The Kansas City chiefs' Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross successfully defended their title on Sunday. They are the best pair of cornerbacks in football. No one else comes close. On the opening weekend of the season, the Atlanta Falcons came to town with a pair of challengers, Deion Sanders and Tim McKyer, and departed on the short end of a 14-3 score. The battle within the battle almost read like a morality play.
The reason was McKyer. He made it personal. He ripped Lewis, a four-time Pro Bowl player, in the week before the game, on the day before the game and immediately after the game. That's his thing. McKyer's mouth got him in trouble in 1989 with the San Francisco 49ers and last year with the Miami Dolphins, and both teams wound up trading him. Tremendous talent, yes, but jeez.
"Lewis? Overrated," said McKyer last Saturday. "They protect him in zone coverage. He's not a man-to-man cornerback. Besides, how many Super Bowl rings does he have?" Ross, who has made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, wasn't even worthy of mention by McKyer.
Cornerbacks don't normally comment on their enemy counterparts. You can ask them about the opposing wideouts or quarterbacks—the guys they square off against—but the defensive backs? They do their job, we do ours. McKyer's remarks stung Lewis. He's a proud athlete, 6'2", 195 pounds, a remarkably fluid defender who regularly clocks in the high 4.3s for the 40.
September 8, 1991
Last year, when Lewis held out for 51 days and missed the first game of the regular season, it wasn't money that bothered him. It was management's conveying a lack of respect for him by waving around a rating sheet from a stat subscriber service that ranked him 25th among defensive backs in the league and third on his own team. The matter eventually was settled, after apologies were offered by the front office. So you can understand that McKyer's remarks last week definitely bothered Lewis.
"When a guy talks that much," Lewis said on Saturday, "he's covering up something. McKyer has talent, but he'd be better off if he shut up. All the times he's been traded—the only thing he ever made was All-Airport."
Sanders, who carries his Prime Time image even into a noon game in Kansas City, is a chatty guy, too, but he doesn't bother people the way McKyer does. Early in the week Sanders appeared on Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas's radio show. They're native Floridians and old buddies from their college football days; Thomas even picked Sanders up in a limo the night before the game and took him to dinner.
"If [Chiefs quarterback] Steve DeBerg's an inch off on his passes, you're gonna see the longest high-step in Arrowhead Stadium history," Sanders said on the show, but everyone just smiled.
"That's Deion," Ross says. "He likes to have a few laughs. The other guy's different. There's something nasty about him."
At 5'9", 182 pounds, Ross is the perfect complement to Lewis. "Little Marvin" they call him, because of his resemblance to Marvin Hagler, a compact bundle of fury who'll take your head off. "I've never lifted weights with him," Atlanta nickel-back Bobby Butler says, "but just looking at him you can tell he's spent a lot of time in the weight room."
So the stage was set for Sunday. The Falcons' four-wideout set, the Red Gun, their version of the run-and-shoot, would be a serious test for Lewis and Ross. Kansas City's style is to pound away, but Atlanta specializes in stopping the run—the Falcons allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry last year—so sooner or later DeBerg would surely have to put it up. Sanders and McKyer would be waiting.
It didn't work out that way. Atlanta came out in heavy formations—three running backs and one wideout, or sometimes three runners, two tight ends and no wideouts—and chose to grind. The Falcons' first drive ate up 74 yards and almost 11 minutes and produced a field goal. When the Chiefs got the ball, they tried a little of this and a little of that, and were shut out in the first half.
Lewis was the only Chief making something happen. He cut off Atlanta's second series of the game with an interception of a Chris Miller bomb, and he ended the Falcons' next series by intercepting an overthrow to Andre Rison. He got his third pickoff when he wrestled the ball away from rookie wideout Mike Pritchard in the final quarter. Lewis was tested two more times in man coverage, and both passes were incomplete.
Ross? The Falcons tried him three times and got only a two-yard completion. That was a big moment for K.C. because it came on third-and-five midway through the fourth quarter, and on the play Ross knocked Rison out of the game. Next pair of challengers, please.
The Chiefs won thanks to six Falcon turnovers and to the steady pounding that Kansas City inflicted on the smaller Atlanta defenders. Running back Christian Okoye gained 143 yards on 22 carries, including 109 yards on 14 second-half rushes. When Miller fumbled the ball away at the Atlanta 27 on the Falcons' second possession of the third quarter, K.C. put Okoye to work. He covered the distance to the goal line in four carries to give the Chiefs a 7-3 lead. At 260 pounds, Okoye outweighed 10 of Atlanta's defensive starters. A six-yard pass from DeBerg to Emile Harry with nine minutes left completed the scoring.
In the Falcons' postgame locker room, McKyer took back nothing that he had said. "Lewis got three gifts today," he said, a sentiment backed up by Miller, who described his passes as "punts."
"I killed us," Miller said.
Sanders gave up one nine-yard completion, to Stephone Paige, and a 13-yarder, to Robb Thomas on a pick play that might not have been his responsibility. In the second half, the Chiefs stayed away from him. McKyer allowed no completions, but he was flagged once for holding. Nothing to be ashamed of there—except that the corners on the other team were better.
"McKyer's the kind of guy who confuses activity with productivity," Lewis said, and the press smiled at the line and dutifully recorded it. It was a neat bit of drama—bad guys pop off, good guys win. But the bad guys were pretty darn good themselves. They just weren't in the championship class of Lewis and Ross. Not yet, anyway.