In 1989 the Kansas City chiefs were a defense waiting for an offense to happen. Sure, they had the Nigerian Nightmare, 260-pound Christian Okoye, who ran for more yards than anyone else in the NFL, but when defenses ganged up to stop the big guy, K.C. was in trouble. The operation was in the hands of Steve DeBerg, Steve Pelluer and Ron Jaworski, a trio of cast-off quarterbacks who took turns starting, and the job just didn't get done.
Turnovers also were a weakness for Kansas City, which finished the season with eight more giveaways than take-aways. As flashy as the defense was (statistically, the second best in the league), it had a soft spot. Teams that put it to the Chiefs on the ground, that smacked them hard with bigger people, beat them. The San Diego Chargers did it twice; the Los Angeles Raiders once. So K.C. finished 8-7-1 and joined the ranks of "yes, but" clubs that almost made the playoffs. Yes, the Chiefs had something going for them, but how were they going to improve without a high-tech quarterback? How were they going to get better when they kept turning the ball over, when their defense picked odd times to come up soft?
Well, Kansas City is on its way now. After Sunday's 37-7 thrashing of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., the Chiefs were 8-4 and tied with the Raiders for the AFC West lead. What's more, they've got a tiebreaking hammer on L.A. because they've beaten the Raiders twice. What has happened this season?
"Execution," Marty Schottenheimer, falling back on the favorite word of NFL coaches and firing-squad commanders, said after the game. "What I'm so pleased about is that we've gone five straight games without an offensive turnover." Kansas City is plus-22 in takeaway-giveaway ratio, and that's well in front of the rest of the league.
The defense has toughened to the extent that the Chiefs' old nemesis, San Diego, which had rushed for 944 yards in five consecutive wins over them, could get only 99 in Kansas City's 27-10 victory on Nov. 18. Credit the defensive scheme for that, says Bill Maas, K.C.'s former All-Pro noseguard who now plays defensive end. Plus the new inside linebacker, first-round draft pick Percy Snow. Plus the emergence of Neil Smith, a No. 1 selection in 1988, as a solid run-stopper at the other defensive end.
In addition to Okoye, the Chiefs now have another bruising back, 240-pound Barry Word, the former New Orleans Saint whom they signed as a free agent in the off-season. If you go by the numbers, Word has been the more effective of the two. He has outrushed Okoye, 595 yards to 326, over the last seven games.
Now we come to the 36-year-old DeBerg. He has spent 14 NFL seasons listening to people say, "How can you?" before saying his name. As in, "How can you play Steve DeBerg and keep Joe Montana on the bench?" Or John Elway? Or Steve Young? Or Vinny Testaverde? DeBerg started ahead of them all while they were cutting their rookie teeth. This year it was "How can you call yourself a serious contender when Steve DeBerg is your quarterback?"
DeBerg, who looks at life through cynical yet slightly twinkling eyes, says, "I might go down in history as the greatest backup quarterback who ever lived." Has there ever been a time for him when he wasn't battling for a job? Yeah, on the 2-14 San Francisco 49er teams of 1978 and '79, when being the quarterback was a sentence rather than a reward. Since then, as he has made the rounds—Denver, Tampa Bay, Kansas City—he has always been a puzzler. "A lot of quarterbacks have supposedly been a lot better than me," he says, "but they've come and gone, and I'm still here."
This year DeBerg emerged as the starter through attrition, after the coaching staff decided that Mike Elkins, a second-round draft pick in 1989, wasn't ready; that Pelluer, a seven-year veteran who didn't show much as a starter with the Dallas Cowboys, wasn't the answer; and that Jaworski, who is 39, wasn't worth keeping around any longer. Now DeBerg finds himself as the unchallenged No. 1 quarterback on a contending team. There's a first time for everything. "Ironic, huh?" he says. "A lot of times I think, God, why didn't this happen to me when I was good?"
He has had weird games this year, when his passes were ducking and sailing. For instance, against the Seattle Seahawks at home in Week 10, wideout Robb Thomas had to make acrobatic, diving catches—on eight-yard hooks. But DeBerg also has had games in which he has flung rockets that could not miss. Sunday's outing against the Patriots was a case in point. First pass: 86-yard touchdown to Stephone Paige on a deep post. Second pass: 61-yard streak to J.J. Birden. Two passes, two completions, 147 yards. At the end of the first quarter, DeBerg had thrown for 216 yards, and by halftime he had 312.
"Ever had 300 yards by halftime?" he was asked after the game.
"In college, maybe, but never in the pros," he said.
The score was 23-0 at that point, and the hunt was over. So Schottenheimer, being a man of mercy, called off the hounds. DeBerg threw only three times after intermission, converting two dink passes for 19 yards, but he still ended up with 15 completions in 21 attempts for 331 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. This gaudy showing raised his quarterback rating to a career-high 92.3, but his most impressive stat is his league-low interception ratio—three in 328 throws.
"That's the part I love about him," says Schottenheimer. "The guy simply has not thrown interceptions. When the season started, I frankly didn't know where we were going to be, which is always the case with a team that doesn't have what you'd consider a dominating quarterback.
"I'll tell you when Steve made a believer out of me: against the Raiders in L.A., with the division lead at stake. They'd just come back to tie us in the third quarter, and you could sense the momentum shifting. We've got a first-and-15 on our five, and there's more noise than I've ever heard in the Coliseum. Steve throws the ball to the tight end for a first down. Then he hits Paige on a little inside streak for 22. We run the ball, and then he hits Ste-phone again for about 25 yards. We wound up kicking a field goal, and it shut the crowd up.
"Steve threw for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but then they drove for a TD that put them down by three. We held the ball for the last four minutes and change to win it. On one third-down play we simply had to have the completion, and Steve gave it to us. At that point I was thinking, You know, I've got a pretty tough quarterback here."
So is it a mirage, this late emergence of DeBerg, who ranks seventh among NFL passers in 1990, or is he for real? "Last year was difficult on me," says DeBerg. "It was Marty's first year as coach, and everything had to be proven to him. He didn't want to hear what anyone had done in the past. It took him awhile to figure me out, my ability, my personality, the whole package. I was benched twice; I was the starter three different times. It was frustrating.
"Marty's very competitive. When we weren't winning early in the season, someone's head had to roll, and it turned out to be mine. But you know, there really isn't a whole lot of difference between my performance then and now. The difference is in our entire offense.
"For me to perform best, I need teammates who are thoroughly in tune with the system. I'm not a great improviser; I don't make a lot of plays out of nothing, the way some quarterbacks do. What I excel at is executing a good play at the snap. Not scrambling, but executing the play and making it work. It's taken half a year for everything to fall into place with our offense, but now we've won four out of our last five, and we know what we're doing."
For six years, including five with the Cleveland Browns, Schottenheimer's trademark as an NFL coach was a conservative, ground-oriented attack. He has never had a losing season. This year, though, he turned the offense over to Joe Pendry, a USFL graduate who was on Schottenheimer's staff in Cleveland, and sparks have been flying—such as a 90-yard TD pass on the third play against the Chargers and the long-ball madness at the start of Sunday's game.
"Joe told me on the bus to the game that we were going to start with a play fake and then a deep pass," DeBerg said later, "because the Patriots figured to play the run tough on the first series."
Last week it was pointed out to DeBerg that three of the six longest pass plays in the NFL this season were his. "The second coming of Daryle Lamonica," he said. "That's me, the Mad Bomber."
"I think it's time," says Paige, who after eight seasons in the league can still be one of the NFL's premier deep threats. "You saw it happen. Things are going to stretch out now; they're going to open up. It's a sign of a team on the rise, a team that's ready to win."
The one dynamic addition to the Kansas City offense has been Word, a more instinctive runner than Okoye and almost his equal in power. Word has been the second man in. Okoye softens them up, DeBerg loosens them up with the bombs, and Word finishes them off. He got 200 yards against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 14 and 112 against the Pats, who held Okoye to five. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry to Okoye's 3.3.
Anyone else might complain about not starting, but Word is thankful just to be playing, because his resume has a couple of dead spots on it. Four years ago he spent 4½ months in a Morgantown, W.Va., prison for cocaine distribution. "No excuses," says Word, who went to Virginia. "I was a young, dumb college kid. I thought what I was doing was cool. I learned." Drafted by the Saints before his conviction, Word rejoined New Orleans in '87, only to take a hike two games into the next season.
"It's kind of hard to explain," says Word, an introspective man who spends his Tuesdays working with school kids in the Kansas City area. "I didn't feel like I was putting enough into football at the time. I had to get away from it until I could feel like I was 100 percent."
The Chiefs have talent everywhere you look, but not until this year have they put it together. Nick Lowery, the kicker, has a personal-best streak of 13 straight field goals after nailing three, from 19, 32 and 45 yards, against New England. Maas, who had two sacks on Sunday, is looking like the Pro Bowl player he was at nose-guard. Derrick Thomas, an All-Pro outside linebacker as a rookie last year, got into the record books with seven sacks against Seattle, but he sat out the Patriot game with a sprained knee. Free safety Deron Cherry, coming off a long rehab from knee surgery last December, is just rounding into the form that made him a six-time Pro Bowl player. Finally, Kevin Ross and Albert Lewis are the finest pair of cornerbacks in pro football.
Ross, a compact, 5'9", 182-pound hitter—Little Marvin Hagler, they call him—is the tough guy. He takes pride in knocking the ball loose. Lewis is the thoroughbred, a 6'2", 190-pound glider with uncommon grace and speed. He's a natural cover man. "The finest pure corner-back I've ever seen," says secondary coach Tony Dungy, "and I was with Mel Blount on the Steelers."
Lewis also may be the best punt blocker of all time. We'll never know because individual records haven't been kept, but on Sunday he blocked a Brian Hansen boot to give him four for the season and 10 for his career (including one in a playoff game). That block was the Chiefs' sixth of the season, which is an NFL record.
Kansas City fans, hammered by years of mediocrity, have boosted attendance to an 18-year high, averaging better than 70,000 at Arrowhead Stadium. Two home games are next, against the Denver Broncos and the Houston Oilers, and the season ends with two roadies, against San Diego and the Chicago Bears.
"This team has stepped up," says Maas, "and created something, created opportunities. In the past we couldn't meet them. We're ready now."