Logo courtesy of SportsLogos.net
By Bill Shannon
Were one to peruse the final standings of the 1986 National Football League season – the one in which the Giants beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl – it would not be unreasonable to deduce that the 1986 Kansas City Chiefs were, in fact, a very good football team. After all, the Chiefs won ten games, and finished second in the AFC West behind Denver. They made the AFC Playoffs, besting Cincinnati and Seattle, also teams with ten victories, by virtue of a better conference record (KC’s 9-5 versus Seattle and Cincy’s 7-5).
But upon further examination, Kansas City’s ’86 squad was spectacularly mediocre, and benefited from a great deal of circumstance and good fortune to reach the postseason. Given KC’s decade-plus of futility, the 1986 season was an oasis in a desert of disappointment. But once you get close up, it’s clear that the Chiefs were given the equivalent of a ten-second head start in the race to the playoffs.
Of course, to understand the Chiefs’ one-off foray into the postseason, it’s important to put things into context. When the ’86 season began, Kansas City was in the midst of the worst dry-spell in franchise history. Long gone were the days of coach Hank Stram, defensive tackle Buck Buchanan, linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, receiver Otis Taylor, and quarterback Len Dawson, who had so unexpectedly upset the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in the fourth Super Bowl.
Kansas City’s last postseason game was a double-overtime thriller at home against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which Chiefs running back Ed Podolak gained 350 all-purpose yards, still the most in NFL playoff history, in a heroic losing effort. That game was on Christmas Day, 1971, and the Chiefs hadn’t sniffed a playoff berth since.
In fact, the Chiefs finished second place in 1972, and then never finished better than third place in the thirteen seasons from 1973 to 1985. In fact, since Podolak’s historic effort, the Chiefs had three winning seasons in fourteen tries, compiling a 83-120-2 record during that stretch, a 41% winning percentage (22nd out of 28 NFL teams in that span). They topped six wins only six times, and hadn’t outscored their opponents over the course of a single year since 1973.
The Chiefs had gone through five different head coaches: Stram, Paul Wiggin, Tom Bettis, Marv Levy, and John Mackovic. Mackovic took over as Chiefs head coach in 1983, and entered his fourth season with the team in ’86. Mackovic was not a “player’s coach,” in the parlance of our times; he was known more as a condescending, acid-tongued bastard, and most of his players couldn’t stand him. But after so many years of ineptitude, the Chiefs were looking for any kind of motivation they could get.
Kansas City started the 1986 season winning three of their first four games, defeating Cincinnati, Houston, and Buffalo, and losing to division-rival Seattle. They then dropped two straight to the L.A. Raiders and Cleveland Browns. Then, the Chiefs went on a nifty little four-game winning streak, winning a wild 42-41 shootout against division-rival San Diego, a seven-point win over the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, another one-point win over the Chargers, and a convincing 20-point victory over Seattle.
Sitting at 7-3, the Chiefs were just one game behind 8-2 Denver in the AFC West. (They were also tied with Cleveland and New England for the third-best record in the AFC.) But then, the Chiefs dropped their next three in a row, against Denver, St. Louis (the Cardinals, not the Rams) and Buffalo. Their 7-6 record put them on the outside looking in, 7th in a five-team AFC playoff chase.
But Kansas City, in a very unChief-like turn of events, got their [act] together, winning their final three games. The Chiefs smoked division-rival Denver by 27 points, then went to Los Angeles, with both teams 8-7 at the time, and took a crucial 3-point win from the Raiders. They then went to Pittsburgh and pulled out an almost unbelievable win against in the season finale against the suddenly-hapless Steelers.
[Brief side note: in the season finale, Kansas City was outgained by Pittsburgh 515 yards to 171 on offense, and yet ended up beating the Steelers by five points. Kansas City’s special teams saved the day – and the season – scoring all of the Chiefs’ 24 points: a Deron Cherry blocked punt-return for a touchdown, a 47-yard field goal, a 97-yard Boyce Green kickoff return for a touchdown, and a 78-yard Lloyd Burruss blocked field goal for a touchdown. The book The Hidden Game of Football, which is the Rosetta Stone of modern football analytics, cites this game as one in which the “traditional” stats lie, and the “hidden” stats explain how games are won and lost.]
The Chiefs were 10-6 and in the playoffs. For the casual observer, this is an empirical, cut-and-dried bit of proof that the Chiefs were an above-average team, but that conclusion is not borne out by the facts. So we’ll do a quick postmortem on this very intriguing, very blessed team. To cement KC’s middle-of-the-pack status in ’86, we need look no further than the statistics.
The Chiefs’ offense was, in a word, not great. First of all, they had a quarterback problem, in that they had two quarterbacks, and therefore, in effect, had none. Todd Blackledge, he of the vaunted Quarterback Class of 1983, was being groomed to become the Chiefs’ QB of the Future, having sat for a couple of seasons behind seven-year Chief Bill Kenney, whose 1983 Pro Bowl season surprised everyone except perhaps Kenney’s mother. It was expected that in this, his fourth NFL season, Blackledge would be ready to supplant Kenney and take his rightful place on the throne.
Instead, the two players split starts down the middle in ’86, each going 5-3. Blackledge started the first six games (3-3), then Kenney started weeks 7 through 13 (winning the first four, then losing the next three). Blackledge started in week 14 (a win), then Kenney started the last two weeks of the season (both wins). Kenney was injured in the final game against Pittsburgh, giving Blackledge the start in the team’s wild card playoff game against the Jets.
Kansas City’s offense could never quite get on a roll, or get any consistency or momentum at the quarterback position. Despite being gently guided to the bench, Kenney actually had a superior season to Blackledge, but still didn’t tear the league apart. The Chiefs were just 21st (out of 28 teams) in passing yards in 1986, with just 2,750 total; this despite having the 14th most attempts of any team in the league. They were only 19th in passing first downs. And although receiver Stephone Paige had a solid year (3rd in receiving touchdowns, 9th in total touchdowns), the Chiefs’ passing attack struck fear in the hearts of precisely no one.
If Kansas City’s passing game was average, however, its running game was downright dreadful. The Chiefs were second-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards (1,468), and had the third-fewest rushing first downs. The team’s leading rusher, Mike Pruitt, had 448 rushing yards, ranked 38th in the league for ground yards. The Chiefs did have Jeff Smith, a running back-cum-return man who gained 8.8 yards every time he touched the ball – third-best in the NFL – but he was relegated mostly to punt- and kick-return duties, despite his team-best 4.4 yards per rush.
Kansas City’s offensive woes created an unexpected byproduct: if you could get a lead on the Chiefs, you could probably beat them. Kansas City was only 3-6 in games in which they trailed at any point. Any time a team got a lead on them, they had a lot of difficulty playing catch-up. (Luckily for the Chiefs, they only played in 9 games where they trailed, which was the second-fewest in the NFL.)
So the question must be asked: how in the name of Christian Okoye did the Chiefs make the playoffs? Let’s enumerate the factors that played into KC’s favor:
ONE: Remember how I said before that the Chiefs were not good at coming from behind? Well they were very good at scoring first, doing so in eleven of their games, the most in football in 1986. They went 7-4 in games where they scored first. And part of the reason they were so good at holding leads was.
TWO: Their opportunistic defense, which was 13th in the league in points surrendered with 326 (20.4 per game). That PPG-allowed is not a gaudy number, but it was a vast improvement from previous Kansas City teams, who had finished better than 15th in points allowed only once since 1979. The Chiefs were 8th in fewest yards-allowed. They were also 3rd in the league in takeaways, which they often turned into points.
Safeties Lloyd Burruss and Deron Cherry made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, who threw for a combined 62.1 passer rating against KC’s defense (third-best in the NFL) and only 6.2 yards per attempt (tied for tops in the league). In defensive coordinator Walt Corey’s scheme, the Chiefs picked off 31 passes, tied for second-best in the league.
Strong safety Burruss intercepted a modest five passes, but returned three of those passes for touchdowns; his 193 interception-return yards led the league. Free safety Cherry had nine interceptions, second in the NFL only to San Francisco’s Ronnie Lott. Cherry’s 150 interception-return yards were tied for fourth in the NFL. Both safeties made the Pro Bowl.
The team’s defensive line was also very solid: defensive end and former top-five draft pick Art Still sacked the quarterback 10.5 times, and nose tackle Bill Maas punched his ticket to the Pro Bowl with seven sacks of his own, as well as two blocked field goal attempts (at San Diego and at Pittsburgh).
THREE: As good as the Chiefs’ defense was, their special teams were almost otherworldly. They blocked eleven kicks in 1986. I’ll repeat that: ELEVEN KICKS. They returned six of those blocks for touchdowns, which not only made up for points the offense was having trouble scoring, but also gave the offense a short field down which to travel.
That out of the way, we now get into the non-football/circumstantial stuff that helped propel the Chiefs into late December.
FOUR: Their cupcake schedule. The Chiefs only played six games against teams that ended the season with a winning record (4th easiest in the league) and went 3-3 in those games. They played only three playoff teams (1-2 in those games). Credit where it’s due: when they needed to win in the AFC, they took care of business: going 5-3 in the division, and 9-5 against all AFC opponents.
FIVE: A scheduling quirk. This is the most overlooked of all factors that pushed the Chiefs into the playoffs. The Chiefs were one of only two teams in the American Football Conference (the other being Buffalo) who only played two games against the NFC instead of four. The Chiefs went 1-1 against NFC opponents, defeating Tampa Bay and losing to cross-state rival St. Louis; these two teams happened to finish with two of the three worst records in football in ’86.
Every other team in the AFC played four NFC opponents. Most of the teams vying for the final wild card playoff spot did fairly well against NFC competition: Cincinnati and Seattle both went 3-1 against the NFC. But the oddest part of this scheduling quirk is the way it skewed the year-end tiebreakers.
Because the Chiefs played only two games against interconference opponents, they had two more games against AFC teams than basically every other team that had a shot at the playoffs. The Chiefs, Bengals and Seahawks all had identical 10-6 records, but the tiebreaker to get into the playoffs, in that scenario, is by determining who has the best in-conference record: in other words, whoever has the best record against AFC opponents gets to go to the playoffs.
Seattle and Cincinnati both had 7-5 records against AFC opponents in 1986; Kansas City won the tiebreaker because they had a 9-5 record against AFC opponents. They had the same number of losses, but two more wins due to having two more in-conference games. (Let’s face it, it was borderline unfair.) Had Seattle or Cincy won one more game against AFC competition, the point would have been moot anyway, because they would have been 11-5 and therefore in the playoffs regardless. But the fact that Kansas City got the chance to avoid the 12-4 Redskins and 14-2 Giants, they avoided what would have likely been at least one more loss to one of the NFC East’s two elite teams, both of whom were Conference finalists. (The other four teams in the AFC West had to play the Giants, Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys, each of which had beaten at least one AFC West team during the year.)
Ultimately, the Chiefs ended the season on an anticlimactic note, losing 35-15 to a reeling Jets team who had entered the postseason with five straight losses. The Chiefs combined for zero touchdown passes to New York’s three. Kansas City turned the ball over three times; their only scores came on a Jeff Smith rushing TD, and an Albert Lewis fumble recovery (of course) for a touchdown (naturally).
Despite breaking the 14-year playoff drought, coach John Mackovic would not see another season in Kansas City. A few days after the playoff loss, Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt drove to the house of placekicker Nick Lowery, where he met with several Chiefs veterans, including Deron Cherry, Art Still and Albert Lewis. The players expressed their displeasure with Mackovic’s coaching style and effect on team chemistry, and Hunt fired Mackovic just a few hours later. Frank Gansz, a special teams coach under Mackovic who resigned his post shortly after the playoff game, was rehired by the team – as head coach. (He went 8-22-1 over the next two seasons, so that was that.)
The Chiefs would go on to great success in the 1990s under head coach Marty Schottenheimer, reaching the postseason seven out of eight seasons, and compiling the third-best winning percentage of any team in the 1990s (behind San Francisco and Buffalo). But in ’86, Kansas City’s unlikely march to the playoffs was an intriguing little yarn.