Dispatches From Bowlvania: We Were Promised a Rose Garden

NFL Weekend Preview, Part 2

David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT Kansas City's Jamaal Charles versus Indianapolis

Chief Concern

The agony, and the infinitely less frequent ecstasy, of being a Kansas City sports fan — and how the Chiefs could change the narrative this weekend

Some cities, like some guys, have all the luck. Some sports towns, by virtue of expert management, transcendent superstars, rich owners who don’t want to take their money with them, or sheer blind luck, collect championships the way Wall Street tycoons collect trophy wives.

And some sports towns don’t.

There’s no reason why the success or failure of one sports team should rub off on its neighbors. But then there’s no reason why the Cubs and White Sox both failed to win a World Series for 87 consecutive years, from 1918 through 2004, a span of time in which all 14 other non-expansion franchises won a championship, and 13 of the 14 won at least two. There’s no logic behind the Philadelphia Phillies and A’s being under .500 for a combined 26 straight seasons from 1934 to 1946, finishing dead last 17 times. There’s no explanation for why a four-team city like Boston would go without a parade following the summer of 1986 until the winter of 2002 — 61 consecutive championship-free seasons — and then throw eight parades in the 12 ensuing years, including at least one for all four teams.

Yes, there’s a probabilistic explanation for all of these phenomena — the mathematical expression for “shit happens” — but if you hail from one of these towns, it never feels random in the moment. It feels preordained. Sports has a caste system; some cities are Brahmins, some are untouchables, and mixing between the two is strictly verboten.

No town is more untouchable than Cleveland, of course. The city has been championship-free since 1964, when the Browns won a title that’s so old it predates the Super Bowl. Since then, Cleveland fans have endured trauma of many stripes. The Browns had their hearts ripped out by John Elway in back-to-back years, then left town — and by the time Cleveland got a new football team, the old franchise was on the verge of winning a Super Bowl in Baltimore. The Cavaliers were run with such incompetence in the 1980s that the NBA had to pass the “Ted Stepien Rule” to prevent teams from trading away their no. 1 draft pick in consecutive years. A quarter-century later, favorite son LeBron James broke up with the Cavs on national TV. The Indians won five consecutive division titles in the 1990s, but twice lost the World Series, once when they blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7.

But at least Cleveland’s trauma has brought drama. If there’s nobility in suffering, the city’s fans were knighted a long time ago; Cleveland has earned national renown for being Heartbreak City, complete with proper nouns to describe the high points (The Drive, The Fumble, The Decision). Major League made us all Indians supporters for a time. Cleveland sports fans have been brutalized, but at least their sacrifices have been recognized. And they did win the lottery the year that winning the lottery meant drafting James, the best player of the last 20 years in the sport where one player can make the biggest difference.

By comparison, the plight of the Kansas City sports fan is almost ignored. We suffer in silence. But man, have we suffered.

A necessary caveat that must precede all that I’m about to write: Whether you consider Kansas City sports fans truly cursed depends on how you feel about Major League Soccer. If you place MLS on the same level as the NFL, MLB, NBA, or even the NHL, then the rest of this column will be invalid to you. Sporting KC just won the MLS Cup last month, and also won in 2000. Personally, I love soccer and hope we’re referring to the five major sports leagues in America in a decade or two — but I know we’re not there yet. Like most sports fans, my rooting allegiances had solidified by the time I reached adulthood … and MLS didn’t even exist when I hit that point in 1993.

Those allegiances were to the city’s two major sports franchises, the Royals and the Chiefs. I’ve written way too much about the Royals on this site already, but in brief: This past September, the Royals played the franchise’s most meaningful games since 1985 — and they were still mathematically eliminated with four games left in the season. The Royals haven’t been in the playoffs since 1985; their 28-year playoff drought is eight years longer than every other team in the four major sports. (The Toronto Blue Jays are second, at 20 years.) The team hasn’t even come close; 28 years is practically 40 percent of an average life span, and those years have passed without a single moment of real drama for the Royals.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, have been fairly regular playoff participants over the years. After earning just one playoff berth over 18 years from 1972 to 1989, the Chiefs have been to the playoffs 10 times since, including in six straight years from 1990 to 1995. In 1993, the Chiefs went 11-5, then opened the playoffs with an overtime victory following an improbable comeback in the wild-card round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A week later, on January 16, 1994, the Chiefs overcame a 10-0 halftime deficit to beat the Houston Oilers, 28-20, and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

It remains, nearly 20 years later, the last time a Kansas City sports team walked off a playoff field victorious.

The Chiefs got thumped, 30-13, by the Buffalo Bills the next week, the first of seven consecutive postseason losses. The last one, in January 2011, set the all-time NFL record for most consecutive playoff losses.1 In four of those seven losses, the Chiefs were deserved underdogs. But three of those games rank among the most painful NFL playoff losses by any team in the last 25 years.

You can read a full account of what happened in those games here, but in brief: The Chiefs finished 13-3 in 1995, 1997, and 2003. They were undefeated at home all three years, and earned three first-round byes.

Playing at Arrowhead Stadium, they lost their first playoff game all three times.

In January 1996, they lost to a 9-7 Colts team, 10-7, because Lin Elliott had probably the most consequentially bad day by a kicker in NFL history, missing 35-yard and 39-yard field goal tries, and then capping off his day by missing a 43-yarder that would have tied the game with less than a minute to play. In January 1998, the Chiefs lost to the archrival Denver Broncos, 14-10,2 partly because new kicker Pete Stoyanovich hit the left upright on a field goal attempt after his initial try was called back on a phantom holding call, and partly because tight end Tony Gonzalez was ruled out of bounds on a touchdown catch when replays showed he was clearly in play. That mistake may well have been the final impetus for the NFL reinstituting instant replay, which it did for the 1999 season. In January 2004, the Chiefs hosted the Colts again, only this time Indy was quarterbacked by a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, retrofitted for football under the working name “Peyton Manning.” The Chiefs, who led the NFL in points that season, didn’t punt all game. But neither did the Colts, who — aided by then Chiefs kicker Morten Andersen missing a field goal from 31 yards — won, 38-31. Since 1995, Chiefs kickers are 3-for-9 in the playoffs.

For two decades, Royals fans have experienced a ceaseless monotony of suck, while Chiefs fans have rooted for a generally competitive team bound to eventually suffer excruciatingly bad luck. They are two sides of the same coin.

There are 122 teams in the four main professional sports. The Royals have gone longer without winning a playoff game than the other 121,3 and the Chiefs have gone longer than all but four teams: the Royals (October 1985), the Cincinnati Bengals (January 1991), the Detroit Lions (January 1992), and the Toronto Blue Jays (October 1993). Both Kansas City teams own one of the five longest playoff-victory droughts in all four sports.

At least the Royals and Chiefs are still in Kansas City. That alone makes the city’s experience with baseball and football better than its experience with basketball (the Kings fled for Sacramento in 1985) or hockey (the Scouts lasted only two years before moving to Denver in 1976, then became the New Jersey Devils in 1982).

Add it together, and you get a stat that encapsulates the horror of being a Kansas City sports fan better than any other. There are 32 metropolitan areas featuring at least two franchises among the four major sports leagues.4 Here’s how long each metropolitan area has gone without a playoff victory:

Thirty-one of the 32 metropolitan areas have watched one of their teams win a playoff game in the last six years.5 Kansas City’s streak is two weeks shy of two decades. Kansas City sports fans have endured a playoff-victory drought more than three times longer than every other qualifying sports town in North America. The history of Kansas City sports isn’t something you’d wish on anyone.

And that history is what makes the 2013 Chiefs such an unbridled delight.

Scott Pioli and Romeo CrennelThe first thing you have to understand about the 2013 Chiefs is this: Their season became a success 11 months ago, and everything that’s happened since is gravy.

The Chiefs fired GM Scott Pioli last January 4, ending a particularly nasty chapter in franchise history. Pioli was hired amid much fanfare in January 2009 and given complete charge of football operations. He seemed like the perfect hire at the time; Pioli had been Bill Belichick’s right-hand man as the Patriots’ vice-president of player personnel since 2002, winning three Super Bowls and twice earning NFL Executive of the Year honors. He was the most sought-after GM candidate in the game; the Chiefs and their fans were delighted to get him.

In our defense, we had no idea at the time that Pioli, like Josh McDaniels … and Romeo Crennel … and Charlie Weis … and Eric Mangini … was a mole secretly released into the wild by Belichick in order to destroy his opponents from within. What followed were four years of bad football (a 23-41 record), military-grade secrecy, and a toxic blend of arrogance and paranoia that drove off front-office employees, players, and fans alike. Pioli’s tenure had one highlight — an AFC West title in 2010 earned thanks to a weak division and some good luck6 — and more lowlights than can possibly be listed.

I’ll list some of them anyway.

Despite the secrecy, word started to leak out within a few months of Pioli’s tenure about some of the measures he had put into place: of locks being changed on doors in the stairwells so that non-football personnel working on one floor could not access the football personnel on another floor; of security guards going through the offices of non-football personnel who had views of the Chiefs’ practice field from their windows, to make sure their blinds were closed during practice.

After the 2011 season, all the rumors and whispers crystallized in this utterly devastating article in the Kansas City Star about the Pioli regime. Soon-to-be-fired head coach Todd Haley had told a reporter he thought his office and his cell phone were bugged. Massive turnover had taken place among front-office personnel. Pioli micromanaged everything, from which entrance to use when working out in the gym to the amount of money the organization could spend on purchasing coffee. Pioli sent out directives — I’ve been assured this is true — limiting the number of color copies that employees could make, and tried to stamp out an epidemic of wasted ink pens.

The story of Pioli taking a candy wrapper that had been found in a back stairwell and brandishing it during a staff meeting as proof that the Chiefs weren’t paying attention to detail became the emblem of his administration. The Star piece lay bare what people around the organization already knew: The Chiefs were not just bad, but also thoroughly unlikable.7

While Pioli was finding ways to reduce the organization’s expenses on office supplies and coffee, he evidently lost sight of the fact that Matt Cassel was his starting quarterback and Haley and Crennel were his head coaches. Success in the NFL mostly comes down to the quarterback and the coach, and Pioli botched those two things about as badly as one can, while wasting resources making sure that his own employees weren’t watching the team practice. Not even kids in juvie lockup have their priorities that misplaced.

After the Star article, the pressure was on Pioli to show that his fear-based management style could yield tangible results in 2012, his fourth season on the job. He got results, all right: a 2-14 record and the first pick in the draft. With one glaring, horrifying exception, it was the most enjoyable 2-14 season I could possibly imagine. As a Chiefs fan, I wanted to bathe in the team’s incompetence, luxuriate in the mistakes, dance on the crumbling ruin of the wannabe emperor’s house of cards. And wow, did it crumble. The Chiefs became the first team in NFL history to play their first eight games without a lead.8 Fans paid for a banner reading “We deserve better! Fire Pioli — Bench Cassel” to fly over Arrowhead Stadium before a home game. Candy wrappers were everywhere. Pioli was a walking pink slip from about October on.

That one exception, though, rendered the losing irrelevant and destroyed lives in the process. On December 1, starting linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, the mother of his 3-month-old daughter, then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in the parking lot after talking to Pioli and Crennel. I admit to having an almost irrational contempt for Pioli, who was basically Matt Millen with an attitude in his four years with the Chiefs. But on that day, Pioli had to stare down an armed man he had known for years, try to defuse a suicide situation he was never trained to handle, and then grapple with the fallout.9 I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

All told, the 2012 Chiefs season was my worst experience as a fan, and that bar was pretty damn low. The main redeeming feature of the season was that it gave the Chiefs the top overall pick in the NFL draft for the first time. But in a microcosm of cosmic bad luck, the quarterback-starved Chiefs — who have not had a homegrown QB start and win a single game for the franchise since 1987 — had the no. 1 pick the year after Cyberdyne Systems Model 201, retrofitted for football under the working name “Andrew Luck,” came out of college. Instead, the Chiefs held their noses and selected Eric Fisher … a left tackle. From the powerhouse program of Central Michigan.

As bad as 2012 was, however, it was prologue for this season, which has been among my best experiences as a fan. And it’s not over yet.

No matter how bad a team’s front office is, the storm will eventually blow over as long as the owner is committed to winning. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt seems sufficiently committed. He hired Pioli because Pioli was the industry’s consensus top GM candidate at the time, and Hunt was properly chastened by the implosion of his franchise. When the Chiefs let Pioli go the Friday after last season ended, they were already putting the finishing touches on inking a new GM (John Dorsey, formerly the Green Bay Packers’ director of operations) and a new head coach (Andy Reid, who had just been fired after 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles).

In every conceivable way, the Chiefs are now run in a manner diametrically opposed to Pioli’s methods. Pioli had final say over all football decisions, which led to power struggles between him and his head coaches; Dorsey and Reid have a job-sharing arrangement, where each man reports to the owner, and they seem to get along very well. Pioli instilled a culture of intimidation, where players were afraid of doing the wrong thing; Dorsey and Reid have instilled a culture of trust, empowering players to do the right thing. Pioli acted like the Chiefs’ playbook contained the nuclear activation codes; Dorsey and Reid have tried the radical approach of treating the media like the customer-base conduits that they are.

Most importantly, Pioli took over a 2-14 team and, four years later, managed to turn it into a 2-14 team again. Dorsey and Reid took over a 2-14 team and, in their first season, guided the Chiefs to their most wins (11) and their best point differential (plus-125) in 10 years.

It’s not that the Chiefs lacked talent before this year. Quite the contrary: The 2012 Chiefs had six players named to the Pro Bowl, becoming the first team in history with six Pro Bowlers and fewer than six wins.10 That they lost 14 games anyway is an indictment of the front office for squandering that much talent and for screwing up so badly when picking a quarterback.

The new front office attacked that problem first; since there wasn’t a can’t-miss quarterback in the 2013 draft, the Chiefs paid a stiff but reasonable price to the San Francisco 49ers for Alex Smith, who is the quarterback Cassel was supposed to be: not one of the game’s elite, but an above-average QB thanks to his ability to be smart with the ball (just seven picks all year) and take what the defense gives him (Smith ranked sixth among quarterbacks with 431 rushing yards).

Aside from upgrading at quarterback, the Chiefs’ new brain trust didn’t do anything dramatic. It didn’t really have to. The Chiefs were smart enough to realize that despite a 2-14 record, all they really needed was a new GM, a new head coach, and a new quarterback. Since trading for Smith, the front office’s moves have reflected a quiet competence that Kansas City fans find, frankly, unnerving. The Chiefs avoided any big splashes in free agency, but were as active as any NFL team in adding competent veterans at positions of need, including former Dolphins Sean Smith at cornerback and Anthony Fasano at tight end, former Jets defensive end Mike DeVito, and former Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel.

After teams made their final roster cuts at the end of training camp, Dorsey picked up seven waived players from other teams; several have made an impact this season, namely Marcus Cooper, a college wide receiver turned cornerback who was cut by the 49ers and played at a near Pro Bowl level for the Chiefs in the first half of this season. For his part, Reid has commanded respect from his players — it’s amazing what treating the players like men has accomplished after the circus of the Pioli years — and has made common-sense decisions in deploying his roster. Jamaal Charles has been featured much more prominently in the passing game — a Reid staple from his time in Philly — and has been used heavily, but not to the point of wearing him down. Reid was notorious in Philadelphia for poor clock management and wasting challenges; while he still calls timeouts at the damnedest times, he was seven-for-eight this season in getting calls overturned when he threw the red flag.

These upgrades would have been enough to get the Chiefs to a .500 record this season, and there isn’t a Chiefs fan alive who would have been disappointed with 8-8 after the nightmare of last season. But the team was pushed through the pile by an almost comically favorable set of opponents. The schedule alone was incredibly easy: The AFC West lined up against the AFC South and NFC East this year, and as a last-place team in 2012, the Chiefs also faced the Bills and Browns, which means that in their 10 non-division games they played only two teams (the Colts and Eagles) with a winning record. Their schedule was further goosed by well-timed injuries to opposing signal-callers in the season’s first half: The Chiefs took on backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick against the Titans in Week 5; welcomed Case Keenum to the NFL in his pro debut for the Texans in Week 7; faced off against Browns third-stringer Jason Campbell in Week 8; and battled third-stringer Jeff Tuel in his first NFL start for the Bills in Week 9. It’s as if a generation of bad karma tried to make amends in the span of two months.

A lone Kansas City Chiefs fanSure, they got a lot of help along the way, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Chiefs winning their first nine games of the season — they were the last undefeated team in the NFL — was the most pleasantly surprising sports story of my adult life. The Chiefs were the first team in the history of the four major sports to begin a season 9-0 the year after they had their sport’s worst record.11 They then had a bye week before playing the Broncos in the first of a home-and-home series that would decide the AFC West, and, prior to this season, Reid’s teams were 13-1 coming off a bye.

That’s when things went south, because Kansas City fans can’t have nice things, and also because the Chiefs were probably never as good as that 9-0 record suggested. The Chiefs lost both games to the Broncos, sandwiched around a home loss to San Diego in a game where the lead changed hands eight times, including twice in the last 88 seconds. The Chiefs beat the Redskins and Raiders before finishing the year with losses to the Colts and again to the Chargers, which put an exclamation point on an unsettling trend: The Chiefs finished the year 10-0 against non-playoff teams, but just 1-5 against teams that qualified for the postseason — and that one win came against the Eagles in Week 3, with Nick Foles still on the bench.

The defense, in particular, collapsed like a cheap accordion in the second half. After becoming the first team since the 1977 Falcons to allow 17 or fewer points in their first nine games, the Chiefs have allowed 23 or more points in six of their last seven games. Even Cooper started getting torched and was eventually benched. Justin Houston, arguably the team’s best defensive player — he had 11 sacks in just 11 games — dislocated his elbow against the Chargers in Week 12 and hasn’t played since.

The weird chronology of the season means that the Chiefs went 11-5 and clinched a playoff spot with two games still to play … and the fans are still assuming the worst. The Chiefs face their playoff nemesis, the Colts, on Saturday afternoon. The Chiefs lost to the Colts in the playoffs when they were heavy favorites (1995 season), when they were evenly matched (2003), and when they were heavy underdogs (2006). They lost to the Colts two weeks ago in their worst game of the season. The Colts have the quarterback the Chiefs have lusted after since Len Dawson retired. The game is in Indy.

The Colts are favored by 1.5 points, and to Chiefs fans, that seems surprisingly low.

Adding to our sudden angst is that once again the Chiefs’ kicker is playing like a Manchurian candidate. Ryan Succop has been a perfectly cromulent kicker since he was drafted as Mr. Irrelevant in 2009. But he has prepared Chiefs fans for heartbreak by missing three of his last four kicks, none from farther than 47 yards. In Week 17, Kansas City was poised to beat San Diego on the game’s last play, even though the Chiefs — who were locked into the no. 5 seed before the day began — rested all but two of their starters, while the Chargers had a spot in the playoffs riding on the outcome. It was a testament both to Dorsey, for constructing such a deep roster that their backups could outplay the Chargers’ first-stringers, and to Reid, for getting his backups to play hard in a game that had no meaning.

All that remained was for Succop to hit from 41 yards to knock the Chargers out of the playoffs. He missed wide right, and the Chargers — benefiting from a pair of questionable calls — won in overtime. As an outcome, Succop’s missed kick meant nothing. As an omen, it means that Chiefs fans will have no faith whenever he’s called upon to kick the rest of the season — from any distance.

If the Chiefs do find a way to win Saturday, two factors will likely loom large. The first is that Houston may be ready to play after missing the last five weeks, and given how the Chiefs were unable to pressure Luck at all two weeks ago — he was sacked just once, on 38 dropbacks — the impact of Houston’s return is hard to overstate. (Houston likely would have played last Sunday had anything been on the line for the Chiefs.)

The second factor is that Charles is a frighteningly good football player, better than even his reputation suggests. Back in 2010, Charles broke Jim Brown’s record for rushing yards per attempt in a single season (minimum: 150 rushes). At least he had broken it, before the Chiefs — understandably frightened that their fans might have something to celebrate — inexplicably let Charles run the ball in the fourth quarter of a game they were losing by three touchdowns. On his very last rush of the season, Charles was stuffed for a one-yard loss, giving Brown his record back, 6.40 to 6.38. (In Pioli’s defense, Charles was making a lot of color copies.)

But not even Pioli could keep Charles from an even more impressive achievement. Not only does Charles hold the NFL’s all-time record for yards per attempt for his career (minimum: 1,000 rushes), Jim Brown is the only player within half a yard:

(For all their inability to develop quarterbacks, the Chiefs have been a gold mine of running backs the last 15 years. Their last three featured backs — Charles, Larry Johnson, and Priest Holmes — all rank in the league’s top 25 all-time in yards per rushing attempt.)

Charles averaged “only” 4.97 yards per rushing attempt this year — a figure Adrian Peterson has matched just twice in his seven-year career — but in addition to leading the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns, Charles has been featured a lot more in the passing game and caught seven touchdowns, including four in one game. Also, while the Chiefs have stumbled in the second half, Charles has been getting better: In six games since the bye week, he has averaged 6.31 yards per rushing attempt and scored 11 touchdowns overall.

Charles only ran the ball 13 times against the Colts in Week 16 — and gained 106 yards — and afterward Reid admitted he should have made Charles a bigger part of the game plan. Coming off a week of rest, expect Charles to be ridden like a show pony this weekend.

A win over the Colts in Round 1 would not only end a historic run of futility in Kansas City, it may set up a matchup with its two other playoff nemeses: the Broncos and Peyton Manning. A victory in Denver would be an enormous upset; the Chiefs went into Denver undefeated and lost by 10 points, and haven’t been the same since. But a victory in Denver would also be one of the greatest sports moments in Kansas City history.

For now, we Kansas City fans are setting our sights low out of necessity. The weight of two decades’ worth of futility and tragedy, of getting our hearts ripped out by one franchise and suffocated with boredom by another, isn’t something that’s easily overcome. But if there’s a team that can bring an end to Kansas City’s legacy of losing, it might be this one. It will be an enormous surprise if the Chiefs slay their playoff demons this month. But no more of a surprise than this entire season has been.

Filed Under: NFL, Kansas, Sports, Teams

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli