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Monday, November 3, 2003
Hail to the next new Chiefs

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

I'm sort of late to the party on Dick Vermeil.

Seeing the Chiefs at 8-0, Last Undefeated Standing in the NFL, will wake you up on a guy. So I headed for K.C. to watch this fancy pistol-fighter. See what all the fuss was about. Now, I don't take all the blame for being late on Dick Vermeil. As a devotee of the AFC and old AFL West division, that kind of thing can happen to a guy. I never gave the devil his due until he got to KC and turned it around.

I'd blown off Vermeil's time in Philly, well over 20-odd years ago, when he took the Eagles -- those Eagles, mind you -- to the Super Bowl in '81. There he met an AFC West team, the old Oakland Raiders to boot. I'd won money and Dr. Z's pool by predicting the margin of victory over Dick Vermeil. Only later did I see the insurance and health care company billboards with his 20-foot-tall testimonials, still up in Philly, some 20 years later. Even with that clue, I didn't put two-and-two together.

Dick Vermeil
Dick Vermeil's got Kansas City thinking undefeated season.
But 8-0, headed to 14-2, maybe 15-1, maybe ... that'll get your attention. Especially after Vermeil turned the Rams into an unstoppable all-time offensive juggernaut, won maybe the best Super Bowl ever played to date by surviving a torrential downpour of Air McNair. Vermeil's Super Bowl win set off mad celebrations and tears from Vermeil and ego trips from others while cars crashed into each other on the ice pond that was the streets of Atlanta that January four years ago. I was beginning to really get/feel it.

But at 8-0 -- 8-0 with the Kansas City Chiefs -- it became clear.

Vermeil is onto something here.

But what, exactly?

That's what I'm in K.C. to find out. There's also the Negro Leagues Museum, a 20-oz. filet with my name on in, vast portions of Gates barbeque -- a post-game meal to be shared by me and the Buffalo Bills -- and a looming quadruple-bypass. But those are little things, compared to the Chiefs at 8-0.

***

In the 32 years since the merger in 1970, the year the Chiefs last went to and won the Super Bowl, the AFC West sent its rep to the Super Bowl 12 times. The Raiders went four times, winning three; the Denver Broncos went six times, and won twice. Even San Diego went. Yet, the Chiefs have not returned since 1970, after repping the AFL/AFC twice in the first four years of the Super Bowl.

I had affiliations with the other AFC West teams. I was out on the frontier in Oakland writing about the Raiders for their wins in '76, '81, and '83. I'd covered Elway from his freshman year at Stanford, and first wrote him up (not all that well, either) for SI in '83, and followed him close, after his initial rejection of the Baltimore Colts, all during his career in Denver (where I pretty much agreed with John that Dan Reeves was either Ray Charles or the Antichrist). I even had a degree of empathy for the Chargers, basically the wildebeest of my home division in pro football.

But, in an AFL sense, pro football had all started for me in Kansas City.

I grew up in a sleepy town on the banks of the Mississippi, nine hours by car from K.C., a sleepy town on the banks of the Missouri, distant yet familiar, and the closest old AFL team. Football? Football was life. Simple as that. Having not yet experienced Oakland, I was a Chiefs guy all the way. The team was an amalgam of players from small black colleges (there were, oh, I'd say, zero black football players in the SEC at this time) that were about to become obsolete in a football sense (receivers Otis Taylor, Frank Pitts and Gloster Richardson; defensive lineman Buck Buchanan, whose mammoth presence caused Al Davis to draft Gene Upshaw and Art Shell; bump-and-run corners James Marsalis and Emmitt Thomas; strong safety Jimmy Kearney; the great middle linebacker Willie "Honey Bear" Lanier; kick return Nolan "The Super Gnat" Smith; RB Robert (the Tank) Holmes and good old big hard boys from the old SWC and such places (LB Sherrill Headrick, superb offensive linemen like Jim Tyrer and Ed Budde, and then the comical E.J. Holub; you can see him in a Gatorade commercial today), and players of both so-called "races" who were from further out west, or at least seemed to be to me (linemen Curley Culp and Aaron Brown; LBs Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch; TE Fred Arbanas; RBs Mike Garrett, Wendell Hayes and Warren McVea; and safety Johnny Robinson). All performed under the baleful eye of Hank Stram, who gave the reins to Lenny Dawson.

Hank Stram
Hall of Famer Hank Stram led the Chiefs to Super Bowl IV.
It was called "The Offense of the '70s," implementing avant-garde strategies like "the moving pocket." Frankly, I loved it then and love it still; can still hear Hank Stram now, puffed up, strutting like a rooster, his black Chiefs blazer with the pocket insignia over a red vest barely restraining his belly. I can still hear him because some genius wired him for sound before Super Bowl IV in New Orleans against the doomed Minnesota Vikings; then NFL Films had laid in this score of the old show tune, "Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City." Every time I think of the Chiefs, this is what I see and hear:

... everything's up to date in Kansas City ... da-da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum--dum ...

" ... just keep matriculating that ball down the field, Lenny ... "

"Throw that damn thing on the ouside, Leonard! They can't cover that thing, Lenny. That's it, this is good, the hitch ... "

" ... 24 Toss Power Trap ... it should be there, fellas ... "

"Ha-HA! Heeheeheeheeheehee. See that boys? Did'ya see that? Popped wide open, didn't it, boys? The mentor ... heeheeheehee ... the mentor ... "

(to game official) " ... Mr. Official, he wasn't there, he was right there! No, no, you did good, you spotted it good."

(game official says) "Oh, I thought you were talking about you being out on the field."

" ... No ... what?"

"Go Odie, Go! Go!"

"Gloster! Gloster! Where's Gloster ... ?!"

... Everything's up to date in Kansas Ci-ty ... da-da-dum, da-dum, da-dum da-dum, da-dum--dum ...

***

"Gloster? Why, Gloster was just in here the other day," says George Gates, who, along with his father, is proprietor of Gates Barbeque, one of several barbeque eateries in Kansas City, where they know what it is to eat both high and low on the hog. Yep, it's been a while. George Gates, young version with more hair, was at the airport when the Chiefs got back from New Orleans in 1970. Now he lines up the post-game order of 70 meals for the Buffalo Bills for their getaway flight on Sunday night, Oct. 26, 2003.

"We give it to them for the plane ride outta town. Not before," says Gates from his flagship on 47th St. My reply? "Uhnnnn ... " I'm drunk with food.

Even in my constrictor-snake stupor, I am aware. I am aware that so much has changed since Super Bowl IV (Four) back in '70. Why, Super Bowl XL (Forty!) is just around the corner! They had to help Stram to the podium at the NFL Hall of Fame; he couldn't speak, they had to use a pre-recorded message. Chiefs team owner Lamar Hunt is in a weakened state in a Dallas hospital, being treated for prostate cancer. Buck's been gone a while now. Odie Taylor, who kicked out of Earsell McBee's arm tackle and stepped down the sideline like an out-of-control drum major to clinch the Chiefs' 23-7 upset victory in Super 4, now has Parkinson's syndrome, advanced case.

Can't even hold a fork.

OK, OK, nostalgia is the noxious fumes of history, and you can suffocate if that's all you breathe. What about the here? What about the now?

***

I ride over to Arrowhead with one of my hosts, Jason Whitlock of The Kansas City Star and Page 2, and his radio producer, Scott. I must say that Whitlock and fellow Star columnist Joe Posnanski are quite pleasant and cordial -- too pleasant and cordial, as lead columnists go. Then I remember this is K.C. and maybe things just are what they are. Later, I sit with journos from the local sheets like Jeremy from The Kansan. And I find no shred of anything but hospitality, admiration, the sincerest desire to talk ball. It is refreshing not to have to fend off the puny plotting of the Eastern effete.

Willie Lanier
Honey Bear could still fill the gaps.
Some of the old Chiefs are here, too, drawn back to Arrowhead Midwest Cathedral because Vermeil woke up their echo. Hey, there's Honey Bear, looking almost like he could still play. "You made the difference in the end, Bear," I say. "You think so?" asks the Hall of Famer. "Oh I know," I insist. And there's old Lenny, doing radio, after umpteen years of "Inside the NFL" on HBO. Good old Lenny. Still matriculating it down the field. "You don't remember me playing," Lenny says. "Can't possibly."

"Sure I do, Len," I say. "You were shrewd as s---, and I was two years old."

We laugh.

Then there's the game, in front of the Arrowhead faithful. Different from the Black Hole. Even from the Big Blue and Gang Green Meadowlands legions. This is a polite passion. "That's another Kansas City Chiefs ... " calls the p.a. announcer. "FIRST DOWN!" replies the crowd in unison. Vermeil loves it. The in-unison part of it. The positivity of it. The fans do that for every first down. They are going to be hoarse by the time this season is done.

It's the Sunday Night ESPN game, and if -- if? -- the Chiefs beat Buffalo, then they go into the bye week 8-0. Coming out for Week 10, they've got the Browns at home, then get rejiggered Cincy on the road, then Oakland at home -- "It don't matter what the records are when we play Oakland," is the local educated mantra. No booboisie here; these folk know their rock; this is heard everywhere from the bronze statuary at the Negro Leagues Museum at 18th and Vine to the barbeque joints to the huge manses to the hallways of Sprint and Hallmark and the railyards.

"Then we're at San Diego, but Marty left his fastball here, seems like; at Denver, where they've got no quarterback; then Detroit at Arrowhead, then at Minnesota, then the Bears at Arrowhead. But we can't count 'em yet. We can't take anything for granted, you know ... "

They can't? Who made up that schedule? Buck O'Neil?

They have the division on lock-down if they win this game. Whitlock has been firing up the populace on the local radio by saying Buffalo is going to win. What he means is the Chiefs -- no team -- can run the table in the NFL; sooner or later, the Chiefs have to lose, on any given Sunday, so it could be this one. It's the kind of exchange that makes people call into radio shows, fulminate, then steam and sputter -- and keep listening -- for hours on end.

"Four hours on end, hopefully," says Whitlock, describing the parameters of his 2-to-6 p.m. show. I have no problem with what Whitlock predicted, because he let me tool around town a bit in his cool plum-colored CTS Cadillac and sit up at his place and watch his big-screen TV as long as I could find a hole amid empty water bottle skids, old press kits and memorabilia. My lasting impression of Whitlock's place is that he could use a wife -- and I should know since I've had three of them plus three could'a-should'a-would'as.

We pretty much know the Chiefs have a good offense. I'm here to check out their D; they'll only go as far as that unit takes them. Most teams neglect the Third Phase. Vermeil does not. That takes pressure off his D. They are plus-20 in takeaways. They'll be plus-27 after the Buffalo game. Cleveland will no doubt contribute to this particular form of United Way as well. Vermeil finds ways to more or less hide his team's defensive deficiencies. Vermeil would never even use a word like deficiencies, let alone "quitters," to describe his personnel. That's the secret to winning games. Bighouse Gaines taught me that. What's the secret to winning, Bighouse? "Personnel."

Chiefs defense
The defense isn't a Chief weak spot anymore.
The Chiefs get seven takeaways in the Buffalo game. No wonder the score ends up being 35-8. Whitlock had said cornerback Eric Warfield was playing at a Pro Bowl level; he got two picks and a sack/fumble. Shawn Barber looks good, as does safety Jerome Woods. Range, and when they land on somebody, they leave a mark. Ryan Sims is Round Mound of Hot Pursuit.

The rest of them are like from the Star Wars bar. One edge rusher is even named R-Kal Truluck. Cornerback Dexter McCleon think's he Dexter McDeion, right down to his stance; but this may not be such a bad thing, for his confidence is high, if nothing else. Middle backer Mike Maslowski suffers a couple of injuries -- "Head trauma(?)" and a left knee strain. He's on crutches after the game. Teams will go right at him; he's kind of light. Urlacher Lite. I think of Honey Bear; he used to be the difference.

My eyes are still drawn to the Kansas City offense. My God. I mean, I knew they were good, but I didn't know they were this good. They have a formation, I'm not going to bust them on its name, I'm going to call it the MAT Shotgun -- in honor of Stram and Dawson matriculating that ball down the field. When the Chiefs are in MAT Shotgun, they are in warp drive.

The formation has the five-man offensive line, featuring Willie Roaf, Will Shields and John Tait, as veteran as they come. Given that spine, and flexibility, the skill guys in this set become flat scary. And it's deceiving at first. You look out wide at the split and the flank and it's Eddie Kennison and Johnny Morton, B-level, No. 2-type receivers. If that. In fact, while in Denver, Kennison, once a speed merchant, had decided he didn't even want to play football any more. But Vermeil's Way got to him; it was Kennison's 47-yard TD catch in overtime against Green Bay that capped that 17-point comeback win. Kennison paid his salary right then. Morton, well, Morton's an actor. But you have to guard him with somebody.

Inside those two wides, lurks the truth.

Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end in the business.

Dante Hall is the best quick-strike weapon in the business.

(Unless you think averaging 80 yards on 11 career TDs is a fluke.)

Priest Holmes is the best running back in the business.

The MAT Shotgun formation lines them all three within seven paces of the ball when it is snapped to Trent Green (who would've been the Rams quarterback for all that Super Bowl action if he hadn't been injured).

So, basically, if you can't get to Green, there's nothing you can do.

Priest Holmes
Can anyone catch Priest and the Chiefs?
They scored the first touchdown in 1:09 of possession time: four plays, 80 yards, the capper being a 67-yard pass to Hall, out of the slot. They scored in 2:36 minutes of possession time: six plays, 61 yards, Holmes scoring from four yards out. He is the best TD back since Marcus Allen. He can not only find the end zone, which not every back can do, he finds it with a relative ease, then gives us that sort of Jesus Priest Superstar move, opening his arms and his body. I didn't know if he could come back from that hip injury last year. At the time, I thought that had "Bo Jackson" written all over it.

The game ends: Chiefs 35, Bills 8. And it could've been worse. The Chiefs offense shut it down with over 10 minutes left in the game. Backups played.

What does Vermeil have that the average garden-variety head NFL coach doesn't? (Steve Spurrier, you might want to pull up a chair here; up to you.)

"It's no secret," said Vermeil. "Tremendous salute to (offensive coordinator) Al Saunders and his staff, to good assistant coaches, good football players. Al did a good job, hit 'em with no-huddle in the second series. He did a real nice job of mixing it up ... and Greg Robinson did likewise with the defense.

"All I can say is that it's great to stand up here and represent a bunch of kids like that. They played their asses off. Chances are, we'll be a playoff team. Does that mean we'll be a Super Bowl team? No ... but I love the way we play ... we play with real passion. Even in pressure, they have fun ...

"We play without any fear of losing. We want to be of the now."

***

I wait patiently for Greg Robinson and Al Saunders, one-stars to Vermeil's four-star general. Greg Robinson was nearly run out of Kansas City last year because the defense couldn't stop anybody and he was the coordinator. Well, he wasn't nearly run out, because Vermeil had scouted him out as a football coach and a man and had hired him for a reason that wasn't a selfish reason.

"I met Dick after my brother Mark played at Stanford and Dick coached him," Robinson said. "My relationshship with Dick pre-dates 1970, back to 1967 and 1968. And then I went to UCLA with Terry Donahue. Dick just always kept up with me. He followed me. He knew what he wanted out of me ... As far as last year, the way he stuck by me, and believed in me ... "

Robinson looks away for a second.

"You just want badly to do well for him."

Later, Al Saunders emerges. Saunders is a fine offensive mind, a fine mind, period, with 35 years of experience. He goes back to Don Coryell. If you're Vermeil and you want a good sequence of plays called, you hire Al Saunders and you forget about it, move on to the next thing. Saunders was in Kansas City with Schottenheimer in the '80s when the Chiefs went to the playoffs seven times and won the AFC West three times -- but not only never made the Bowl, never made the AFC title game.

Saunders went on to St. Louis, where he helped Vermeil and Mike Martz design the O that terrorized the NFL for three seasons. And then when Vermeil "retired," left St. Louis and ended up in Kansas City, he called on Al Saunders again. Last year, Saunders called the sequence for the best offensive season in K.C. history as the Chiefs led the league in scoring for the first time ever at 29.1 points per game.

Dick Vermeil and Dante Hall
Dick Vermeil and Dante Hall are a breath of fresh air.
They're better now.

In hindsight, Al Saunders, not Mike Martz, was the guy St. Louis should have hired to replace Dick Vermeil. And it doesn't have anything to do with calling a sequence. Hell, I can do that. There's got to be more to it than that, and there is. No, it has to do with leading men into the Valley of Death, and then making them laugh about it, maybe be glad to be there in it, in the arena, as long as you're there with them. That's Dick Vermeil's secret.

"Gee, I think maybe so," says Saunders. "I met Dick over 30 years ago. I coached his nephew, Louie Giamonna, at Utah State. He watched me and listened and consulted and believed in me since. He's a unique man in a unique business; he's just unique in life in general. He has a CEO approach. By being around him, you feel better prepared for success, like success is going to be the ultimate outcome, as if it comes from his belief in you ... "

"Every once in a while, he might say, 'Please run the ball, Al,' and that's as close as he comes to (interfering with play-calling). He knows what we do was based from my days with Don Coryell, then my years with Marty, then our years together with the Rams. He knows what I am capable of delivering, and he expects it of me, and gets it. I know I want to be a head coach again in this league one day; I'm better prepared for success because of Dick. It's kind of an all-encompassing feeling, what we have, right here, right now ... "

Chiefs. Titans. January.

Be there.

Or square.

Sometimes, square works.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.