The Secondary Is Primary In K.C.

Constituting a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Kansas City's defensive backfield may be the best ever
September 08, 1987

It's a dream that won't die. "All four of us in the Pro Bowl, the entire secondary," says Kansas City strong safety Lloyd Burruss. "Man, that would be sweet."

"I've prayed about it a lot," says Albert Lewis, the left cornerback. "It's getting closer and closer. But you need the publicity, the ink."

"You need the Super Bowl," adds Burruss.

Only twice in 37 years have all four members of a team's defensive backfield made the Pro Bowl off the same season. After its second Super Bowl victory, in 1985, San Francisco sent Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Dwight Hicks, with Hicks the only starter. In 1978 the Pittsburgh secondary of Mel Blount, Mike Wagner, J.T. Thomas and Glen Edwards all made the Pro Bowl, and Blount and Edwards started. Three players from the same team have been picked from time to time, and in 1968 three Packers—Herb Adderley, Bobby Jeter and Willie Wood—all started. But these are rare plums, dream material. So the Chiefs dream.

"After our second year together, in 1985, we knew we had something special," says free safety Deron Cherry. "We knew we could be a great unit. It's an unspoken kind of thing, but we feel we could be as good as anyone who's ever played the game."

They have gradually improved in the three seasons they've been together, but last year, when the Chiefs made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, they rose up with a frenzy. Kansas City dropped two games in October, when Burruss was out with a pulled hamstring. The Chiefs celebrated his return by beating San Diego 42-41. The Chargers ran 95 plays to the Chiefs' 52 and outgained Kansas City 512 yards to 222, but the Chiefs defensive backs scored three touchdowns. Burruss returned two of his three long interceptions for scores, and right cornerback Kevin Ross added another on a fumble return. Lewis blocked a punt for good measure.

On Dec. 7 the Chiefs' record was 7-6, and they had to win their last three games—against Denver at home and the Raiders and Steelers on the road—to make the playoffs. They crushed the Broncos 37-10 on the strength of five interceptions, one of which Burruss ran back 72 yards for a touchdown. In the Raider game, L.A. had six possessions in the second half. Four ended in turnovers, and Ross saved a three-point victory with an interception. Then—and be aware, the K.C. offense had the worst yardage output in the NFL over the three-game stretch—the Chiefs beat Pittsburgh by five points. Lewis blocked a punt, which Cherry recovered for a touchdown, and Lewis iced the game with an interception. Earlier, Burruss had returned a blocked field goal 76 yards for a score. No one had done that to the Steelers since 1953.

"Are you noticing," says Chiefs coach Frank Gansz, who handled the special teams last year, "that all four men in the secondary play on special teams? And they all scored special-teams touchdowns for me last year. When's the last time that happened? Lewis blocked four punts during the regular season, and that's a record. Then he blocked one at the end of the playoff against the Jets, in a game that was out of reach, when some people would be thinking, Forget it, save your body, save your career."

The players have nicknamed Gansz "Crash," a tribute to the years he spent as an Air Force jet pilot and to the colorful way he expresses himself. "You look at films of those guys going in to block a punt," says Crash, "and it's like a train wreck. Here's Burruss going over the top; there's Lewis down below. If one of them doesn't get it, the other will. And when they're on defense, when they're really clicking, well, they have the potential to be the best not only now but ever. Not just great players, but great men, warriors. They bring tears to my eyes when I start talking about them."

In the three years they have been together, no other team has come up with more interceptions, but that's only part of the story. There have been secondaries with great players, but somehow things didn't seem to click. There have been outstanding defensive backfields without individual stars, but the mesh was right. The Chiefs unit has both.

"We don't have any No. 1 draft choices in our group," Cherry says, "no big egos. Just four hardworking guys trying to get better. We're all in our mid-to late 20's. We all have two years left on our contracts. We room together on the road, watch film together, hang out together. There's no animosity. We feed on each other's success."

Last season Cherry was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year by the 101 Committee, which is composed of 101 national sportswriters and sports-casters. He and Burruss made the Pro Bowl, but the Chiefs voted Lewis their MVP, an honor Burruss won in '85. Recognition is finally arriving, and it has been a spur to push the throttle even harder.

At minicamp in May, Lewis dazzled everyone with a 4.37 40, the fastest time of his life. The club record for the 300-yard shuttle run, a set of six turnaround 50's, was 44 seconds, but Lewis did it in 43.34, and then Burruss broke that with a 43.05. The weight room was turned into a competition between the secondary and every other unit on the squad. Led by Ross, a 5'9", 182-pound weight-lifting fanatic, the defensive backs scored highest in the pound-for-pound gradings.

Ross's teammates call him Rocky, because he's a ferocious hitter. He's also a wicked little man-to-man cover guy. "Look at him," Burruss says, pointing to Ross's close-cropped, almost shaved head and powerful neck. "The head, the neck. Who does he remind you of?"

You look at an unblinking, almost baleful stare. It could be only one person: Marvin Hagler. There are whoops of delight. "Marvin Hagler, our own Marvin, our little Rock," Burruss says.

"Rocky," Cherry says, "tell him what Cliff Branch said to you your rookie year?"

Ross was the Chiefs' seventh-round draft choice in 1984. He had been a rugged tailback and linebacker at Paulsboro High in South Jersey, where he enjoyed taking on guards and centers, and a fine strong safety and then cornerback at Temple, where he faced some of the nation's best quarterbacks, including Doug Flutie, Dan Marino and Todd Blackledge. At Kansas City he was working at nickelback and strong safety when, six days before the '84 opener against the Steelers, the coaches told him that they had just cut Lucious Smith and that he would start in Smith's place at right corner.

"I'd always been a Steeler fan," Ross says. "I watched them in the warmups—Stallworth, Lambert, Webster, Shell—all my heros. I got caught up in it. I was excited, but mentally and emotionally I wasn't ready to play."

Pittsburgh passed for 419 yards that day, and John Stallworth and Louis Lipps had 350 between them. According to the reports, 282 of them were directly attributable to Ross. After the game he faced a battery of reporters and answered their questions with that same unblinking gaze. "This," he said, "will never happen again."

Against the Bengals the next week, he made 10 tackles and forced a fumble that saved a 27-22 victory. Then the Raiders came to town. Branch had seen the Steeler film. He licked his chops.

"He was a master at conversation," Ross says. "He had a new line for every play. He'd say, "Young blood, you shouldn't even be out here, you know that?' Then he'd say, 'You're going to learn about Raider football. Commitment to excellence is going to be on your butt.' Then, 'Look behind you, there's a lot of green, and Deron isn't there to help.' " Branch caught one pass for 18 yards, and in the second period Ross returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown. At the end of the season he was voted the Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs' most courageous rookie.

The three other defensive backs look at Ross admiringly. With Cherry it's a little different. Respect, yes, but it's more of an unspoken kind of thing. He's the guy who pushes the buttons.

Cherry has been an All-Pro for four straight years and the NFL's leading interceptor during that period. He is physically gifted, but that's a relatively small factor in his success. The one constant in Cherry's athletic career has been his ability to identify a problem, analyze it and then figure out how to solve it. He was an honor student at Palmyra (N.J.) High, where he was a quarterback who called his own plays and a free safety. They still talk about a play against Gloucester in the finals of the South Jersey playoffs. Cherry read an option play so quickly that he stole the ball from the quarterback coming down the line and ran 50 yards for a touchdown.

His problem coming out of Rutgers in 1981 was that he had a No. 1 draft choice's mind but a free agent's body. He was 5'11", 185 pounds and his 40 times were in the high 4.7's, low 4.8's, which would have been pretty nifty if he were a defensive end. But he had a hook: His defensive coordinator at Rutgers, Ted Cottrell, got a job as linebacker coach with the Chiefs, and he knew Cherry had been a good punter in college. So Cottrell got him into camp.

Cherry didn't beat out the incumbent punter, Bob Grupp, and he didn't survive the last cut—Burruss, the third-round pick, was the rookie K.C. kept—but in the third game strong safety Herb Christopher pulled a thigh muscle. As a result, Burruss became the starter, and Cherry got a spot on the roster, eventually working in as a nickelback. He had a knack for figuring out what the offense could do, but with 4.8 speed, so what?

"I worked with track men in the off-season and got my speed down into the 4.6's," says Cherry. "My bench press went from 250 to 335. My weight went from 185 to a solid 195."

In 1983, when All-Pro free safety Gary Barbaro held out, Cherry became the starter, and his Pro Bowl streak began. He had seven interceptions in '83 and became a master of sneaking in from the quarterback's blind side. "Films tell you what you want to know about a quarterback," he says. "About everything, actually. That's why our unit spends so much time studying film together. You might not see things the first time. The key is the second, third and fourth look. Some quarterbacks, like Marc Wilson, are predictable. They'll throw where they're looking. Others, like Dan Fouts and Jim Plunkett, always try to look you off. Plunkett tries to use his upper body and shoulders to fake you out, so you have to be patient and wait until he brings up his arm."

Gifted with an almost freaky field of vision, Cherry is the all-seeing eye for the secondary. He sets the coverages and switches people out of alignments that don't seem right. "We're the patrol cops," Lewis says, "and Deron's our switchboard operator. Without him we wouldn't know where the crimes are."

"Before the snap we're asking him to look through the guard and tackle into the backfield triangle," says defensive backfield coach Dave Brazil. "He has to see five players before the snap, and he can do that. If it's a run, he has to call it instantly. If it's a pass he has to see the quarterback and all five receivers. I'd never been around anyone who could see all five, but he can. In the past three years there have been maybe 10 blown coverages exploited by the other team, but Deron reacted and covered them. He sees everything, every mistake."

"On a lot of teams a linebacker makes the calls for the whole defense," says Cherry. "I'm glad they let me call the coverages. I can see everything that happens, the breaks, the snap. I can see the receivers and the backfield motion. Sometimes I use a color to call my change-ups, sometimes a number. It's never the same."

The four defensive backs enjoy an almost instinctive sense of communication. "We can almost feel what we're going to do," Cherry says. "Sometimes I don't even have to make a call, and we'll shift out of what we were in. It's because we know each other so well, live and breathe football together. The good thing is that the coordinators I have played for understood that and gave us freedom on the field. If I played for a rigid type of coach, I'd have problems."

Basically, the Chiefs play man-to-man, and they're comfortable with the cornerbacks playing a tight bump-and-run, but everything is subject to on-the-spot adjustments. "Two years ago San Diego was hurting us with pick plays near the goal line," says Cherry. "The book says you play man-to-man deep in your own territory, but I switched us into a zone to nullify the picks. It confused them. We held three times on the goal line."

If Cherry is the mind of the secondary, Burruss is the muscle. At 6 feet, 209 pounds, he is the consummate strong safety. He likes to take on big people. They talk about his battles with the Chargers' 6'6", 250-pound tight end, Kellen Winslow, and about the hit he put on Cincinnati's 270-pound fullback, Pete Johnson, in an exhibition game in Burruss's second year. Johnson was bearing down on him under a full head of steam. Burruss met him chest high—it's a point of honor with him to go high on the big guys—and sent him flying. "Flat-backed him" is the term Burruss uses.

All of Kansas City's defensive backs are hitters, but what lifts Burruss to a higher plane is his extraordinary athleticism. He always scores highest on the physical tests the Chiefs run in camp. He can cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, and he set three school track records at Charlottesville (Va.) High. Not long after he broke in as a rookie starter in 1981, the word started going around that maybe, just maybe, he was the best in the business. But aside from that team MVP award in 1985, he didn't receive any honors. "Big plays," says Burruss. "Deron explained to me that the things that get you noticed are the big plays."

So last year he made four of them, three long interception returns for touchdowns and a long return of a blocked field goal for a score. His four touchdowns were an NFL high for defensive players. Then in the Pro Bowl he preserved the East's 10-6 win with a goal-line interception. Burruss's nickname is the Ultimate.

"When he was at Maryland and I was at Penn State," says Blackledge, the Chiefs' quarterback, "we knew he was the one guy who could kill us. He was quiet on the field; I don't think I ever heard him say a word. But you could tell he was the leader of their defense, the guy they expected to make the big play."

Mention of Lewis, the left corner, brings considerable head-shaking from his fellow defensive backs. "A shame," Cherry says. "It's just a shame that Albert didn't make the Pro Bowl last year. If you sat down and drew up the ideal cornerback, it would be Albert. He is 6'2", 192 pounds and has just an unbelievable amount of speed. I've never seen a guy open up ground on him. And he'll hit you, yes he will."

Lewis grew up in Mansfield, La., as the 10th of 13 children. His parents didn't want him to play football, so he moved across town to his sister Katherine's house. She signed the consent form. "I always wanted to play football and go to college," says Lewis. "I saw it as my only way out of a life-style that was set by fairly rigid standards. Here was the black community, living by a certain set of standards. There was the Mexican community, the Hispanics. I felt there was more to life than living in a rigid environment. I never wanted people to limit me, and deep down I felt I could be anything I wanted if I tried hard enough. These were feelings I cherished, but I didn't share them with anyone."

At Grambling, Lewis played cornerback and sprinted on the track team. He remembers that when the scouts came out to time him and wideout Trumaine Johnson, who's with the Chargers now, the students filled the stands to watch. Kansas City's second-round pick in 1983, Lewis spent a year as nickelback and broke in when All-Pro Gary Green was traded to the Rams. The Chiefs knew Lewis could cover, but Kansas City had a reputation as a hitting secondary. The question was, could the kid hit? It was answered in the St. Louis game of his rookie season, when he laid two thunderous wallops on Stump Mitchell, one on a kickoff, one on a punt.

For a while Lewis was assigned the MDR, or Most Dangerous Receiver. Cover one receiver all over the field. It was a heavy load for a young cornerback. When Ross developed, the system was junked.

Quiet and introspective, Lewis took a prelegal course at SMU in the off-season. He works with abused children and with kids who have drug problems. "My ambition is to represent people who can't afford a lawyer," he says. "I don't expect to become a millionaire in corporate law or litigation. You see some of these kids who have been abused, who are living with drug problems, it's unbelievable. We just don't have a full concept about how some people struggle on a daily basis. I've had people say to me, 'How can you deal with getting hit like that every Sunday?' It's easy when you see so many people living in constant distress, always asking why, and not knowing the answers."

So there you have it, four outstanding players who want the same thing—to be the best secondary in NFL history. "The Raiders are supposedly the best secondary of the 1980s," Cherry says. "Well, I have a videotape of them that goes a few years back, and I think we're better. They do a great job of covering, but they're not the all-around players we are. Their cornerbacks aren't called on to play the run much; they don't play the force. Our concept is different. Here, everyone has to do everything."

Which is just what they do.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRABig Chiefs (from left): Cherry, Ross, Burruss and Lewis (in front). PHOTORONALD C. MODRAStrong safety Burruss is the ultimate muscle in K.C.'s defensive backfield. PHOTOJOEL ZWINK/FOCUS WESTLewis hopes someday to be an attorney. With him at cornerback, the defense never rests. PHOTORICK STEWART/FOCUS WESTRoss learned his lessons the hard way, and now when he plays the pass he never blinks.
PHOTOYOUNG COMPANYKansas City is happy to have its own Cherry picker.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)