVP award in 1985, he didn't receive any honors. "Big plays," says Burruss. "Deron explained to me that the things that get you noticed are the big plays."
So last year he made four of them, three long interception returns for touchdowns and a long return of a blocked field goal for a score. His four touchdowns were an NFL high for defensive players. Then in the Pro Bowl he preserved the East's 10-6 win with a goal-line interception. Burruss's nickname is the Ultimate.
"When he was at Maryland and I was at Penn State," says Blackledge, the Chiefs' quarterback, "we knew he was the one guy who could kill us. He was quiet on the field; I don't think I ever heard him say a word. But you could tell he was the leader of their defense, the guy they expected to make the big play."
Mention of Lewis, the left corner, brings considerable head-shaking from his fellow defensive backs. "A shame," Cherry says. "It's just a shame that Albert didn't make the Pro Bowl last year. If you sat down and drew up the ideal cornerback, it would be Albert. He is 6'2", 192 pounds and has just an unbelievable amount of speed. I've never seen a guy open up ground on him. And he'll hit you, yes he will."
Lewis grew up in Mansfield, La., as the 10th of 13 children. His parents didn't want him to play football, so he moved across town to his sister Katherine's house. She signed the consent form. "I always wanted to play football and go to college," says Lewis. "I saw it as my only way out of a life-style that was set by fairly rigid standards. Here was the black community, living by a certain set of standards. There was the Mexican community, the Hispanics. I felt there was more to life than living in a rigid environment. I never wanted people to limit me, and deep down I felt I could be anything I wanted if I tried hard enough. These were feelings I cherished, but I didn't share them with anyone."
At Grambling, Lewis played cornerback and sprinted on the track team. He remembers that when the scouts came out to time him and wideout Trumaine Johnson, who's with the Chargers now, the students filled the stands to watch. Kansas City's second-round pick in 1983, Lewis spent a year as nickelback and broke in when All-Pro Gary Green was traded to the Rams. The Chiefs knew Lewis could cover, but Kansas City had a reputation as a hitting secondary. The question was, could the kid hit? It was answered in the St. Louis game of his rookie season, when he laid two thunderous wallops on Stump Mitchell, one on a kickoff, one on a punt.
For a while Lewis was assigned the MDR, or Most Dangerous Receiver. Cover one receiver all over the field. It was a heavy load for a young cornerback. When Ross developed, the system was junked.