We are officially less than a month before the start of the NFL season, so it's probably time to start previewing the monster. The key to the NFL's success — other than fantasy football and gambling, of course — is the rabid nature of its fans. That is to say: You don't see a lot of people painting their faces for their favorite golfer.
We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. We will be running two a day until the beginning of the NFL season.
Right now: the Kansas City Chiefs. Your author is Rany Jazayerli.
Rany Jazayerli is a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus as well as a dermatologist working in private practice in St. Charles, Illinois. He's also a proud alumnus of the Arabian-American Little League. (Seriously.) His words are after the jump.
Want to know why the Chiefs can win the Super Bowl this year? Easy: They won it last year.
Unfortunately, they won it for the Steelers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
To get a true sense of the angst that Chiefs fans endure, you must go back to January 7, 1996, the most painful sports day of my life. After 20 years of wandering the desert, the Chiefs emerged in 1990 as one of the better teams in the NFL, averaging more than 10 wins a season from 1990 to 1994 and reaching the AFC Championship game in 1993. But the 1995 team was our best yet — an NFL-best 13-3 record behind a defense that allowed barely 15 points a game. A Super Bowl was just two wins — at Arrowhead, where the Chiefs had not lost all year — away.
And then came the Lin Elliott game. In the annals of NFL history, has any kicker done a more thorough job of single-handedly derailing his team's championship hopes? Say what you will about Mike Vanderjagt, but there was plenty of blame to go around the Colts' locker room last January. Scott Norwood? Please. Any kicker can miss a 49-yarder.
Elliott missed a 35-yarder. And a 39-yarder. And a 43-yarder, on the final meaningful play of the game, giving the Colts — the 9-7 Colts — a 10-7 win. This game remains the biggest playoff upset of the last 15 years; only the Vikings' loss to the Falcons in the 1998-99 NFC Championship Game comes close.
And thus began an uncanny stretch of what-ifs and could-have-beens for the Chiefs, a stretch which shows no sign of ending.
Two years later, the Chiefs once again went 13-3, and this time their kicker was the reliable Pete Stoyanovich, who drilled a 54-yarder as time expired to beat the Broncos in Week 12, which proved the difference between home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (for the Chiefs) and a wild-card berth (for the Broncos). When Denver came to town after waxing Jacksonville in the first round, Stoyanovich got his chance late in a scoreless first half and nailed a 34-yarder.
Except Greg Manusky got called for a phantom holding penalty — it has been nine years, and I still haven't found it on replays — so Stoyanovich had to try again from 44 yards. This time what he nailed was the left upright.
Stoyanovich would kick a field goal in the third quarter, but only after Tony Gonzalez scored a touchdown that was nullified when the side judge ruled his elbow landed out of bounds before both feet touched down. Replays showed he was in bounds, and he was clearly pushed by the defender to boot. The next season — at least in part because of the legacy of this play — the NFL voted to bring back instant replay.
So in the final minutes, instead of being tied at 14 or even down 14-13, the Chiefs were down 14-10 and had to reach the end zone. They moved the ball to the Broncos' 20 before a last-gasp fourth down toss fell incomplete. For the second time in three years, the Chiefs lost a home playoff game after going 8-0 at home during the season. The only thing that could make the situation worse was if the Broncos would go on to win the Super Bowl. Which they did.
This was the Chiefs' version of the Bucky Dent game, only if Bucky had hit the ball a foot foul and the umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt.
The loss to the Broncos heralded the onset of a dark era for the Chiefs, six years of coaching changes and player arrests and the death of Derrick Thomas, but no playoff appearances. The Chiefs should have made the playoffs in 1999, when a Seahawks loss to the Jets meant that the Chiefs needed only to beat the Raiders in their final game — at home, where they had beat Oakland 11 straight times — to win the division. The game was tied 38-38 when Stoyanovich lined up for a game-winning 45-yarder on the last play of regulation. Wide right. Kickoff specialist Jon Baker then sent the overtime kickoff out of bounds — his third OOB of the day. The Raiders won three plays later.
Three weeks later, Thomas would be paralyzed in a car accident (dying two weeks later from a pulmonary embolism). He was driving to the airport to see the Rams play in the NFC Championship game - a trip he could not have taken had the Chiefs still been playing.
The blue period finally lifted in 2003, as the Chiefs stormed out to a 9-0 start, Priest Holmes set the all-time rushing touchdown record with 27, and the Chiefs once again finished 13-3. Once again, they had a bye in the first-round and home-field advantage in their first playoff game. Once again, they had gone undefeated at home all season. Once again, they lost.
It's hard to blame bad luck for losing when your defense doesn't make a single stop the entire game, but what is forgotten about this game is that the Colts' defense was just as bad; neither team punted all day. The Colts won 38-31 because the Chiefs failed to score on only two possessions:
1) Holmes, who had fumbled once all year, lost the ball at the end of a 48-yard run early in the third quarter;
2) Tony Gonzalez's touchdown reception in the first quarter was called back by "a suspect offensive interference call" — the Associated Press's words, not mine.
Just for fun, after Gonzalez's nullified TD, the Chiefs called on Morton Anderson, one of the most prolific field goal kickers in NFL history, to hit one from 31 yards out. He shanked it.
You may be sensing a trend here.
Which brings us to last season. The prime beneficiaries of the Lin Elliott game were not the Colts, but the Steelers, who instead of traveling to Arrowhead for the AFC Championship game, played the 9-7 Colts at home. They still came within a Jim Harbaugh prayer on the game's final play of losing, but held on for their first Super Bowl berth since 1979.
The Steelers once again needed help from the Chiefs last season, this time just to reach the playoffs. I'm going to guess (You want proof? Do I look like Aaron Schatz?) that no previous Super Bowl team — winner or loser — had failed to control their own destiny with just three games left in the season. Going into Week 15, the Steelers and Chiefs were both 8-5, and the Chiefs held the tiebreaker for the final playoff spot. The Chiefs coughed up their postseason berth against the Giants that week, but ask any Chiefs fan and they'll tell you their playoff dreams officially died the week before, against the Cowboys, in a game as gut-wrenching as any of those playoff games.
Never mind the fact that with the Chiefs on the Cowboys' nine-yard line while leading late in the first half, ex-Chief Scott Fujita sacked-and-stripped Trent Green, with the Cowboys taking the recovery all the way the Chiefs' 15-yard line — a 14-point turnaround after they punched it in. Never mind that Terry Glenn scored two touchdowns in the game, one on a 71-yard flea-flicker, one on an end-around that was the first rushing touchdown of his 10-year career.
No, what elevated this game into the hierarchy of Stomach Punch games for Chiefs fans was what happened in the game's final minute. After the Cowboys scored the apparent winning touchdown with just 22 seconds left, Green heroically moved the ball 48 yards in two plays to set up a game-tying field goal for Lawrence Tynes from 41 yards out.
Wide right. But you already knew that. And we all knew, at that moment, that our Chiefs would miss the playoffs by a single game.
(In fairness to Tynes, the fault for the missed field goal lies with a bad snap from long snapper Ed Perry. Perry was playing only because Pro Bowler Kendall Gammon, who had played in 218 consecutive games — a streak longer than Brett Favre's at the time — had his leg broken four weeks earlier.)
To their credit, once the door opened for Pittsburgh to move ahead in the wild-card race, they stormed through on their way to the championship. But, as in 1995, the Steelers owe their Super Bowl berth to a team they never faced.
This year we're getting an early start on our heartbreak. GM Carl Peterson finally nabbed his white whale, Ty Law, this offseason. But just as we began to wonder if hey, maybe this is finally our year, All-World left tackle Willie Roaf decided to retire on the eve of training camp.
Even without Roaf, the Chiefs still have more than enough talent to make a Super Bowl run this year. It's just a matter of which team they'll help get there.