Believe it or not, folks, the NFL season is much closer than you can possibly imagine. So close, in fact, that, if we're going to fit in every NFL team preview by the start of the season, we have to go this early. So there you have it.
Last year, we asked some of our favorite writers to opine why Their Favorite Team Was Better Than Yours. Ultimately, we found this constrictive, and it also might have killed James Frey. So this time, we've just asked them to just run free, talk about their team, their experience as a fan, their hopes, their dreams, their desires for oral sex. All our teams are now assigned; if you sent us an email and we didn't get back to you, we're sorry, and we accept your scorn. But today: The Kansas City Chiefs.
Your author is Rany Jazayerli, a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to their new book, "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book," available August 13. His words are after the jump.
It would be so easy to write another sob story. The Chiefs Super Bowl-less streak has now reached 37 seasons. Their beloved founder, Lamar Hunt, passed away last fall without ever seeing his team win the AFC Championship trophy, which had to have been particularly galling, given that the damn thing was named for him. The Chiefs have gone 13 seasons without so much as winning a playoff game.
But I won't. I won't because the Chiefs failures are easier to take given the astounding success of the Royals next door. Also, because I wrote about their failures last year.
So instead, I'll treat you to a long, rambling, semi-coherent recount of the events of December 31 previous, when the Chiefs overcame 70-to-1 odds on the final day of the regular season to slip into the playoffs for just the second time since 1997. Most of this was written in the immediate aftermath of the most deliriously unexpected moment of triumph in the last 20 years of Chiefs/Royals history, but I've saved it until now just for you.
(And if you find it hard to believe that Kansas City sports fans don't have a giddier moment in the last two decades than watching a 9-7 team live to fight another week - if you can call their historically feeble performance against the Colts in the Divisional Round a "fight" - I dare you to come up with a better one. Double dare you.)
We deserved this.
Of all the reasons why New Year's Eve 2006 will likely always rank among the greatest sports days of my life, that's the one that is most gratifying. Chiefs fans deserved this. We earned this. Over the last decade-plus we've endured more heartbreak than half the divisions in the league.
There was the Lin Elliott game in 1995. In 1996, the Chiefs missed the playoffs when Atlanta's Morton Anderson slipped and missed a 30-yard game-winning field-goal with four seconds left - his first miss from that close in seven years - which gave Jacksonville the final playoff spot. The playoff loss to Denver in 1997...oh hell, I've gone over this before.
We paid our dues for this day. With interest.
But teams pay their dues all the time without ever getting anything in return. As a sports fan, you're never owed anything; that's part of the contract you make when you sign up to be one. All of which made that Sunday's absurd conclusion worth savoring to its fullest.
The Chiefs were lucky to be mathematically alive at all. Had Cincinnati defeated Denver the week before, the Bengals would have been guaranteed to finish ahead of the Chiefs in all tiebreakers; the Jets' Monday night win over Miami would have eliminated us. The Bengals botched the game-tying extra-point, which at least gave us reason to watch the season's final day of action.
Still, resistance appeared futile. The Chiefs had to win; Tennessee had to lose to a New England team that, with the #4 seed locked up and no chance at a bye, had little to play for; Cincinnati had to lose to the Steelers, who probably just wanted their frustrating season to end as quickly as possible. Oh, and the Broncos had to lose to the 49ers, the same 49ers that the Chiefs had slapped around, 41-0, earlier this year.
Did I mention that all those teams were playing at home?
So no, I didn't allow myself to even speculate that the Chiefs had a shot. I figured a few hours of drama, if the Chiefs could put the Jaguars away and neither the Titans nor the Bengals would blow their opponents out early, would suffice. Even if both teams lost it would only delay the inevitable by a few hours, as the Broncos would no doubt win the late game and claim the final playoff spot. The only thing worse for a Chiefs fan than missing the playoffs is watching the Broncos go in our place. This would end badly early, or end really badly late.
But we - my brother Roukan and I - watched. My brother was remarkably philosophical about the whole thing. "If God wants us to make the playoffs, we will, and none of these other teams can stop us." My reply was, I think, predictable. "If God wanted us to make the playoffs, he wouldn't have put us in this position in the first place." I had no reply to his two-word response: "Remember Liverpool." My brother told everyone in earshot that our beloved Reds could still win the Champions Cup in 2005, even when they trailed AC Milan, 3-0 at halftime. Liverpool prevailed, in the soccer world's equivalent of the Frank Reich game, only if the Bills had been facing the Oilers in the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs got off to a good start, as Bernard Pollard blocked his third punt of the year, then recovered it in the endzone for a touchdown, and the Patriots got off to an early lead in Tennessee. The crawling ticker even brought word that Pittsburgh had a 7-0 lead on Cincinnati in the second quarter. Halftime came, and all three indicators were up - the Chiefs and Patriots comfortably, the Steelers clinging to a 7-3 lead in the diciest game of the three.
The Chiefs kept a comfortable lead on the Jaguars into the fourth quarter, but not so comfortable that we could flip to one of the other games. The long-awaited crack in our armor appeared with 12:20 left in Cincinnati - the Bengals were up 10-7. (I wouldn't find out until the following morning that the Bengals scored shortly after Willie Parker fumbled two yards from the end zone. It took another day before I could laugh about it.) And then the thunderbolt we needed - PIT 14, CIN 10, with 7:27 left. During a commercial break we fumbled with the remote to find what channel DirecTV had put the game on. We had entered the Flip Zone, that moment when you started keeping your thumb squarely over the "previous button", hoping both quarterbacks didn't hike the ball at the same time while wondering why the hell you didn't have the foresight to install two TVs in the same room.
The Bengals quickly got to first-and-goal, then scored on third down to take the lead again with under 3 minutes left. But here come the Steelers, Roethlisberger throwing 21 yards to Nate Washington and 34 yards to Santonio Holmes. Hope died and was reborn, was steamrolled and got back up, over and over again. Pittsburgh moved into the red zone but got stuffed; it was fourth-and-10 from the 17. Jeff Reed walked out, fully clothed, for the game-tying field goal. And then came the first sign that maybe, just maybe, this was going to be our day.
Marvin Lewis decided to ice the kicker.
NFL coaches have been icing kickers since the goal posts were still in the field of play, despite the fact that there has never been any conclusive evidence that it actually improves their chances of victory. There is overwhelming evidence that spending a timeout to do so hurts your chances of victory when the field goal ties the game and there's still 67 seconds left on the clock. The Bengals had just used their first time out two plays earlier to stop the clock; now Lewis decides to spend another one (after an incomplete pass) for an advantage which has never been proven to exist? Lewis is a smart coach, but sometimes smart coaches out-think themselves in key situations.
(Every playoff game of Marty Schottenheimer's career.)
This would prove to have, shall we say, a slight impact on the game. Reed was money from 35 yards. On the Bengals' second play from scrimmage, Palmer hits Chris Henry deep, and Henry isn't dragged down until he's at the 20. It's over, probably. But with only one timeout left, Cincinnati decides to run up to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball with 23 seconds left. And instead of trying to gain a few more yards on the ground to make the field goal even more of a chip shot, Lewis orders a kneel-down and then another spike, setting up a game-winner from 39 yards out.
No expectations. It's over. We had a good year. At least we'll move up in the draft a slot or two.
Shayne Graham's field goal leaves his foot dead center. In that first half-second I was so certain it was hit true that I spit out loud, "it's good." And then...maybe Graham put some wicked, Beckhamesque spin on the ball. Maybe it was the breath of God. But the ball suddenly veered right, like J.J. Redick after one too many Zimas. The refs made the "no-good" sign, which looked for all the world like an umpire's "safe" sign. We were safe. At least for a few minutes.
(Lin Elliott. Pete Stoyanovich. Morton Anderson.)
Almost simultaneously, the Chiefs, leading by five, lined up on fourth-and-short with a minute left, and Trent Green got a Jaguar to bite on the snap count for a game-icing offsides penalty. (That's right: the football equivalent of the ol' fake-to-third, throw-to-first routine actually worked, for what I believe was the first time in recorded history.) We switched over to Pats-Titans in time to see Vince Young's fourth-down pass batted down; the Patriots had the ball, a 10-point lead, and just five minutes to kill. In the span of sixty seconds, we were back in this thing.
The Steelers won the overtime toss. On their third play Roethlisberger found Holmes again, and with the Bengals half-assing it down the field like the horde of hardened criminals they are, Holmes slipped a few tackles and was off down the sidelines. We screamed loud enough to wake the dead. Game over. The Bengals' season, brought to you by the number eight - 8 players arrested, 8 wins, 8 losses. (The Bengals' addiction to incarceration would spoil this perfect symmetry in the days to come.)
Two giants felled, one to go. The biggest, nastiest, smelliest giant of them all - the hated Broncos, led by the Ferret himself, Mike Shanahan. The most heinous bunch of illegal-cut-blocking, salary-cap-skirting, John-Elway-worshiping dirtbags ever assembled. We hate these guys even more than we envy their two Super Bowl wins. And now all they had to do was beat a second-division team from the NFC at Mile High (did I mention their unfair home-field advantage?) and they'd once again walk off with their arms around our dream.
Yeah, we don't like those guys.
(Darrent Williams excepted. May his killers be found and brought to justice swiftly.)
The 49ers played Denver tough out of the gate. The Broncos had first-and-goal from the 1 late in the first quarter, but Mike Bell was stuffed twice, and they had to settle for a field goal. Their next time with the ball, a vicious (but legal!) hit from Anthony Adams drove Jay Cutler out of the game. I hadn't envisioned many scenarios in which San Francisco actually won the game, but most of the ones I had involved Jake Plummer in a significant role. On the next play, Bell broke free from midfield and was finally brought down from behind at the 3, but Shanahan strangely decided at that point to put the ball in the hands of Plummer, who hadn't thrown a pass in anger in six weeks. The result was a sack, then an incomplete, then a futile scramble. Denver again had to settle for a field goal. Still a one-possession game, Plummer in at QB...let's just say I wasn't giving up yet, especially after Plummer threw a stupid pick on the Broncos' next possession.
The time to give up was late in the half, after the 49ers had finally driven into Denver territory, when an Alex Smith passed bounced off Frank Gore's hands and into the air, where Champ Bailey - it's never a good thing when I have to type his name - pulled it out of the air and ran it back 70 yards for a touchdown. Hey, the 49ers had their shot, but now it's 13-0 Denver with barely a half to play, and San Francisco has put together just one drive of more than 4 plays all day.
But they get the ball back just before the 2-minute warning, and the Frank Gore show begins in earnest. Off right tackle for 24 yards. Off right tackle for 9 yards. Off right tackle again, again for 9 yards. The 49ers put together a 12-play drive, and Joe Nedney gets called on from 46 yards before the half ends and nails it. It's still a game.
The 49ers get the ball to start the second half, and it's more Gore. On third-and-3 from Denver's 32, Smith dumps a ball in the flat to Moran Norris, a fullback who coming into the game had four touches all year. Norris rumbles down the sideline and pulls a tackler into the end zone.
And just as we're getting used to the notion that San Francisco is very much in it, Shanahan puts Jay Cutler - who may or may not have suffered a concussion - back in the game. Cutler completely misses Walt Harris, who steps in front of Stephen Alexander for his second interception of the game, and jogs 28 yards into the end zone. The 49ers are up, 17-13, and for the first time, I let myself start to dream. Let's see, the Colts won - that means Larry Johnson goes up against the worst rushing defense in playoff history if we win! There's no bigger spotlight in American sports than an NFL playoff game, when for three hours on a weekend the whole country stops to watch. For just the second time in nine years, could that spotlight fall on the Chiefs?
The Broncos snapped me out of my reverie quickly; Cutler completed four of five passes and Denver was on the 49ers' 4-yard line. Maybe he didn't have a concussion after all. Or maybe he did; Cutler somehow managed to burn all three timeouts on the drive. And for the third time in the game, San Francisco held at the goal line. Another field goal, and the 49ers still had the lead.
Now the clock was our friend. The 49ers ate up almost 5 minutes of it on their next drive, and Nedney was on the mark again. 20-16. Cutler hit Tatum Bell for what appeared to be a routine 15-yard pass. Somehow, everyone - even the announcers watching the replay for the first time - missed the fact that Tatum had simply dropped the ball at his feet before he was downed. Everyone but the ubiquitous Walt Harris, who snatched the ball away from the referee who was trying to get it ready for the next play.
The red flag came out. Long discussions with the referees ensued. Many replays were watched in the booth. And the refs did the right thing - they reversed their call and gave possesion to the 49ers.
(Following the 1997 season, Kansas City hosted Denver for the right to move on to the AFC Championship game. Tony Gonzalez appeared to score a touchdown early in the third quarter, but the sideline referee ruled his feet were out of bounds. Replays showed the referee was clearly wrong - but instant replay was outlawed at the time.)
The 49ers would go three-and-out, but they would pin the Broncos inside the 10, and would again get the ball back in Denver territory. This time the 49ers were held to just eight yards, but on fourth-and-14 a delay of game called on the defense - seriously, were things going our way or what? - put the ball on the 28-yard line, and Nedney, again, drilled a 46-yarder to make it a 7-point game.
Just six minutes left. No timeouts for Denver. We could smell victory; we could almost taste it. But these were the Broncos, and we were the Chiefs; that's a combination that rarely ends well. After Mike Bell took a short pass on third-and-12 for 24 yards, we knew better than to expect anything other than the worst. The Broncos crossed midfield; they had first down from the 36; they had first down from the 16 as the two-minute warning hit. Mike Bell to the nine-yard line. A bullet to Tony Scheffler in the end zone; the game was tied, and unless the 49ers could mount a drive in the 90 seconds remaining, we were headed to overtime with the Broncos holding on to momentum, home field, and everything to play for.
The 49ers didn't do anything, and Denver won the coin toss. There was much cursing in the Jazayerli household. The announcers reminded us that Denver didn't have to win - they would advance to the playoffs with a tie. There hadn't been a tie game in the NFL in over four years; not even the Chiefs could be so haunted as to lose a playoff spot on an event that occurs roughly once every leap day, could they? Never mind, they could. They absolutely could.
The Broncos only got to midfield before a third-and-one stand by the 49ers forced them to punt. The 49ers brought the ball back out to midfield themselves, but then they had to punt, and suddenly there were only 7 minutes left in the game. Even if they held Denver here, they probably had just one more possession to score, or the Broncos could run out the clock.
This time Denver had to punt from inside their 20; San Francisco started at their own 39, with just under 5 minutes to play. Mike Nolan called for a reverse on their first play - Alex Smith did a fine job of blocking, and Bryan Gilmore ran for 20 yards. Just one more first down...please, just one more...
Smith threw incomplete. Gore ran up the middle for 2 yards. It's third and eight, Smith has completed barely half his passes on the day.
He hits Bryan Gilmore over the middle, and Gilmore takes it to the 25. Roukan has a seizure next to me. But I'm not convinced. Not yet. I've seen too much heartbreak between the goalposts in my lifetime to be calm here.
Two more handoffs to Gore net 7 more yards. The two-minute warning arrives (they have one of those in overtime? Who knew?) and afterwards Nolan elects to kick right here, on third down. If the 49ers miss, the Broncos need only one first down and they can kneel on the ball. Nedney comes out for his fourth try of the day, from 36 yards out. There's no icing the kicker on this play. The snap is good, the kick is up -
(On the final day of the 1999 season, the Chiefs need only to beat the Raiders at home to win the AFC West; a loss and they miss the playoffs completely. They blow an early 17-point lead, Stoyanovich misses a 45-yarder as time expires in regulation, Jon Baker shanks the overtime kickoff out of bounds, and the Raiders march down the field before their kicker nails a 33-yard field goal. Their kicker that day? Joe Nedney.)
- and for an agonizing half-second, the ball disappears off the top of the screen looking like it's wide right. And if it had been a 38-yarder, or if the 49ers were kicking into the wind - which they would have had they won the coin toss! - it might have been. But then it reappears, the silhouette clearly in front of the right goalpost, and it's through, and it hits the net, and there are two zebras with hands stretched towards heaven, and there are no flags anywhere on the field, and...I'm not entirely sure what happened after that.
We're Muslims, so my understanding of the effects of alcohol are purely theoretical. But I can only describe the sensation as one of complete inebriation. Absurdly loud screaming? Horrible dance moves? A goofy, giddy grin on my face that simply could not be removed? Embarrassing phone calls to friends? Frightened children? Exasperated spouses? Check, check, check, check, check, and check.
A week later, the Chiefs kick-started the Colts' drive to a Super Bowl championship by embarrassing themselves on national television. Herm Edwards apparently designed his offensive game plan in the Mesozoic Era, convinced as he was that it was illegal to throw a forward pass on first or second down. The Chiefs didn't make a first down until late in the third quarter, the first NFL playoff team since 1960 to go without a first down in the first half. Their kicker missed a 23-yard field goal to boot.
But nothing that happened washed away the joy of my best sports day in at least 13 years, a day when the Chiefs overcame odds so daunting that it caught even the locals off guard. The Kansas City Star did a terrible job of conveying the sheer exhilaration of the day, but how can you blame the local newspaper when the team itself was caught off guard? The team dispersed to their homes after they beat Jacksonville rather than watch the Denver game as a group. Herm Edwards was at home playing with his kids when Nedney nailed his final kick. GM Carl Peterson was so convinced that the season was over that before the game, in order to protect some practice-squad players, he put Jason Dunn on IR with a back injury that Dunn had played with for the previous month. This left the Chiefs without the service of one of the league's better-blocking tight ends against the Colts - a player whose talents might have come in handy every time Larry Johnson found himself facing eight men in the box.
Samuel Johnson once wrote that second marriages represent "the triumph of hope over experience." He might have been talking about being a sports fan. Every year, 97% of teams fall short of the ultimate goal - and every year, every single one of us is convinced that, if the young guys break out and the wily veterans play like they did in their prime and everyone stays healthy, we've got a shot at this thing. Sports fandom is the ultimate delusion, but it's an endearing, almost cuddly delusion: no matter how many times we have our heart broken, we'll risk getting it broken again to take another shot at the grand prize.
We root for long shots all the time, and while they almost never pull through - they are long shots, after all - every once in a while they do. And when hope is utterly vindicated and experience is crushed underfoot - like with the 2004 Red Sox - a Nation weeps with joy, books are written, babies are named after heroes.
What happened to the Chiefs in week 17 is nothing like the 2004 Red Sox - a 9-7 team lucked its way into the playoffs, where they promptly became the first team eliminated. No songs will be written about this team. But for this fan, for one day, a preposterous hope somehow vanquished a lot of painful, painful experience. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and it may very well never happen again.
But maybe it will. It's that delusional attachment to the improbable that has kept me a sports fan from childhood until this day. And it's the memories of a day like December 31st, 2006 that will likely keep me one through a lifetime of dashed hopes and denied dreams.