Can Anyone Stop The Chiefs? In a year filled with superb coaching jobs, Dick Vermeil is working his magic again with undefeated Kansas City

November 17, 2003

At 5:40 p.m. in Kansas City last Thursday, 80 minutes after the
Chiefs had left the practice field, 31 players were still hanging
around the locker room. Fullback Omar Easy was shooting pool,
underneath a huge sign that reads SHARE THE COMMITMENT.
Linebackers Mike Maslowski and Shawn Barber played dominoes in
the back of the room. Quarterback Trent Green, with an ice pack
on his right elbow, talked to a few teammates near his locker. A
couple of other players watched SportsCenter on a TV built into
one of the wood-paneled walls. ¶ Anyone associated with the NFL
will tell you that, with the exception of an injured player or
two getting treatment, or a couple of game-tape fanatics studying
the next opponent, locker rooms are nearly empty at 5:40 on
Thursday evenings. To have more than 30 players still at the
facility on a day that starts with 8 a.m. meetings is unheard of.

But this didn't come about in Kansas City by accident. It is part
of coach Dick Vermeil's plan. His team is 9-0 and builds on its
chemistry week to week. The Chiefs don't fall apart when they're
down by 17 with 13 minutes to play, as they were against the
Packers in Green Bay last month. Three times over a four-week
span, they preserved leads of a touchdown or less in the final
two minutes. "The more you can bring people together, the more
they'll fight their asses off for each other on Sunday," Vermeil
said last Friday, clearly excited as he leaned forward in his
office chair. "My number one job as a coach is to create an
environment, a culture, that players and coaches enjoy working
in."

Though famous for his hugs and tears and emotional speeches,
Vermeil is aware that this locker-room lovefest works only if the
players know the coach can be tough too. A few hours before the
team kicked back in the locker room last Thursday, Vermeil faced
the full squad and stared daggers at one player. Vermeil called
him out because the player (whom Vermeil would not name for this
story) had missed a special teams meeting that morning and was
four pounds overweight at the weekly weigh-in. In colorful
language, Vermeil told the player he was letting down the team
and that he wouldn't be letting down the team much longer if he
didn't shape up. "I jumped his fat ass," Vermeil said through
gritted teeth, "and you can quote me on that."

The story of the 2003 NFL season, at its midpoint, is that of the
great coaching jobs being done by a handful of men confronting
different problems with a variety of styles. Vermeil, a superb
teacher, promotes brotherhood. In Dallas, another fine teacher,
Bill Parcells, has turned around the Cowboys, who lead the NFC
East at 7-2, by instilling fear. In New England, Bill Belichick
has kept the 7-2 Patriots atop the AFC East by developing and
inserting no-name players into an injury-riddled lineup. In
Indianapolis, Tony Dungy has built a lightning-quick defense that
some weeks outplays the Peyton Manning-led offense, and the Colts
are tied for the AFC South lead at 7-2. In Carolina, gritty coach
John Fox has exceeded expectations by leading the Panthers (7-2)
into first place in the NFC South.

Free agency, salary-cap considerations and injuries are forcing
more and more teams to build on the fly, so coaching is taking on
added significance in an already micromanaged league. The Chiefs,
who brought in 14 new players last year and 15 this year,
probably have the longest practices in the NFL--two hours, 45
minutes on Wednesdays and Thursdays; two hours on Fridays--and
spend the first 20 minutes of each session on fundamentals such
as pass-drop footwork for offensive linemen. "Every backup and
practice-squad player gets coached like a regular every day,"
says Vermeil.

So much is surprising about the second comeback of the
67-year-old Vermeil and the Chiefs' march on the NFL's most
hallowed team record--the perfect season, accomplished only by
the 1972 Miami Dolphins (14-0). On Jan. 30, 2000, Vermeil
experienced his greatest NFL triumph when his St. Louis Rams
capped one of the most improbable turnarounds in NFL history with
a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. They had been 4-12 the previous
year, Vermeil's second as coach, and two weeks before the 1999
season opener they'd lost starting quarterback Trent Green (yes,
the same one now in K.C.) for the season with a knee injury.
After celebrating the championship win, Vermeil and his wife,
Carol, were getting ready for bed at about 3 a.m. when they heard
a knock on their hotel room door. It was the couple's son David,
one of the Vermeils' three grown children. "He tells me, 'You've
gotten done what you've always wanted to get done,'" Dick
recalls, telling this story publicly for the first time. "'Come
home now.'"

Vermeil was single-mindedly devoted to coaching and had already
quit the game once, citing burnout as his reason for leaving the
Philadelphia Eagles after the 1982 season. Other than his weekend
gigs as a football TV analyst and scattered speaking appearances,
Vermeil had stayed home on his 114-acre spread in Chester County,
Pa., for 15 years before taking the Rams job. He'd gotten awfully
close to his 11 grandchildren. David's words hit home. "I knew
I'd miss the game, but I was emotionally drained," Vermeil says.
"And four days after we won the Super Bowl we would have to make
some decisions on free agency. Hell, I loved all these players. I
wanted to keep 'em all." So, less than 48 hours after hoisting
the Lombardi Trophy, he retired.

Carl Peterson, the president and general manager of the Chiefs,
had worked with Vermeil in Philadelphia; the two men had remained
good friends, and they talked weekly. Though Vermeil kept telling
Peterson that he was doing well, "I could tell there was a void,"
Peterson said last week. Upon hearing after the 2000 season that
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had asked Vermeil if he'd
be interested in returning to the game, Peterson said, "If Dan
Snyder can offer you the coaching job of the Redskins, then I'm
on the next plane." Vermeil told him not to come, but Peterson
wanted Vermeil to look him in the eye and tell him he was
finished coaching. And when he walked into the Vermeil home in
early January 2001, Peterson said, "We will begin this
conversation with this point: 'No' is unacceptable." Peterson
stunned Vermeil with a three-year, $10 million offer--more than a
million a year more than he'd made in St. Louis.

Did Vermeil, at 64, have another reclamation job in him? Was the
Super Bowl success in St. Louis his doing or the result of
offensive coordinator Mike Martz's injecting new life into a
stale attack? Would the Chiefs buy into Vermeil's passionate
style? Some players, to put it mildly, had their doubts. In the
first team meeting, fullback Tony Richardson says, "He started by
saying, 'People wonder why I came back. It's because of the
players.' And he gets all emotional. It took him three sentences
to start crying. Guys didn't know how to take it." Then the
players chafed at the long practice schedule. They went to Green,
the quarterback Vermeil had acquired in a trade with the Rams, to
ask him to talk to the old man about easing up. Green told his
teammates that they'd better get used to it.

Despite the grousing, Vermeil was building something. He invited
every player, in small groups, to his home for dinner. He grilled
Kansas City strip steaks. Carol made her twice-baked potatoes.
"Then they did the dishes," says return man Dante Hall. "A head
coach in the NFL with an apron on cooking and doing the dishes!"
Finally, Vermeil, a Californian with a love of wine, would break
out the cabernet and teach Wine Appreciation 101.

That first season Vermeil also had to put out brushfires. One of
them involved cornerback Eric Warfield, a reckless kid with some
talent, who had been cited for DUI in December 2001. The coach
called him in. "He told me, 'You've got so much talent! No matter
what happens, I've got your back,'" recalls Warfield. "He caught
me off-guard. So personable, so honest. I saw him put so much of
his heart into his work, I never wanted to let him down. Now I
think I've really corrected my life." Warfield has started all 41
games of the Vermeil era, picked off 12 passes, deflected 32
others and become one of the most reliable and physical corners
in the AFC.

Vermeil's first two teams in St. Louis won a total of 11 games.
His first two teams in Kansas City won a combined 14. Entering
Year 3 in both cases, the coach told anyone who would listen that
his team would be good. For that to happen with the Chiefs,
Vermeil knew, he'd have to make changes on a defense that ranked
last in the NFL in 2002, a unit that gave up a league-high 4.8
yards per rush and allowed opponents to complete 65.4% of their
passes. In free agency he targeted a speed linebacker, a cover
corner and a rush defensive end.

Last March 1, Philadelphia linebacker Shawn Barber disembarked
from a flight at Kansas City International Airport for a two-day
visit with the Chiefs. On the three free-agent trips he had made
in 2001--to the Eagles, the Cleveland Browns and the New York
Giants--he'd been met by a driver holding a placard with barber
written on it. He was expecting a similar greeting in K.C., but
there was Vermeil. "Shawn," the coach said, extending his right
hand, "welcome to Kansas City."

Usually on such visits the position coach or a player will take
the recruit to dinner. Vermeil and Carol did the honors--on
consecutive nights. Usually the position coach will take the
player on a tour of the facility, but Vermeil did that too.
Usually the player will be in town one, maybe two days; Barber
stayed four days. He signed before he left town. "I haven't been
here long," Barber says, "but Dick gets involved in every aspect
of your life. Our relationship is incredibly strong."

With free-agent finds such as Barber, cornerback Dexter McCleon
and defensive end Vonnie Holliday, Kansas City is better on
defense--25th in yards allowed, but fourth in points allowed per
game (16.7)--thanks largely to a league-high-tying 29 takeaways.

Vermeil lives for turnovers. "I just faxed this to Parcells," he
said, handing over a single page headlined WEEK NINE TURNOVER
BREAKDOWN. "I fax it to him every week. He appreciates what this
means. Look at this: 103 games played this year with a turnover
margin of plus-one or more, and those plus teams win 83 percent
of the time! Look what happens if you're minus on the road! You
win 10 percent of the time!" He continually preaches to the
players. They've responded with a plus-34 margin over the last 25
games, including an amazing plus-7 in a 38-5 win over the Buffalo
Bills two weeks ago. Vermeil opened his postgame speech that day
by crowing about being plus-7 (the Chiefs intercepted five
passes, recovered two fumbles and didn't turn the ball over), and
defensive end Eric Hicks yelled out, "What's the winning
percentage on that, Coach?" Vermeil gave the 280-pounder a hug.

Last Saturday, on the eve of the Chiefs' 41-20 win over the
Browns, with talk about the possibility of his team's going
undefeated spreading around town, Vermeil told his players,
"Martin Luther King said, 'You don't have to see the whole
staircase, just take the next step.' That's all. All we've said
since training camp is we have to win one in a row." It's
beginning to look, as it did in 1999, like Dick Vermeil is back
on the road to the Super Bowl.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO BLOCK PARTY Running behind an offensive line that's arguably the best in football, Priest Holmes rushed for 92 yards as the Chiefs improved to 9-0. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO GOOD OMEN? Year 3 in Kansas City is looking eerily similar to Vermeil's third seasons with the Eagles and the Rams. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO BANG TIME Warfield (on ground) and Greg Wesley (25) are part of a defense that is tied for the NFL lead in takeaways. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER BACKBREAKER Hall, who won two games with kick returns, can change the momentum of a game in a heartbeat.

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Though famous for his HUGS AND TEARS, Vermeil is aware that this
locker-room lovefest works only if the players know the coach can
be tough too.

"The more you can bring people together," says the 67-year-old
Vermeil, "the more they'll FIGHT THEIR ASSES OFF FOR EACH OTHER
ON SUNDAY."

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)