In their last five games of 2003 the Chiefs faced three of the league's top 10 offenses--the Broncos; the Vikings; and, in the playoffs, the Colts. Kansas City's defense in those games was abominable, giving up 45, 45 and 38 points, respectively. The three teams combined to complete 71% of their passes and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Perhaps the biggest embarrassment came in the AFC divisional playoff loss; in that game the Colts never punted, and when the Chiefs were down by 14 and facing a fourth-and-six at their own 41 with 8:26 left, coach Dick Vermeil decided to go for it, fearful that his offense wouldn't see the ball again or would be 21 points down if he punted.
In the off-season, however, the Chiefs made no major personnel changes on a defense that ranked 29th in the league last season. "I don't see it as a huge risk, but time will tell," Vermeil says. "I truly believe we have more talent on this defense than the defense we won the Super Bowl with in St. Louis a few years ago. I'm sure that these players are better than they've shown."
He also knows what new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham can do. In one of the most eye-opening moves of the off-season, Cunningham returns to the team he worked for from 1995 through 2000, the first four years as coordinator, the last two as head coach. The fiery, attack- minded Cunningham replaces Greg Robinson, who preferred a reacting, gap-control scheme.
The marquee player on defense is left end Eric Hicks. In his first tour with the Chiefs, Cunningham turned the 6'6", 280-pound Hicks into an edge pass rusher on obvious passing downs, but he is big enough to tangle with offensive tackles on running plays. In 2000 Hicks had 14 sacks in 13 games. Under Robinson he rushed less and spent more time plugging gaps. In 48 games over the past three years, he had 171/2 sacks. "My confidence is soaring," Hicks said during camp. "For the first time in years, I'm flying off the ball."
The Chiefs are counting on Hicks to create havoc in the backfield. "In this system," he says, "you put pressure on the tackles. That's a system made for me, because I can run. We have linemen who can get into the backfield and disrupt the offense, at end and tackle. The old system didn't [make good use of that]. This one does."
Six starters remain from the unit that ranked 18th in the league in 2000, Cunningham's last as coach. Now we'll see what he can get out of them as an assistant. "We were the laughingstock of the NFL at the end of last season," says safety Jerome Woods, one of the holdovers. "We've got something to prove. Gunther's always been able to bring out the best in all of us, and we think he's going to do it again."
Cunningham, 58, tries to impose his will and his work ethic on his players. In early August, looking weary but highly caffeinated on the fourth afternoon of training camp, he was asked what time he had gotten up that morning. "I haven't slept since we got to camp," said Cunningham, who was linebackers coach with Tennessee for the last three years.
When Vermeil flew to Nashville to talk to Cunningham about returning, he knew it would be awkward to ask the man he replaced to work under him, but he was undeterred. "I didn't come here to interview you for the job," Vermeil told him. "I came here to ask for your help." Cunningham said he'd come. The two hugged. The deal was done.
"You have to understand something," Cunningham says. "When I was growing up in football, coaching in the Pac-10, Dick Vermeil was my hero. So it wasn't a hard decision, even though I had good friends question it because of the way this defense played last year. A good buddy of mine, [ Kansas City Royals third baseman] Joe Randa, told me, 'You're nuts.'"
He just might be. In his first stint with the Chiefs, Cunningham had a premier pass rusher, the late Derrick Thomas, and a younger, more promising group. But after ranking second in the league that first year, the defense finished in the top 10 only once in the next five seasons. With Kansas City's high-powered offense capable of scoring points in bunches, Hicks & Co. don't have to be that good. But the defense will have to play better than it did under Robinson if the Chiefs expect to make a Super Bowl push.