KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City changed forever on a beautiful Sunday afternoon almost exactly 25 years ago. Temperatures in the 60s. Light breeze. Sunny. A gorgeous day to put a proud franchise on a wonderfully violent new path that would at once push the Chiefs forward and reconnect with their past. That it happened against the Raiders just makes it feel right.
Chiefs fans don’t need the video to picture it clearly. Late in the second quarter, Jay Schroeder drops back. A rookie named Derrick Thomas is racing around the left edge of the offensive line, sprinting past tackle Rory Graves. There had been a fair amount of hype on Thomas, even back in 1989 before NFL hype became our nation’s greatest sports passion. But nobody had seen it, not at the sport’s highest level, until Thomas ducked under Graves and dragged Schroeder to the ground. The Raiders were stopped cold.
Then, in the fourth quarter — and this is exactly how it would happen in a movie, too — Thomas made back-to-back sacks and preserved the win. He was a tidal wave. No good way to stop it. In the grainy video, you can see Graves jump in the air, slam his feet to the turf and his hands to his sides in frustration. Not unlike what you’d see from a little boy who dropped his ice cream cone.
Those were the first of 126 1/2 sacks that put Derrick Thomas into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and can serve as a metaphorical bridge between the Chiefs’ proud history and their modern identity as the self-proclaimed Pass Rush City.
That title may be a bit of a stretch, if we’re being honest. Among others, the Steelers, Eagles, Vikings and Broncos have more sacks than the Chiefs, even using Thomas’ rookie year as the starting point.
But where the Chiefs start to stand out among NFL teams is in their place as an incubator of sorts for top-shelf pass rushers. Thomas, Neil Smith and Jared Allen have led the NFL in sacks here. Tamba Hali has led the AFC. Justin Houston is at the front of a new wave of elite pass rushers, and the Chiefs used their first draft pick on Dee Ford to push the trend forward.
More to the point, there are not many franchises in the NFL whose identity is more entwined with defensive players, and specifically pass rushers. The Chiefs are like the Bears in this way, or maybe the Steelers. Ten men are in the Hall of Fame as Chiefs, and only one played on offense.
Name the best players in franchise history, and other than Len Dawson and Jan Stenerud, and now Jamaal Charles, you’re going to be talking about a lot of guys who beat up quarterbacks — beyond the ones named earlier, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier, among others.
No disrespect to 65 Toss Power Trap, but so many of the Chiefs’ best moments have come with their defense on the field, not their offense.
Here in Kansas City, the stars tend to be the ones who hit the other team’s stars. Here in Kansas City, we know barbecue, jazz, summer road construction and what a good pass rusher looks like — he has Thomas’ speed, Smith’s technique, Jared Allen’s abandon, Tamba Hali’s relentlessness and Justin Houston’s balance. Often, he finishes his brightest moments with a dance meant to entertain his teammates as much as ignite the crowd.
By equal parts coincidence, reluctance, incompetence and circumstance, the Chiefs have never developed their own quarterback. Joe Montana was the last to win a playoff game, and he is the trailblazer in the now well-traveled path from 49ers backup to Chiefs starter. Trent Green has most of the best passing numbers, and he came in a package deal from St. Louis with Dick Vermeil. Even Dawson was drafted by the Steelers.
This franchise, more than virtually any of its peers, was built and remains sustained by stars who make tackles, not stars who break tackles.
The Chiefs grew from an afterthought for most of the 1980s to one of the best franchises of the 1990s, mostly by sacking the quarterback and hammering the ball loose whenever possible. With the notable exception of 2003, the Chiefs’ greatest teams have always tended to be ones with the best pass rush.
The relationship between Kansas City and its pass rushers is deeper than just winning games, though that’s the most important place to start. The Chiefs averaged more than 10 wins per season throughout the 1990s, and that was with Steve DeBerg, Dave Krieg, Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac at quarterback. They did it mostly by finishing in the top five in turnover margin eight times in 10 years, and they did that mostly by putting the kind of panic in opposing quarterbacks that comes with Thomas and Smith closing in from either side.
In that way, it’s no stretch to say that sacking quarterbacks transformed Kansas City into a football town. The Royals turned into a baseball punchline after the 1994 strike, so highlights of Thomas dragging another quarterback down as the ball bounces loose became Kansas City’s most popular export.
Those sacks turned into wins, and those wins turned into civic pride. The Arrowhead parking lot, with barbecue smoke filling the air, became Kansas City’s greatest social scene.
This was all by design. Lamar Hunt hired Carl Peterson to build a winner, but also to fill the stadium. There weren’t many NFL teams set up like this, but the message was clear: This is a show as much as a game. It worked, too. In the 1980s, sometimes they closed the concession stands early in the upper deck. In the 1990s, the noisy passion at Arrowhead became a national sensation.
Peterson always considered the players actors, and the stadium their theater. Marty Schottenheimer always wanted defense anyway, so together they built one of the nastiest in the league and Kansas City fell in love instantly. Arrowhead had a forward-thinking design, among our country’s best examples of architecture coming alive with a shape that accentuates crowd noise even without a roof.
If there is a scene that encapsulates how the Chiefs turned from losers playing in front of empty seats to winners with a 164-game sellout streak, it is third-and-long, nearly 80,000 drowning out the snap count, Smith and Thomas meeting at the quarterback and the ball jack-knifing across the turf.
Thomas called it “five seconds of excitement,” but it lasted so much longer than that. His first step was a flash, and his anticipation was so great that you would watch him live and swear — swear — he had to be offside to get to the quarterback that quickly. Sometimes, maybe he was. But the referees couldn’t hear the snap count, either. Everything was such a blur when it was going right.
Today, the Chiefs are led by a front office with designs on getting back to that, a significant counter to the league-wide trend of bigger passing numbers and more protection for quarterbacks. The Chiefs have always used more of their salary cap on defense than most teams and are now building around defensive stars such as Hali, Houston, Dontari Poe, Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry.
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey quotes Dom Capers, the longtime NFL coach and defensive coordinator, saying you had a championship defense if you could find 25 sacks from your outside linebackers. Last year, the Chiefs had 24, and that was with Houston missing five games.
Picking 23rd in the May draft, Dorsey could have addressed obvious needs with cornerback Darqueze Dennard or a receiver like Kelvin Benjamin or Marqise Lee. He could have drafted quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the future, and a hedge against prickly contract negotiations with Alex Smith.
Instead, Dorsey drafted another pass rusher in Ford. Part of the reason is that the Chiefs’ decision-makers fell in love with Ford’s passion and his obsession with playing and getting better . But part of it, too, is that the Chiefs place a higher value on pass rushers than most franchises.
This is a passing league, obviously, and the best way to stop the pass is to panic the passer. That’s what the Chiefs have (nearly) always prided themselves on, and even with coach Andy Reid’s strength being offense and quarterbacks, this is what the team is again building around.
You can trace the lineage from Thomas and Smith to Allen, then Hali, and now Houston. The Chiefs’ best future is with Ford joining Houston, most likely replacing Hali. In the meantime, some of the defensive coaches’ happiest times are in designing what they call the “dog front,” with nose tackle Dontari Poe surrounded by the team’s best pass rushers. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine coaches working on when they get tired of working.
There is no telling how often the Chiefs will use the dog front, of course. It’s a specialty package and needs the right situation to appear in a game.
But when it comes, the fans paying close enough attention will rise to their feet and watch another vicious Chiefs pass rush, in that moment putting some fright in the quarterback but also drawing a line back to a proud history that’s come to define a beloved franchise.