Two hours after the biggest game of his coaching career, Gunther
Cunningham leaned hard into a chair in his Arrowhead Stadium
office on Sunday, took a long pull from his can of Miller Lite
and recalled the conversation he had had the previous Monday with
Chiefs defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer. Their talk had
been brief, as both men were still smarting from Kansas City's
loss to the Oakland Raiders the day before. In that game the
Chiefs had scored 17 second-quarter points to go up 17-7, then
had played an inexcusably conservative second half and lost
20-17. "I knew if we didn't start attacking people, we were going
to lose our players," Cunningham recalled. "So I walked into
Kurt's office and asked, 'Whose idea is it to play so much zone?'
He said it was sort of his idea, because of all our new guys.
'That's bull----,' I said. 'Let's open this thing up, and do the
stuff we've wanted to do. We have to, or we're going to lose 'em
Given that the Chiefs' next opponent was the juggernaut of the
6-0 St. Louis Rams, Cunningham's decree seemed untimely. But the
Chiefs' shockingly decisive 54-34 upset of the Rams at
Arrowhead--combining a blitz-filled defensive scheme and a
pass-happy offensive game plan--backed up their coach's bark with
Staked to a 20-0 first-quarter lead, the K.C. defense took
control early against a banged-up St. Louis line, hitting
quarterback Kurt Warner on nearly every play, intercepting two of
his first six passes and never allowing him to find his rhythm.
(The Chiefs also ended the Rams' NFL-record streak of 31 straight
quarters with at least one score.) "They said no one could blitz
him," said Cunningham a bit defiantly, "but there's no man alive
I wouldn't try to blitz. Warner's a great player, but there was
no way he could stand up to that pounding."
As they prepared for St. Louis last week, Kansas City coaches had
thought the Rams might be vulnerable to certain weakside and
up-the-middle blitzes, particularly when they went to their
five-receiver sets. But get to Warner too late--as the staff saw
time and again on tape--and a defense would get rolled over by a
machine that was averaging nearly 44 points a game. Thus
Cunningham had thrust Schottenheimer into a potentially
disastrous plan: Drop the safer zone coverages for a pass rush
that might collapse the pocket but could also expose a secondary
that often featured three rookies.
"I know what I want to do, but it'll take a lot of faith on the
part of the coaching staff," K.C. linebacker Donnie Edwards said
last Friday. "We've only been blitzing about 15% of the time. I
want to bring it more. I was told before this season that I'd get
a shot from a number of looks, but we haven't brought it all yet,
and the other teams know it. Against Tennessee this year I would
get in a three-point stance and bluff the blitz, and [Titans
tight end] Frank Wycheck would just laugh and say, 'Ah, Donnie,
you know you're not coming.' That's got to stop."
Edwards got his wish. The Chiefs blitzed about 35% of the time,
sacking Warner and backup Trent Green two times each. A
fifth-year linebacker who has admirably filled the leadership
void left by the death last February of All-Pro linebacker
Derrick Thomas, Edwards had a game-high 14 tackles in
spearheading the containment of St. Louis running back Marshall
Faulk, who finished with an inconsequential 67 yards rushing and
32 yards receiving.
Edwards also was a major player in the biggest moment of the
game. Trailing 27-14 with 20 seconds left in the first half, St.
Louis had driven to the Kansas City eight-yard line and seemed
certain to score before intermission. Amid the roar of sold-out
Arrowhead, however, Warner fumbled the hurried snap, and Edwards
scooped up the ball. Meanwhile, a wincing Warner grabbed at his
throwing hand. He had broken his right pinkie on the play and did
not return. (He is expected to miss four to six weeks.) "That
play turned the tide," said Edwards.
Galvanized by the fumble recovery, Cunningham, normally low-keyed
during the team's halftime talks, exhorted his staff,
particularly offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, to continue
applying pressure. After the Oakland defeat several players
privately criticized Raye's predictable play-calling. Taking the
second-half kickoff on Sunday, though, the "new Chiefs," as
Cunningham called them afterward, arrived. Starting at the K.C.
35, quarterback Elvis Grbac hit wideout Derrick Alexander on
three consecutive plays that covered the 65 yards, the last pass
a crisp 30-yarder for a 34-14 lead.
That quick drive was the best evidence yet that the 30-year-old
Grbac, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 266 yards and two
touchdowns, may be coming into his own after an uneven three
years in K.C. (He was a backup with the San Francisco 49ers the
four seasons before that.) "I think I've grown a lot since 1998,
which was essentially a debacle for me," he says of a year in
which he was plagued by injuries and inconsistency. "I had a
coach [Marty Schottenheimer, Kurt's older brother] who wouldn't
even start me at home."
Grbac thought that season would be his last with the Chiefs. But
then Cunningham, promoted after Schottenheimer's resignation,
surprised many by pledging allegiance to his quarterback, and
Grbac, for the first time in his career, held on to the starting
job the entire season. "Elvis understands protection better than
any quarterback I've ever seen," says 17-year veteran Warren
Moon, who replaced an injured Grbac (bruised elbow) in the fourth
quarter on Sunday and helped ice the game with a late touchdown
pass. "He has surprising mobility, and he's very accurate. He's
making throws this year that he might not have even tried last
After dropping its first two games, Kansas City has won four of
five and moved into second place in the AFC West. As Cunningham
stared out the doors that open from his office onto Arrowhead
late on Sunday afternoon, the sun made a fleeting appearance, and
the reflection from the empty seats below lit his face a fiery
red. Asked what the day--its risks, its rewards--meant to him, he
sat silently for a bit. "I read Patton this spring," he said
finally, "and he wrote something like, 'Show me a guy who builds
foxholes, and I'll show you a guy who will lose.' I told Jimmy
Raye today, 'Throw it a thousand times if you want to.' I told
Kurt Schottenheimer, 'You're my guy. You earned this today.'"
He took a sip of beer and swallowed slowly. "I always hoped for
this day," he said, apologizing as he choked back a tear. "I just
never thought it would be like this."