How far has KC come in its return to the Super Bowl? Let Rick Gosselin tell you
The Kansas City Chiefs return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970. It’s clearly the high point of the last 50 years for the franchise.
Ironically, Kansas City will play the game at the same stadium where, arguably, the Chiefs sank to their lowest point on the field in the last 50 years.
In 1987, the Chiefs traveled to Miami to play the Dolphins in the first-ever game at Joe Robbie Stadium. Five corporate sponsorships later, “Joe Robbie” is now “Hard Rock Stadium.” But on that day, the Dolphins expected to christen their new stadium with Dan Marino and the Marks Brothers (Clayton and Duper) working their aerial magic against an elite Kansas City secondary that featured four Pro Bowlers – Lloyd Burruss, Deron Cherry, Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross.
But it was not to be.
NFL players went on strike after the second week of the 1987 season, and the owners decided to carry on with replacement players. So Marino was on the picket line outside of the stadium as Kyle Mackey was throwing the Miami passes to Leland Douglas and Lawrence Sampleton.
The game didn’t sell out for the stadium’s debut. Only 25,867 showed up to see Kansas City field the worst strike team in football history. The Chiefs lost to Miami 42-0 that day – the second of three consecutive non-competitive replacement losses that helped doom Kansas City to yet another sub-.500 finish (4-11).
I attended that game as a Chiefs reporter for the Kansas City Star. I covered the Chiefs for 13 of their 49-year Super Bowl drought. Thirteen long years – 13 years of mistakes, 13 years of bungling, 13 years of losing – from 1977 through 1989. The Chiefs won only 40.4 percent of their games during my time on the beat and appeared in one playoff game – a blowout loss to the New York Jets in 1986.
But as a young reporter, I wasn’t invested in the winning and losing by a franchise. My quest was to find the best stories. And, boy, were there stories.
In 1978, my second season on the beat, the Chiefs hired Marv Levy as head coach. He’s one of five head coaches I would cover during my tenure on the Chiefs. Levy told me the defense he inherited was the worst in the NFL – the worst he had ever seen, in fact – and he needed to find a way protect that unit. So he dipped into the football playbook of yesteryear and installed the Wing-T as his offense. That’s an offense with three running backs and only one wide receiver.
Levy figured if he could run the ball and control the clock, he could keep his defense off the field and limit its exposure to the high-powered offenses of the Colts, Patriots and Raiders on Kansas City’s schedule that season. And run the ball the Chiefs did. Their starting running backs Tony Reed, Ted McKnight and Mark Bailey all posted 100-yard games and the Chiefs rushed for 2,986 yards. That remains the third-highest rushing total in NFL history.
Levy’s strategy worked. The Chiefs did improve with their defense spending most Sundays on the sideline. Kansas City went from 2-12 in 1977 to 4-12 in 1978. As Levy continued to add quality defensive players, the Chiefs became capable of competing on both sides of the ball, improving to 7-9 in 1979, 8-8 in 1980 and 9-7 in 1981. But when the Chiefs slumped to 3-6 in the 1982 strike season, owner Lamar Hunt fired Levy.
Decades later, after I had moved to Dallas, Hunt told me firing Levy was “the biggest mistake I’ve made” as owner of the Chiefs.
Levy went on to coach the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s as the Chiefs continued to wander aimlessly through the football wilderness. When Kansas City made its first-ever AFC championship game appearance in 1993, it was Levy and his Bills that sent the Chiefs home short of their Super Bowl dream.
I was there in 1983 when the Chiefs had the seventh overall pick of the greatest quarterback draft in NFL history. After the Baltimore Colts selected John Elway with the first overall choice, the Chiefs had their choice of every other quarterback and chose Penn State’s Todd Blackledge. Kansas City passed on Hall-of-Famers Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, another who would take a team to a Super Bowl (Tony Eason) and yet another who would win an NFL passing title (Ken O’Brien).
“I’m not so sure if Elway was on the board we still wouldn’t have taken Blackledge,” Kansas City’s personnel director told me the day after the draft.
In 1985, the Chiefs selected North Carolina running back Ethan Horton with the 15th overall pick. The San Francisco 49ers claimed Jerry Rice with the 16th pick. Ethan Horton?
And you wonder why this franchise had gone 50 years between Super Bowl appearances?
I left Kansas City for Dallas in 1990 with a notepad full of memories.
In the late 1970s, I remember Clark Hunt running around the Chiefs’ training camp as a ball boy. He’s now the CEO of the Chiefs and held up the Lamar Hunt Trophy (named after his father) as AFC champions on Jan. 19 before a roaring turnout of 73,656 by the Chiefs Kingdom at Arrowhead.
But I remember the days when it wasn’t a kingdom. In 1982, only 11,902 passed through the turnstiles for the season finale against the New York Jets. The Chiefs were closing out a 3-6 season that day, and I remember we had a press-box pool predicting how small the crowd would be. We had about 40 entries, and every one of them was at least 10,000 too high with their estimate.
It's amazing, isn’t it, how winning can fortify a kingdom?
There were sad memories, too. Joe Delaney was the AFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1981 and figured to be the running back that would help Levy return the Chiefs to greatness. But he died tragically in June 1983 when he dove into a swimming hole near his Louisiana offseason home to save some drowning children. Delaney, who couldn’t swim himself, drowned.
There were wild memories, too. Like the bench-clearing brawl in 1986 between the Chiefs and Raiders. I do miss the old Chiefs-Raiders rivalry. Those two franchises hated each other during the AFL days and every decade thereafter.
The Chiefs also authored one of the most bizarre games I’ve witnessed in my 47 years covering football. In 1986, Kansas City took a 9-6 record to Pittsburgh with a chance to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons. One problem: The Chiefs brought along the NFL’s worst offense and were starting their backup quarterback.
But Kansas City rolled up those nine victories that season on the strength of its special teams. Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Albert Lewis, Kansas City mastered the art of the blocked kick that year – and the blocked kick would figure prominently in a playoff-clinching victory over the Steelers.
The Chiefs scored all of their points on special teams -- a blocked field goal return, a blocked punt return, a kickoff return and a Nick Lowery field goal. Despite collecting only eight first downs and 171 yards on offense (to Pittsburgh’s 515), the Chiefs left the field with a 24-21 victory.
Stephone Paige played nine seasons at wide receiver for the Chiefs and never went to a Pro Bowl. But I was there that December day in 1985 when he set an NFL record (since broken) with 309 receiving yards in a game against the San Diego Chargers. Paige’s performance remains the third most prolific game by a receiver in NFL history.
Paige wasn’t the only record-setter I covered in Kansas City. In 1989, Christian Okoye, the “Nigerian Nightmare,” won the NFL rushing title with a then-franchise record 1,480 yards. It was the franchise’s first rushing title since Abner Haynes won the crown in the AFL’s inaugural season in 1960. Yep, the first rushing title by a Chief in 29 years.
But I could see the franchise finally turning the corner that season with the hiring of Carl Peterson as general manager and Marty Schottenheimer as coach.
Peterson had built champions in the USFL with the Philadelphia Stars and Schottenheimer had taken the Cleveland Browns to AFC title games. Lamar Hunt hired two men who knew how to win. They attracted some of the NFL’s biggest names to Kansas City to wear the red – Hall-of-Famers Joe Montana, Marcus Allen and Mike Webster. Peterson also drafted Hall-of-Famers Derrick Thomas, Will Shields and Tony Gonzalez.
And the winning began.
But by that time I was long gone, covering the Cowboys in Dallas. In my second year on the Cowboys' beat in 1991, Dallas beat the Chicago Bears in the playoffs before losing to the Detroit Lions. I told Cowboys' coach Jimmy Johnson afterward, “I’ve already seen more playoff games in my two seasons on the Cowboys than I saw in my 13 years on the Chiefs.”
Kansas City won 102 games in the 1990s. Only the San Francisco 49ers won more. But the Chiefs still couldn’t crack the code to a Super Bowl. The 49ers left the decade with a championship ring. The Chiefs did not. So the drought continued…
… Until Clark Hunt hired Andy Reid as his coach in 2013, and Kansas City drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2018.
The Chiefs have now gone to back-to-back AFC championship games, and the Chiefs Kingdom will descend on Miami for the Super Bowl. I’m guessing Dan Marino will be in a suite this time instead of on the street holding a picket sign.
This franchise has come such a long way since Len Dawson, Mike Garrett and Otis Taylor were “matriculating” the ball down the field in that Super Bowl IV victory over the Minnesota Vikings in 1970. My 13 years on the beat can attest to that.