There are those around the NFL who say that the Kansas City Chiefs are running a halfway house for aging stars on their way down. But the evidence at K.C.'s Arrowhead Stadium last Saturday afternoon was all to the contrary. Three players older than dirt—37-year-old quarterback Joe Montana, 33-year-old running back Marcus Allen and 36-year-old kicker Nick Lowery, a triumvirate with a combined 41 years in the NFL and 15 Pro Bowl selections—were as young as hope in fashioning a stirring 27-24 wildcard victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime.
Youth, of course, will be served. Later. In the meantime, the Chiefs' senior citizens are showing why experience counts.
With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Kansas City trailed 24-17, and the Steelers had the ball near mid-field. Even with Montana on your side, this could not be construed as ideal. However, the Steelers, almost certainly needing just one first down to lock up the win, could not gain a yard in three tries and were forced to punt.
Over on the Chief sideline, special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer, the younger brother of head coach Marty, repeated what he had said before a Pittsburgh punt earlier in the game: "I'd like to go after it." This time, the boss said, "Go ahead."
The play that Kurt Schottenheimer diagrammed was designed to get the block for Fred Jones, Bruce Pickens, or, ideally, punt blocker extraordinaire Albert Lewis (11 in his career). But Lewis found himself grappling with three Steelers, and it was Keith Cash, a third-year backup tight end who had spent his first NFL season with the Steelers, who batted the ball as it came off the foot of punter Mark Royals. "I had one man blocking me," said Cash, "and I beat him."
The ball popped up, Jones grabbed it and raced down the sideline for 31 yards to the Steeler nine. Moments later the Chiefs faced fourth-and-goal on the Steeler seven. Kansas City needed nothing less than a touchdown—in all, the perfect setup for Comeback Joe.
Montana wanted to go to wide receiver J.J. Birden, or perhaps to Cash. Both were covered, so Montana turned his attention to his third choice—as only an experienced quarterback can—and found backup wide receiver Tim Barnett, who had split the safeties, all alone in the back of the end zone. The result was Montana's 40th postseason touchdown pass.
Barnett's good fortune came about partly because of the self-destructive behavior of starting Steeler cornerback D.J. Johnson on the Chiefs' third series of the game. Inexplicably, after a play had concluded, Johnson began kicking a fallen Barnett in the face. "He was hitting me with a chair, a hammer, something," Barnett said afterward. There were no weapons, but Johnson was ejected and he was definitely missed. Two rookies, Deon Figures and Willie Williams, were in the Steeler secondary when Barnett scored his touchdown.
After neither team could move the ball on its initial possession in overtime, Montana took over on his own 20. Following two consecutive five-yard penalties against Pittsburgh, Montana got the Chiefs rolling with three straight completions, the first of them for seven yards to Allen. Montana to Allen. Let those words slide off your tongue a few times. How's that for a great golden oldie? Mixing runs with his trademark short passes, Montana brought K.C. to the Steeler 14, where the ball awaited Lowery's attention.
Lowery has worn a Chief uniform for 202 games; on Sunday he will tie former punter Jerrel Wilson for the alltime Kansas City record for longevity. The second most accurate kicker in NFL history, he had missed a 43-yarder at the end of regulation that would have won the game. However, with four minutes to play in the extra period, Lowery drilled the ball dead solid center from 32 yards. "I owed it to my teammates," he said. "My job is to make kicks." On to Houston, where the Chiefs will face the AFC Central Division-champion Oilers this Sunday.
Allen, the third member of this aging trio, was a rock. Twenty-one carries for a game-high 67 yards, one touchdown and four receptions. And all day long he blocked. Allen, who grouses that "just because you've reached a certain age, people think you can't play anymore," is a major force not only for what he does, but also for what he might do. Memories of years past, including 1984, when he was MVP of Super Bowl XVIII, are unsettling to opponents.
So, while the sun may be setting on these stars, it's best for the rest of the NFL to keep in mind that while sunrises can be spectacular, it's the sunsets that can break your heart.