There’s a lot of manufactured excitement here in Kansas City this week. The local NFL team, the Chiefs, is in the playoffs for just the third time in the past 10 years. Kansas City sports talk radio stations are filling air time with roundtable discussions about whether the Chiefs can steal a win from the Colts in Indianapolis on Saturday. The Kansas City Star has interviewed everyone from quarterback Alex Smith to the team’s water boy about the big game. This, according to the local media, is a major sporting event for Kansas City.
Here’s the thing, though: everyone in town knows that the Chiefs will lose this game, and probably lose it badly. That is not just because the Chiefs are playing on the road against a team that thrashed them, 23-7, just two weeks ago. It is because losing in the playoffs is part of the team’s DNA. It is what the Chiefs, known to some Kansas Citians as the “Griefs,” do more effectively than perhaps any other NFL team.
Since winning their only Super Bowl in January 1970, the Chiefs have gone an amazing 3-12 in the playoffs. They have not won a single playoff game since January 16, 1994, when Joe Montana led them to an improbable win over the Houston Oilers. That was such a long time ago that the Oilers are now the Tennessee Titans, and Joe Montana has a son who plays quarterback for Tulane. Twenty years is a long, damn time between playoff wins. During that period, there have been a handful of heartbreaking losses to keep everyone entertained, including:
– A 10-7 defeat at home to the Colts in 1996, a game in which the heavily favored Chiefs turned the ball over four times and missed three field goals in sub-zero weather.
– A demoralizing 14-10 loss to archrival Denver at Arrowhead in 1998 in which Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac could not convert a fourth-and-one deep in Denver territory in the game’s final minute (Chiefs fans, check out this Denver fan’s gleeful summary of the game if you really want to get steamed). The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
This record of futility is well-known to the Colts, who have beaten the Chiefs three of the last five times Kansas City has made the playoffs. The people of Indianapolis can’t wait for the Chiefs to get into town. They might even throw them a parade.
Well, maybe the Chiefs are due for a little postseason success, you might say. Maybe they will do better since Saturday’s game isn’t at Arrowhead, you might suggest. Well, that’s possible, I guess. But even if you ignore 20 years of futility, the current-day fact is that this Chiefs team, like so many before, just isn’t all that great. The Chiefs got off to an impressive 9-0 start by capitalizing on weak competition – only one of the wins over that stretch came against a playoff team. Over the last seven games of the season, as the competition has gotten tougher, the Chiefs are 2-5, winning games against hapless Washington (3-13) and Oakland (4-12).
There’s another long-time bugaboo working against this Chiefs team: the quarterback position. Alex Smith, whom the Chiefs acquired from the 49ers in the offseason, is a capable field manager. He doesn’t make very many mistakes, and he is having a career year this season. However, the Colts have an even better quarterback in Andrew Luck, heir to Peyton Manning and the player that everyone expects to be the Colts’ cornerstone for years to come. When the Chiefs and Colts faced off two weeks ago, Luck threw for a touchdown and Smith tossed two interceptions. No one will be too surprised if those numbers are similar in Saturday’s rematch.
The lack of a superstar quarterback, more than anything else, has been Kansas City’s undoing in the playoffs. In games against Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jim Kelly, the Chiefs have put up Steve DeBerg, Trent Green, Elvis Grbac and Dave Krieg. Sad, isn’t it? In my opinion, there’s no coincidence that the team’s only real playoff success of the past 40 years, wins against the Steelers and Oilers in 1994, came with a fading but still great Joe Montana at helm. The formula is simple: you need a brilliant quarterback to win NFL playoff games. Other than the Len Dawson glory days of the 1960s and the two seasons they had with Montana in the ’90s, the Chiefs have never measured up in that department.
While this year’s team will probably be hitting the golf course after Saturday, there is hope that Chiefs can someday make some postseason noise. Head coach Andy Reid led the Eagles to several trips to the NFC Championship and one Super Bowl. He is known as a savvy developer of pro quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. The fact that he has the Chiefs in the playoffs at all this season is a small miracle. The team went 2-14 a year ago with most of the same players.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see all of Kansas City celebrate a playoff victory. No town deserves it more. I just don’t think it’s going to happen this year. But, for the first time in a long time, the future looks good for Kansas City’s favorite sports team. Maybe someday soon, they will steal a big game from one of those great teams like the Colts, Broncos or Patriots. Then, and only then, will the Chiefs no longer be the Griefs.