In 1989 the Kansas City chiefs were a defense waiting for an offense to happen. Sure, they had the Nigerian Nightmare, 260-pound Christian Okoye, who ran for more yards than anyone else in the NFL, but when defenses ganged up to stop the big guy, K.C. was in trouble. The operation was in the hands of Steve DeBerg, Steve Pelluer and Ron Jaworski, a trio of cast-off quarterbacks who took turns starting, and the job just didn't get done.
Turnovers also were a weakness for Kansas City, which finished the season with eight more giveaways than take-aways. As flashy as the defense was (statistically, the second best in the league), it had a soft spot. Teams that put it to the Chiefs on the ground, that smacked them hard with bigger people, beat them. The San Diego Chargers did it twice; the Los Angeles Raiders once. So K.C. finished 8-7-1 and joined the ranks of "yes, but" clubs that almost made the playoffs. Yes, the Chiefs had something going for them, but how were they going to improve without a high-tech quarterback? How were they going to get better when they kept turning the ball over, when their defense picked odd times to come up soft?
Well, Kansas City is on its way now. After Sunday's 37-7 thrashing of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., the Chiefs were 8-4 and tied with the Raiders for the AFC West lead. What's more, they've got a tiebreaking hammer on L.A. because they've beaten the Raiders twice. What has happened this season?
"Execution," Marty Schottenheimer, falling back on the favorite word of NFL coaches and firing-squad commanders, said after the game. "What I'm so pleased about is that we've gone five straight games without an offensive turnover." Kansas City is plus-22 in takeaway-giveaway ratio, and that's well in front of the rest of the league.
The defense has toughened to the extent that the Chiefs' old nemesis, San Diego, which had rushed for 944 yards in five consecutive wins over them, could get only 99 in Kansas City's 27-10 victory on Nov. 18. Credit the defensive scheme for that, says Bill Maas, K.C.'s former All-Pro noseguard who now plays defensive end. Plus the new inside linebacker, first-round draft pick Percy Snow. Plus the emergence of Neil Smith, a No. 1 selection in 1988, as a solid run-stopper at the other defensive end.
In addition to Okoye, the Chiefs now have another bruising back, 240-pound Barry Word, the former New Orleans Saint whom they signed as a free agent in the off-season. If you go by the numbers, Word has been the more effective of the two. He has outrushed Okoye, 595 yards to 326, over the last seven games.
Now we come to the 36-year-old DeBerg. He has spent 14 NFL seasons listening to people say, "How can you?" before saying his name. As in, "How can you play Steve DeBerg and keep Joe Montana on the bench?" Or John Elway? Or Steve Young? Or Vinny Testaverde? DeBerg started ahead of them all while they were cutting their rookie teeth. This year it was "How can you call yourself a serious contender when Steve DeBerg is your quarterback?"
DeBerg, who looks at life through cynical yet slightly twinkling eyes, says, "I might go down in history as the greatest backup quarterback who ever lived." Has there ever been a time for him when he wasn't battling for a job? Yeah, on the 2-14 San Francisco 49er teams of 1978 and '79, when being the quarterback was a sentence rather than a reward. Since then, as he has made the rounds—Denver, Tampa Bay, Kansas City—he has always been a puzzler. "A lot of quarterbacks have supposedly been a lot better than me," he says, "but they've come and gone, and I'm still here."
This year DeBerg emerged as the starter through attrition, after the coaching staff decided that Mike Elkins, a second-round draft pick in 1989, wasn't ready; that Pelluer, a seven-year veteran who didn't show much as a starter with the Dallas Cowboys, wasn't the answer; and that Jaworski, who is 39, wasn't worth keeping around any longer. Now DeBerg finds himself as the unchallenged No. 1 quarterback on a contending team. There's a first time for everything. "Ironic, huh?" he says. "A lot of times I think, God, why didn't this happen to me when I was good?"
He has had weird games this year, when his passes were ducking and sailing. For instance, against the Seattle Seahawks at home in Week 10, wideout Robb Thomas had to make acrobatic, diving catches—on eight-yard hooks. But DeBerg also has had games in which he has flung rockets that could not miss. Sunday's outing against the Patriots was a case in point. First pass: 86-yard touchdown to Stephone Paige on a deep post. Second pass: 61-yard streak to J.J. Birden. Two passes, two completions, 147 yards. At the end of the first quarter, DeBerg had thrown for 216 yards, and by halftime he had 312.