- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
KANSAS CITY -- In 1978, the Philadelphia Eagles reached the playoffs in head coach Dick Vermeil's third season before getting to the the Super Bowl two years later. The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in 1999, Vermeil's third year there. And now, in his third season here, Vermeil has the Chiefs on top of the NFL with a 6-0 record.
Will the third time again be a charm?
"I certainly am planning on it," said Chiefs President Carl Peterson last week. "That's what I hired Dick for. This looks like a very special year."
Added quarterback Trent Green, "He has had great success in other places and, obviously, the third year here is going well. There's been a lot of attention placed on that, and deservedly so."
Dexter McCleon, the cornerback who started in two Super Bowls for the Rams, was asked what the secret of Vermeil's three-year plan was. He shrugged.
"I think a lot of other coaches out there wish they knew the secret," McCleon said. "I don't know what it is."
Well, what about it, coach?
"Well," said Vermeil, "there's no specific three-year plan."
Technically, he's right. The real secret of Vermeil's three-year plan is ... Dick Vermeil. The coach, who will turn 67 at the end of the month, prefers to call it a process.
"If you're taking below-average kids and making them average for strength and backup and special teams roles, then you take average guys and make them good players," Vermeil said. "And then you take good players and try to make them great players. You're adding to the overall value of your football team.
"Sometimes they can become a very special team."
In this most recent case, the Chiefs are already approaching special -- pun intended.
There is Dante Hall, of course, an early candidate for MVP. He returned kicks for touchdowns in four consecutive games, something no one had ever done before. Hall was shut out last week at Green Bay, but the Chiefs displayed extraordinary diversity and resiliency.
Trailing the Packers 31-14 in the fourth quarter, Kansas City blew back to force the game into overtime. Instead of playing it safe for a winning field goal, Green launched a bomb to wideout Eddie Kennison, who scored on the 51-yard strike 6:18 into the extra session.
Kansas City leads the NFL with 191 points (31.8 per game). Running back Priest Holmes (eight touchdowns) is currently fourth among rushers with 564 yards. Green, who is completing 61 percent of his passes, has a sturdy rating of 86.7.
The defense is ranked No. 26 in yards allowed, but points are down more than five per game from last year. Safety Jerome Woods' 79-yard interception return for a touchdown helped the Chiefs climb back in the game against Green Bay.
History. It's all happening again, just like Peterson pictured it. Does he look at his calendar and say, "It's been three years, time to go?"
"Well," Peterson said, "I saw early on this spring Dick beginning to work his magic. The players felt good about themselves, they felt good about each other."
Adventures in chemistry
The Vermeil Method is not recommended for everyone. It requires a patience -- from the general manager to the head coach all the way down to the players -- not seen often in today's NFL.
Vermeil's first season in Philadelphia, 1976, was a 4-10 disaster. The next season wasn't much better -- 5-9. It took a third season for Vermeil's experiments in chemistry to produce a 9-7 playoff team.
Likewise, Vermeil's teams in St. Louis went 5-11 then 4-12 before breaking through with a lights-out 13-3 Super Bowl season.
"Sometimes," Vermeil said, "a football team gets worse before it gets better."
Vermeil's teams always seem to get worse. That's because he's unloading some big-time players with attitudes to match.
Carl Hairston is in a unique position to explain Vermeil's methods and madness. He has been with the head coach for each of his 102 NFL victories. He was a defensive end on Vermeil's Eagles teams, then joined Vermeil as a defensive line coach in St. Louis and Kansas City.
"If you look back at the team we had in Philly, we didn't have a lot of talented football players," Hairston said. "We had a lot of guys who believed in Coach Vermeil and his philosophy."
Vermeil, who may be the most emotional of the league's 32 head coaches, has always been a rah-rah team guy. What happens if the players don't believe?
"The first couple of years in St. Louis and Philly, some players did think it was cheesy," Hairston said. "After awhile, those players were gone."
It isn't any easy process for the players that remain, either.
"It's a tough system," McCleon said. "The practices are extremely hard, extremely long. The camp is long. But he makes everyone feel that if you want to be part of this you can buy into it and get this thing turned around."
Vermeil is famous for inviting players to his home for barbecue dinners. As McCleon said, "He puts on the apron and does the dirty work."
And so, the players come to believe -- in Vermeil and themselves as well.
"All of a sudden in that third year he gets players to say 'I love you' to each other and you've got a close-knit group," Hairston said. "Guys start playing hard together, take the football team over.
"It's fun to watch."
Vermeil's modus operandi is patience.
"At my age you don't panic," Vermeil said. "You don't look for instant gratification on the football field. You've been there and you realize it doesn't work. I've made enough mistakes to not make them again."
Exhibit No. 1 is the retooled defense. When the 8-8 Chiefs finished last in yards allowed and 29th among 32 teams in points allowed, most teams would have fired the defensive coordinator. Instead, Vermeil got Greg Robinson some more players: chiefly, linebacker Shawn Barber (a team-leading 46 tackles) and defensive end Vonnie Holliday (four sacks).
"First off, I only had a three-year contract," Vermeil said. "I didn't want to start over. Greg Robinson won two world championships (with Denver). He won two Super Bowl rings. No coach in the Kansas City organization ever won two Super Bowl rings. That tells me he's smarter than everyone else.
"Listen, we're not there yet. We're not No. 1 in defense yet. But I think we're going in the right direction."
Before the Aug. 4 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, Vermeil told ABC's John Madden to keep an eye on his team. History, Vermeil said, might repeat itself.
Vermeil admitted he liked this Chiefs team in its third season better than his third-year Eagles or Rams.
"The first time around I was too young and immature to recognize the strides we had made, but I was learning," Vermeil said. "With the Rams, I recognized it and I knew we were going to be a good team. I told people in the organization it would be a playoff team.
"I think our players here bought into it a little earlier. The football team in St. Louis that won the Super Bowl was the second-youngest team in football. This team is not that young; there is more experience. It sounds like a cliché, but we can't be what we want to be by remaining what we are. If we don't correct the things we did in the last ballgame, we don't win this week."
The Chiefs have a soft schedule that helped lead to their dazzling start. Next up are the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football, followed by the Buffalo Bills and a bye week. San Diego (0-5), Cincinnati (1-4), Detroit (1-4) and Chicago (1-4) are among the teams on the remaining schedule.
How will it turn out? Let's just say the Chiefs believe.
"If we can stay healthy and keep improving as a team," Hairston said, "we've got a real good chance to go all the way in this situation. And I think right now the players are believing that.
"They have been reading about it in the papers, about what happened in Philly and St. Louis and they're like, 'Wait a minute, it's the third year -- what's going on here?' They're saying, 'OK, third year, let's go get this thing.'"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
16hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo