Joe Posnanski
Wednesday December 17th, 2008

An era ended in Kansas City this week. You may or may not have heard about it -- nationally, the news seemed buried under the Boston Celtics, baseball free agent talk and the Pro Bowl -- but it was huge in the Heartland. Carl Peterson, who was president/general manager/CEO* of the Kansas City Chiefs for 20 years, resigned. Twenty years. That's a ridiculously long time. Peterson was the longest-running GM in the NFL who did not, you know, also own the team.

*My favorite story, when it comes to self-important football titles, involves Mike Holmgren, who I guess now is simply Executive Vice President of Football Operations/Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks. It seems to me he used to have numerous other titles though; he had General Manager thrown in there, he might have been General Counsel, he was the COO, I'm pretty sure he was a Sultan. Anyway, once a crack reporter asked him a very specific question about a player's injury, and Holmgren grumped: "Do I look like the trainer?" To which the reporter replied: "Sorry, I guess I thought that was one of your titles."

Peterson began as general manager of Kansas City back in December 1988, which, you will note, was before the FIRST George Bush became President. He took over what was probably the saddest-sack team in professional football (non-Tampa Bay division). The Chiefs had been to the playoffs one time in 17 years, and that appearance was a fluke. The Chiefs had fired coach John Mackovic immediately after that one playoff appearance, essentially because of a player mutiny held at the kicker's house (complete with hors d'oeuvres). Yeah, it was a pretty dysfunctional shop.

There were so few people in the stands in those days that NFL Films cameramen were given the order to shoot low, even on the those long spiral passes*, so not to show the empty upper deck. The Chiefs won the last home game before Peterson was hired, 38-34 against the New York Jets, scoring the last touchdown two seconds before the end of the game. There were 30,059 people in the stadium at the start of the game. There were approximately nine people when it ended.

*Is there anything -- and I mean ANYTHING -- better than those old NFL Films slow-motion shots that show a long spiral hanging in the air for something like 45 minutes? I'd say the five small sports pleasures of my childhood, in no particular order, were:

1. Howard Cosell's Halftime Highlights. ("These highlights brought to you by Kero-Sun, because you don't have money ... to burn. Now, to Foxboro ...")

2. The plays of the week on "This Week in Baseball."

3. The cutaway, "Let's go to Bob Costas in New York," highlights they would show in the middle of Sunday NFL games. I got to the point during games when I felt like I could anticipate a highlight coming by the camera angle of the game.

4. The long spiral pass shot on NFL Films, complete with music and John Facenda's voice saying something like, "As twilight descended on Mile High Stadium, Craig Morton knew what had to be done."

5. The way they always said at the end of the late NFL game that "60 Minutes will be shown in its entirety at the conclusion of this game, except on the West Coast where it will be seen at its regular time." I always wondered what it was like to live on the West Coast, where the 60 Minutes time slot was always safe.

There's one good thing about taking over a fiasco -- you can't spiral any further down. Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer to be his coach. He drafted Derrick Thomas in the first round. He put on these black-and-white television commercials, which showed Chiefs players working out, then displayed the words, "No promises. Just hard work." He changed the rules so that fans could tailgate in the parking lot.

And ... he created a phenomenon. Over the next nine years, the Chiefs would make the playoffs seven times. They would finish with the best record in football twice. They would reach the AFC Championship Game with Joe Montana as quarterback. And more than anything, the Chiefs would sell out week after week -- 79,000 strong, all wearing red, and the parking lot smelled like a barbecue pit, probably the best tailgating scene in the NFL. The city was alive.

Peterson did not always come across well. He could seem humorless at times, and bullying at others. He would feud with the local media over petty things. And his teams were never quite good enough to get to the Super Bowl, which grew more irritating as the years went along. All in all, though, people appreciated what he had done. He gave Kansas City a football team, just as the baseball team was going into the tank.

After nine years of almost, the Chiefs went for broke in 1998 and brought in a collection of disagreeable characters in an effort to finally break through, "The Longest Yard" style. As you might expect, the plan didn't work. The team melted down, they had the first losing record since Peterson arrived, and Schottenheimer resigned at the end of the season. That ended the happy portion of the Carl Peterson Era.

The last 11 years of Peterson have been ... I guess you could describe them as the late Sinatra years, when he was still a name and still had some of his voice left, but he was often cranky and he would sometimes forget the words. Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham found out he had been fired while he was surfing the Internet.

The Chiefs under Dick Vermeil -- who had been Peterson's boss at UCLA and with the Philadelphia Eagles -- scored more points than any team in the NFL from 2002 through 2005, but only made the playoffs once, and then lost that playoff game in such embarrassing fashion to Indianapolis (they did not force a single punt the whole game) that even commissioner Paul Tagliabue made fun of them at his State of the NFL address.

Peterson then traded for New York Jets coach Herm Edwards in a very messy deal that did not seem to make anyone happy (except maybe a few Jets fans). Carl had allowed the team to grow old in a desperate effort to finally get a Super Bowl to the Chiefs' beloved and aging founder Lamar Hunt. When Hunt died in December 2006, the Chiefs had a crumbling franchise: a decrepit offensive line, no quarterback, no receivers, and an uninspiring defense. They did sneak into the playoffs in 2006, another fluke, and then they went to Indianapolis and did not pick up a first down until late in the third quarter. Edwards and just about everyone else could see that the Chiefs were about to fall hard, and he wanted to blow it up and start over.

But by then, Peterson had been the Chiefs GM for 18 years, and he had not gotten the job done, and starting over did not sound too appetizing. The Chiefs went 4-12 last year as they tried to hang on to a few old players and some false hope. Then, before this year, they did blow up things. They got rid of most of the veterans and went with a young team. And now they are 2-12 and Peterson has resigned.

One of the great things about sports in America is that every town has its own culture, its own heroes and goats, its own sports kings. For a time in the late 1970s, Cleveland sports revolved around a guy named Pete Franklin, a talk-show host who would hang up on callers and scream how he hated kids. In Cincinnati the overpowering presence was, of course, Reds owner Marge Schott, who used to walk around the clubhouse with a plastic bag of dog hair that she would sprinkle on the players for good luck. In Detroit the No. 1 pastime for a long time was simply despising Matt Millen.

I was at a basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., a few years ago when someone in a T-shirt and jeans suddenly and without introduction walked out to center court and raised his arms. The place went absolutely crazy. "

Who is that?" I asked the person next to me, who looked at me as if I must have come from some faraway planet, which, of course, I had.

"Travis Ford," he said slowly as if he was dealing with someone who was not too bright. Ford had been a starting guard at Kentucky for two years, and he made a lot of three-pointers. In Lexington, that made him royalty.

Yes, it's a beautiful thing how every sports town has its own rhythm, and for 20 years or so that Kansas City rhythm was Carl Peterson. People outside Kansas City may have known his name, may have seen him interviewed here or there. But in Kansas City, he really was Mr. Potter, the biggest man in town. People argued about him and complained about him and grudgingly appreciated him. They booed him and called talk shows to demand his firing and maybe on occasion would raise a glass to him for making the Chiefs matter again.

It all ended quietly though, on a Monday afternoon, at a press gathering that Carl himself did not attend. By the time it ended, Peterson had few fans left, few people who remembered or cared about how it began, few who wanted to give him credit for anything. The feeling was celebration in Kansas City, which is a shame. There were a lot of good memories in those 20 years. That's how it goes, though. People sometimes forget good memories. People always remember the end.

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