I'm not offering a prediction here about who will be this year's version of Cinderella, per se. But as usual, there are a handful of candidates who have quickly identified themselves in the opening weeks of the regular season. I spent some time on the phone Thursday with Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, because of all the surprising 2-0 starts -- and I would number Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Miami among that group -- none intrigue me like the undefeated Chiefs when it comes to their potential to rise from the depths and give us another turnaround team to toast and remember.
It's the snapshot of what it's really like in those early, giddy stages of starting to win again after years of losing that I went looking for in my conversation with Hunt, the son of Chiefs founder and longtime owner, Lamar Hunt. This is, after all, a once-proud franchise that has endured the following:
• Just 10 wins over the past three seasons, with last year's 4-12, last-place finish in the AFC West marking the first season of the Scott Pioli-Todd Haley front office-coaching regime.
• No playoff trips since 2006. No division title since 2003, and most startling, only four winning seasons in the past 12 years in Kansas City. The Chiefs are working on their fourth head coach since the Marty Schottenheimer era ended after the 1998 season.
• The Chiefs haven't won a playoff game since a transplant named Joe Montana led them to the AFC title game in 1993, and they own a grand total of three postseason victories since Hank Stram and Co. upset the Vikings to win Super Bowl IV in January 1970, more than 40 years ago. Their current playoff losing streak stands at six.
Clearly they're ready for the times to get better in Kansas City. And with the Chiefs sitting alone atop their division after two weeks, this is as good as things have gotten in quite a while.
"There's palpable excitement about this team here in Kansas City, because we haven't been 2-0 in a long time,'' Hunt said, without mentioning that Kansas City's last such start came in 2005. "The 2-0 start has put a bounce in every Chiefs fan's step, if you will. No matter where I go, people are excited about the team. They're positive again.''
No one in Kansas City should be clearing weekend schedules in January just yet, and Hunt, Haley and Pioli are all quick to put the brakes on any playoff talk and remind anyone who will listen that the Chiefs are still in the middle, not the end, of their rebuilding process.
It's all very true. Kansas City is still a painfully young team that's in the formative stages of finding its identity and becoming a winner. But that's the funny and often miraculous thing about turnaround teams in the NFL. A little early success can sometimes breed the confidence and momentum that winds up taking a team much further than it ever had the right or expectation to go. So you ride 2-0 and see where it takes you. If you win again, you do the same thing next week at 3-0. You keep getting greedy like that, wanting more and more, and pretty soon, you might just be the 2007 Packers, or 2008 Falcons, or 2009 Bengals. It happens to some lucky (and prepared) team most every year.
Hunt went to a Kansas City civic group's breakfast Thursday morning and started feeling that contagious hope, that sky's-the-limit vibe that attaches itself to a longtime loser turned nouveau winner. The Chiefs host the 0-2 San Francisco 49ers in newly renovated Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, and a 3-0 record heading into Week 4's bye is starting to look pretty tantalizing to the Kansas City faithful.
"It was the first time in public in a one-on-one situation since us going 2-0, and everyone in the room at some point came over to congratulate me,'' Hunt said. "It made me realize, first of all, how huge the win on Monday night [against San Diego in Week 1] was for the organization. Not only in the community, but on a national basis. It's amazing how many people either watched or know what happened on Monday Night Football. Our fans were very big that night, and the stadium reminded me of Arrowhead back in the '90s, when it was a very tough place to play for opposing quarterbacks.
"I understood the Week 1 enthusiasm, but then, to win last week at Cleveland, it gave everyone reason to believe what happened in the opener wasn't a fluke. It's human nature to want more, but I always understand how difficult it is to win a game in the NFL. It's a rollercoaster experience. But momentum is probably as important in football more than any other sport. You get in a positive streak, and you can accomplish much more than might have been imagined.''
Chiefs fans are no doubt blissfully in that dream-big stage, and it started with that memorable 21-14 upset of the four-time defending division champion Chargers on a rainy Monday night in Week 1. You probably start believing in magic a bit as a Chiefs fan when your rookie receiver-running back-return man, Dexter McCluster, takes a punt back 94 yards on a team-record return he wasn't even scheduled to make. Or when your quarterback, Matt Cassel, completes just 10 passes for 68 yards, but it's good enough for the win. Or when your much-maligned defense actually stands and holds in the game's final seconds, despite the high-powered Chargers getting four cracks at the end zone inside the six-yard line.
That's the kind of stuff that builds belief, which in turn translates into intensity, dedication and all-out focus on the task at hand. All of which often comes together to yield unexpected victory after unexpected victory. At least unexpected from the outside looking in.
I made the trip to the Chiefs new training camp location in St. Joseph, Mo., this summer, and it felt like I had happened upon a team that was tired of losing and ready to start learning how to win. Haley hinted at it when he told me one of the most difficult things about his first year on the job was to convince grown men who thought they were doing things the right way to do them differently. That's something you only say after that part of the work is done.
Though I could tell improvement was on the way, I didn't foresee Kansas City having enough of the pieces put together yet to take this turnaround-team thing all the way to the playoffs this year -- and I still don't -- but who knows? There have been bigger stunners in NFL history than the thought of the Chiefs going 10-6 and making the AFC postseason field this season.
There's a cornerstone-type 2010 draft class in place in Kansas City, led by Eric Berry, McCluster, Javier Arenas and Tony Moeaki; a noticeable jump in locker room leadership from some of the rookies and key veterans like Thomas Jones and Mike Vrabel.And can anyone doubt the Chiefs aren't better off at coordinator this year with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel on hand? It's hard for me to see Kansas City optimizing this season unless Cassel plays better than he has through two games, but it's not a bad development that the Chiefs are winning despite Cassel's lack of production.
"What I like best is I feel the team is being built the right way,'' Hunt said. "I personally don't feel there are quick fixes in the NFL. You can add through free agency, but can't build through free agency. I think we've drafted well for the last three years, and I'm especially excited about this year's draft class. The other thing is the character that's been brought into the organization. We lacked leadership in the locker room and now there are many leaders. Some are young and some are veterans, but we've got leaders again in the locker room.
"We certainly have very lofty expectations, not just for building a winning team, but realistically fielding a team that can compete for a championship year in and year out. I've been in this business for a long time, and it's exciting to think about getting this team to the point where it can get back to the Super Bowl.''
In some ways, 2010 was all perfectly set up to be a turn-the-page type of year in Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium has been beloved by Chiefs fans by almost four decades, but the New Arrowhead -- "New Body, Same Soul'' is the team's slogan -- is already a huge hit in that the renovation has given everyone the look and amenities of a modern new stadium, without surrendering all the history and ambience of the old place. I'll get my first look at it on Sunday when I cover the 49ers-Chiefs game, the first time in a long time I've had reason to be in Kansas City on a game day.
With the stadium as the centerpiece of the Chiefs' season, 2010 also represents the start of the franchise's second 50 years, after last year's season-long celebration that saluted the original 1960 AFL teams. When you mix in the team's new training camp site, the new key players added, and the new high-profile coordinators on hand, the timing does feel right in Kansas City this season. And so far, the record corresponds with all the trappings of a fresh start.
"It definitely feels like a new era for the Chiefs, for this franchise,'' said Hunt, who assumed the role of the team's chairman of the board after his legendary father died in December 2006. "We're still in the stages of building something. Everybody wants it to happen overnight. But it takes patience and it's usually a process. We're not there yet. But I love the foundation that has been laid, and what's already in place.''
What's in place so far, through two short weeks of the 2010 season, is a first-place record. And guess what? Sometimes the turnaround does happen overnight. Ready or not. It might be fun to keep an eye on Kansas City's Chiefs this season, football fans. That old worst-to-first stuff, it gets us every time.