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BY TOM MITSOFF
How bad did the pro football fortunes in Kansas City become last year? At least one national broadcaster got into the habit of referring to the 1988 Chiefs as the "Chefs." Was it because Kansas City could never get cooking in 1998? Was it because their performance reminded one more of pastry-flipping Frenchmen than gridiron gladiators? Was it because the team left such a bad taste in the mouths of its fans? Probably all of the above.
Having watched a 1986 playoff team turn very sour in two years under Coach Frank Gansz, Owner Lamar Hunt decided after the season that it was time to stir things up. Instead of gently beating the mixture with a whisk, Hunt grabbed an industrial-strength high-speed power mixer and went to work. The result: Most of the ingredients of the 1998 Chiefs wound up sprayed hither and yon, replaced by an almost completely new recipe. The old saying, "You can't tell the players without a menu," (or something like that) certainly applies to the Chiefs in 1989.
Perhaps never before has a pro football organization undergone such a complete housecleaning in one off-season. The new head chef is General Manager Carl Peterson, who previously built two winning teams in Philadelphia. Peterson turned the Eagles from chopped liver into a Super Bowl team, and then went to the USFL's Philadelphia Stars and built a team that appeared in that league's only three championship games. He is also credited with helping launch the successful pro coaching careers of Dick Vermeil and Jim Mora.
Marty Schottenheimer, who compiled a .620 winning percentage as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, was hired as the new Kansas City field boss. His "separation" from the Browns came suddenly after Schottenheimer refused to give up duties as Browns offensive coordinator. He and Owner Art Modell parted company, and Schottenheimer shortly thereafter landed in KC. His new coaching staff includes seven of his former Cleveland assistants, former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tony Dungy and former Chargers head coach Al Saunders - quite an interesting blend.
When Schottenheimer and his new coaches hit the field, the assortment of players awaiting them could resemble a Chef's Surprise. Of the veteran players who finished the season with KC, 11 departed as free agents. Seventeen wayward veterans from other NFL teams decided to settle in Kansas City, and they represent a wide range of experience and talent. Sixteen-year veteran center Mike Webster and 15-year veteran quarterback Ron Jaworski are on one end of the spectrum, while second-year passer Steve Slayden, the only Browns quarterback not to get hurt last year (because he was the only Browns quarterback not to take a snap), is on the other end.
Throw in the draft choices and the few veterans who are left over, mix well and the result is pot luck. GAMEPLAN cannot predict contention for a team that is nearly totally rebuilt from top to bottom. It takes time for all of the new personnel to jell as a unit. But the Chiefs will improve in 1989 to the extent that they will climb out of the cellar. But there is too much to be accomplished in one year to expect KayCee to challenge the top three in the wild, wild West. Maybe, just maybe, they'll play well enough to shed the "Chefs" image.
OFFENSE: Last year, Kansas City's offense sputtered for most of the season. Ranking 22nd in total "O" in the 28-team NFL, some changes were in order. They were made, and they were drastic. One major change is in the philosophy. Schottenheimer's philosophy is to "maintain a balance between the run and pass, recognizing full well that in any given game you may need to throw 50 times to win, or you might need to run the ball 50 times." Two teams in particular (San Francisco and Cincinnati) have that kind of diversity, but the Chiefs don't have the ingredients the 49ers and Bengals possess. There is nothing innovative about Schottenheimer's recipe. You just need prime rib au jus instead of a frozen beef patty to make it turn out the way you want.
Kansas City's frozen beef patty was quarterback Bill Kenney, who after seven years as the team's primary quarterback was given his release this spring. He wound up his inglorious Chiefs career by starting only five games last year. In that time, he threw five interceptions, was sacked 13 times, and did not pass for a TD. With that in mind, Schottenheimer decided that the seven-year Bill Kenney experiment has failed. Steve DeBerg, the NFL's perennial understudy, finally enters a training camp as the starting quarterback. Despite playing for a horrible team, DeBerg posted some respectable numbers in his first year as a Chef (er, Chief). Ironically, his 73.5 QB rating was better than John Elway, Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde - three guys to whom he has played second fiddle in his career.
Just when DeBerg thought it was safe to assume he was the starting quarterback, "Jaws" arrived on the scene. Fifteen-year-pro Jaworski, who once led Philadelphia to the Super Bowl, was one of the major free agent acquisitions by any team. His career statistics alone indicate that he can play a major role in any team's success, as Jaworski ranks in the NFL's all-time top 20 passers in attempts, completions and passing yards. There will be pressure on Schottenheimer and his staff to start Jaworski because he is the "big name" new free agent in town.
There will also be some pressure to give Mike Elkins, a rookie second rounder from Wake Forest, a good look. It will take some time, though, for Elkins to learn the "pro" offense after operating in a sprint-out system in college. Florida State alum Danny McManus returns for his second year as the clipboard holding specialist, since he didn't see one down of action in his rookie year. One of Schottenheimer's Cleveland connections, second-year passer Slayden, is in camp. He also spent last year admiring the play of his fellow QBs.
On draft day, the Chiefs were pleasantly surprised to find wide receiver Nasrallah "Naz" Worthen available in the third round. Naz has pizzazz, as well as superb athletic ability. The scouts feel that although Naz doesn't have the best physical stats, his overall athleticism makes him a good bet to make it. The linguists among us would have loved to see Nazrallah team with Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof as Kansas City's wideouts, but that won't happen. "Ziz" probably won't make the team after spending his rookie year on injured reserve, and, on paper, Stephone Paige already has the other starting spot locked up. He led the Chiefs with 61 catches for 902 yards.
Carlos Carson, Kansas City's fourth all-time leading receiver, will be another consistent target for DeBerg or Jaworski. He caught 46 aerials for 711 yards a year ago. Emile (Don't Call me Deborah) Harry showed that he belonged among the group of KC receivers by snaring 26 flying pigskins for 362 yards. Of the three free agent receivers signed, Lew Barnes (a former Bear and Falcon) would appear to have the best chance of sticking. Sixth round draft choice Robb Thomas from Oregon State would like to steal a roster spot away from one of the returning veterans.
Schottenheimer plans to keep three tight ends, and he has four veterans from which to choose. Jonathan Hayes should retain his starting position after enjoying his most productive season - 22 catches for 233 yards. For the first three years of his pro career, the Chiefs would have done just as well to throw the ball to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, because Hayes caught about as many passes during that time as the bird would have. Alfredo Roberts will also "steak" a claim to the starting assignment. He had beaten Hayes out of the tight end position early in the season, but a shoulder injury hampered his performance in the second half of the year. Billy Griggs, an ex-Jet, signed with KC and should be a very valuable addition. He caught 14 passes for 133 yards last year, but GAMEPLAN looks for Griggs to get much more playing time with the Chiefs. Veteran Chris Dressel, who was with the Browns in 1998 training camp, will also try to show Schottenheimer something new this time around.
Is it a curse to run the ball for the Kansas City Chiefs? For whatever reason, this club has been unable to come up with a premier running back for many, many years. They did have a thousand-yard rusher earlier this decade in rookie Joe Delaney, but he died tragically while trying to save a youngster from drowning. Before then and since, the Chiefs have tried without success to harvest their own version of Eric Dickerson or Roger Craig. James Hadnot didn't have it. Ethan Horton ran like Ethan Allen. Now it's Christian Okoye's turn in the Kansas City hot seat. He's the latest young star who is expected one day to burst into NFL prominence. If Chiefs fans can keep the faith, he just might. Last season, Okoye was the club's leading rusher with 473 yards and a 4.5-yard average per carry - all despite missing seven games with assorted injuries. His top performance came against the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals, when Okoye motored for 102 yards. His 48-yard run in that game was also Kansas City's longest from scrimmage all year.
The team's most versatile running back is Paul Palmer, who accounted for 1,063 yards from scrimmage on rushes and pass receptions. That made him the most productive Chief back since Delaney in 1981. Halfback Herman Heard is no hermit, but he would like to get in the game more often. A separated shoulder separated Herman from the lineup in the first part of the season, and came back late to pick up 438 yards on the ground. He'll share playing time with Palmer. James Saxon from San Jose State was voted Kansas City's top rookie in 1988. He accounted for 413 yards from scrimmage, and scored the winning touchdown with two seconds to go in a 38-34 win over the Jets.
Three free agent signees may fit into the picture. Most likely to back up Okoye at fullback is Tommie Agee. You may be asking yourself why a man who retired from professional baseball 15 years ago is now playing pro football. Well, thankfully, this is not the ex-Met World Series hero. This is the ex-Auburn star who made a name for himself in college by blocking for Bo Jackson and Brent Fullwood. Last year, Agee spent time blocking people while a member of the Seattle Seahawks special teams. Agee rushed only once from scrimmage last year and caught only three passes, so it's safe to say he'll see a little more action this year. Draftees Bryan Tobey, Todd McNair and Bill Jones will also be trying to crash the party. How many folks do you know who have experienced life as both a Bronco and a Cowboy? Free agent RB Gerald Abraham is one, having attended Denver's training camp last year after matriculating at Wyoming. Former Dolphin Tom Kelleher was also signed after spending all of last year on injured reserve.
Using a culinary analogy, the Chiefs' offensive line resembles a tossed salad. "Lettuce" come to camp, asked 10 unemployed free agents. They join eight veterans in "bacon" under the summer sun. In all, 18 O-linemen will be "dressing" when training camp opens. The most significant addition is 16-year veteran Mike Webster, who retired after an illustrious career as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting center. He accepted a job as a coach on Schottenheimer's staff, and a month later, Webster decided to un-retire and play at least one more season. He brings nine Pro Bowl selections and four Super Bowl rings to Kansas City. Webster will be the starting center barring the unforeseen.
That's bad news for Gerry Feehery. The ex-Eagle was impressive in starting the final six games of the season for the Chiefs at center. According to Schottenheimer, Feehery is the kind of person who if you "put him in a phone booth with someone else, you know he's the guy that's going to walk out and leave the other guy laying in there." (Presuming the other guy isn't Clark Kent.) This brings into some question Schottenheimer's methods for evaluating offensive linemen. What a guy does in his spare time shouldn't be a factor.
Aside from Feehery, look for Schottenheimer to maintain the status quo in the O-line. John Alt is an emerging left tackle whose primary job is to keep DeBerg and Jaworski from receiving blind-side karate demonstrations, courtesy of mayhem-minded defenders. (Chuck Norris might also be a candidate to tackle this job.) Rich Baldinger will return at left guard, while Mark Adickes is a fairly sure bet to remain at right guard. Irv Eatman, on whom the Chiefs are still waiting to fulfill his enormous potential, will open camp as the starting right tackle.
Along with Feehery, David Lutz figures as the primary backup at all positions. He can play both guard and tackle with equal effectiveness. The outlook isn't as bright for former first round draft choice Brian Jozwiak, who continues rehabilitation on an arthritic hip and is questionable for this season. Former Cincinnati Bengal Dave Smith (6-6, 290) and ex-Patriot Troy Wolkow (6-4, 280) are the free agent signees who figure to make the biggest push to win reserve roles.
DEFENSE: The Chiefs had a better-than-average defense in 1998, ranking 10th in the league. Long feared for its tremendous collection of defensive backs, Kansas City has still come up short in putting pressure on the passer. KC had only 23 sacks in 1998, 25th in the league. Like true "Chefs," they were reluctant to sack anything.
It was thought that Neil Smith, last year's first-round choice, would be the relentless pass rusher who would make everyone forget Art Still. Injury and illness slowed the former Cornhusker in his initial season, which saw him record only 2.5 sacks. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, Smith possesses the quickness to make it big, but like most rookies, he had to go through an adjustment period.
Schottenheimer plans to use multiple defensive fronts - some four-man line and some three-man line. Leonard Griffin, last year's most consistent Chief D-lineman, will see lots of action. He made 96 tackles, although registering only two sacks. Mike Bell, who started every game except the four he missed due to a drug-related suspension, also had two sacks - his fewest since 1982. Other defensive ends in camp include ex-Bronco Walt Bowyer, Bob Standifer and Randy Watts.
"Need a nose tackle? If so, head on down to Crazy Marty's Nose Tackle Emporium. We've got holdovers, veterans, rookies and longshots. Over here is Bill Maas, the former Pro Bowl player. He missed half the year with a knee injury, but he should be ready to go. Down there on the showroom floor is Mike Stensrud, who's been with the Oilers and Vikings. He has 29 sacks in 131 career games. He has some mileage on him, but he's dependable. Just in from out of town are two new models - Greg Meisner and Dan Saleaumua. Meisner, a nine-year veteran, has been a part-time starter for the Rams. Saleaumua is a young guy the Lions cut loose. Hey, we even signed Jerome Sally again. We've got more nose tackles than we can keep in stock! So hurry down to Crazy Marty's today!" Most NFL teams will be closely watching the waiver wire, because the Chiefs will probably be cutting or trading one or two quality nose men - and we don't mean plastic surgeons.
This year's Great Pass Rushing Hope is the number one draft choice, linebacker Derrick Thomas from Alabama. Much like Smith last year, Thomas brings a boatload of awards and statistics, as well as a great reputation, with him to Kansas City. At 6-2 and 234 pounds, he is bigger than his Crimson Tide predecessor, Cornelius Bennett. At 4.58 in the 40-yard dash, he can run stride for stride with his former teammate. The thing that scares opposing offensive coordinators is that Thomas had 18 sacks as a junior at 'Bama and 27 as a senior. This means the Chiefs have drafted a man who had more sacks alone last year than all of the 30 or so Chiefs defenders combined. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's outstanding college linebacker, and GAMEPLAN predicts Thomas will win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in the AFC. He should be the "impact" pass rusher that this club has needed for years.
Dino Hackett is no dog when it comes to playing inside linebacker. Voted to the Pro Bowl, the former Appalachian State superstar made over 100 tackles for the third straight season in the pros. He once again will anchor the middle. Jack Del Rio came on late last year, making 33 tackles in a three-game span, but he faces a challenge from free agent Walker Lee Ashley at inside linebacker. Ashley came from the Minnesota Vikings, where he has been the primary backup for Scott Studwell. He had a 94-yard TD run against the Bears after an interception last year. Mike Junkin is another reason that Kansas City is becoming known as Cleveland West. A former first round choice of the Browns, Junkin failed to ever perform at anything approaching a superstar level. He was taken with the fifth pick in the '87 draft at the insistence of Schottenheimer, who thought Junkin was better than Shane Conlan. Well, you win some and you lose some, but Schottenheimer will see if his favorite linebacker can work things out in a new environment. Other inside linebacking candidates are Anthony Griggs (another member of the Cleveland connection), veteran Aaron Pearson (who started 10 games in 1988) and Jerry McCabe, who played briefly for KC last year. Fourth-round draft choice Ron Sancho and 10th-round choice Rob McGovern are also in the picture.
The outside linebacking spot opposite Thomas is wide open. Tim Cofield, last year's starter, went to the Jets via free agency. Candidates to fill that position are free agent signees Greg Gaines (Seattle) and Orlando Lowry (Colts). Returning veterans include Louis Cooper, Chris Martin and Angelo (Don't Call Me Renaldo) Snipes. Andy Hawkins had surgery on his knee following the season and his availability for 1989 is uncertain.
Guess who allowed the fewest yards passing in the NFL last season. Yes, the "Chefs." Rarely were they burned deep, and their excellent man-to-man coverage put opposing offenses in a pickle. The hottest Chief DB was Deron Cherry, who made like Baked Alaska and scorched opposing quarterbacks for seven interceptions. He was voted to the Pro Bowl for the sixth straight year. The other safety is another perennial All-Pro, Lloyd Burruss, who had injury problems a year ago. (Have you noticed a trend developing here? There were a lot of Chiefs who were injured last year.) The cornerbacks, Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross, would get more media attention if they played for a better team. Lewis was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year. Backup DBs returning to camp this year are Greg Hill, Jayice Pearson and Kevin Porter. Danny Copeland (another ex-Brown) and Calvin Loveall (Atlanta) were free agent signees. Draftees Jack Phillips, Marcus Turner and Stanley Petry will dish out some licks in training camp in hopes of getting noticed.
If there is one area the Chiefs are strong, it's the kicking game. You can't name a better placekicker in the NFL than Nick Lowery. Year in and year out, he keeps the normally inept Chefs in games they should not be in because of his accurate, long-distance placekicks. Last year, he booted 27 of 32, or 84 percent. He has 17 career field goals of 50 yards or more, an NFL record, and he is second on the all-time field goal accuracy list, behind New Orleans' Morten (Pass the Salt) Andersen. Lowery also has the second-highest PAT percentage in league history, 99.35 percent (304 of 306). When the Chiefs need a punter, they call Mr. Goodburn - Kelly, that is. His 40.3-yard average was more than adequate, and he should retain his job. Kick returns were a nightmare for the Chiefs last year. Kitrick Taylor was the best punt returner at 6.4 yards per return, but he skipped town and signed with Atlanta. Paul Palmer will be used on kickoffs, and Copeland is expected to get a long look as the KC punt returner.
GAMEPLAN CONCLUSION: The Chiefs will be intriguing to watch this year, if for no other reason than to see how Schottenheimer and his staff assimilate so many new players into a new system. Training camp will be a wild scenario, as players will bump heads with and next to guys they don't even know. From a coordination standpoint, it's as close to an expansion team as you can get. Fortunately, the talent level does not match that of an expansion team. Thomas will be the focus of attention on defense. If he is able to shine despite being double- and triple-teamed, then the Chiefs will have gotten themselves a future superstar. GAMEPLAN looks for Jaworski to assume the quarterback duties, if for no other reason than there seems to be an unwritten rule somewhere that DeBerg cannot be his team's starter for a full season. There is no discernible improvement on either the offensive or defensive lines, although an off-season to heal might be the best medicine possible for those two units. It will be a long year in Kansas City, but they have a coach in Schottenheimer who has proven he can turn bad situations around. He will face his sternest test in that regard this year.
This story appeared in the 1989 issue of Game Plan Pro Football Annual Preview magazine.
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