The 1989 Kansas City Chiefs began the Marty Schottenheimer Era of franchise history. The Chiefs had been an irrelevant franchise for nearly two decades, with only a lone playoff appearance in 1986 to show for their efforts in that timeframe. Schottenheimer’s first team established a clear team identity, nearly snuck into the playoffs and set the tone for an eight-year run of success.
Defense was the calling card. The secondary was already one of the league’s best. Albert Lewis was a first-team All-NFL corner while Kevin Ross was a Pro Bowler on the other side. Deron Cherry at safety was coming off a run of six straight Pro Bowl years. The defensive front included ends Neil Smith and Leonard Griffin who could get pressure off the edge in a four-man front.
Furthermore, the Chiefs used the fourth overall pick in the draft on Derrick Thomas, an outside linebacker from Alabama. Thomas won Defensive Rookie of the Year, ended up in the Hall of Fame and was the focal point of the Kansas City defense until his untimely death in an offseason car accident in February of 2000.
The Chiefs ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed and covered for a below average offense. Steve DeBerg was the primary quarterback at age 35. But “Marty-Ball” as developed in Cleveland in the previous five years and would come to be known as here, was more about the running game. And the Chiefs had one of the best in their backfield.
Christian Okoye was brute strength personified, a physical specimen who was a freakish combination of size, speed and strength. In 1989, despite a mediocre offensive line, Okoye ran for nearly 1,500 yards, won the rushing title and made 1st-team All-Pro.
A FAMILIAR FIRST HALF
For the first half of the schedule, the 1989 edition of the Kansas City Chiefs looked a lot like their recent predecessors. The Chiefs played four noteworthy opponents—Denver (eventual AFC champ), Cincinnati (defending AFC champ), Pittsburgh (playoff team) and two games against the Los Angeles Raiders (contended to the final week of the season). Kansas City split with the Raiders and lost the other three.
Worse, the Chiefs lost decisively in Week 3 at San Diego. The Chargers were a bad team and a 21-6 loss didn’t suggest Marty was going to change much, at least not quickly. Kansas City did get a road win at mediocre Seattle and took advantage of a home date with the hideous Dallas Cowboys to keep their overall record a respectable 3-5 at the halfway point of the season.
SIGNS OF LIFE
Signs of life started to show when Seattle made its return trip to Kansas City (prior to the realignment of 2002 the Seahawks were in the AFC West). Okoye ran for 126 yards while the defense shut down the Seattle backfield of Curt Warner and John L. Williams in a 20-10 win.
Kansas City lost again to Denver, this time at home, but the improvement from the two-touchdown defeat of Week 1 was striking. Okoye missed the game with a thigh bruise and the Chiefs allowed a defensive touchdown. They still kept John Elway under wraps and were tied 13-13 late in the game before Elway flipped a shovel pass to Steve Sewell that gained thirty yards and set up the winning field goal.
Okoye came back for Marty’s return to Cleveland the following week. The Browns would extend the winning Schottenheimer had given them one year past his departure and they reached another AFC Championship Game in 1989. Kansas City fought them to a draw. In a sloppy game marked by eight combined turnovers and 22 combined penalties, it ended 10-10.
The Chiefs were still 4-6-1, but the win over Seattle combined with excellent fights given to the AFC’s two best teams in Denver and Cleveland, gave the people of Kansas City a glimmer of hope.
STRETCH DRIVE SURGE
The Houston Oilers were on their way to the playoffs when they came to Kansas City on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. If the previous three weeks had shown a flicker of life, the flame now burst into full view. The Chiefs shut down future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, holding him to 99 yards passing. Griffin finished with 2 ½ sacks. Wide receiver Stephon Paige caught seven balls for 114 yards and the result was a shocking 34-0 blowout.
Okoye pounded away against Miami, going for 148 yards in a 26-21 win. The Chiefs were now at .500. While the Broncos had pulled away from the rest of the AFC West, the remainder of the AFC playoff picture was a muddle mess. Kansas City had a shot.
Two surging upstarts met in Lambeau Field, as the Chiefs visited the surprising Packers. It was Kansas City who kept it going. The defense shut down the great wide receiver Sterling Sharpe. DeBerg played one of his best games of the season, going 15/19 for 203 yards. Okoye muscled his way to 131 more yards and KC had another surprisingly easy win, this one 21-3.
The playoffs were firmly in sight as they hosted the Chargers. But they lost 20-13, as San Diego’s Marion Butts, rather than Okoye, was the big back who piled up yardage. Two losses to the worst team in the AFC West were too much to overcome.
The playoff race was still packed and the Chiefs had some hope in the final week. They knocked off the Dolphins 27-24 on a late Nick Lowery field goal amidst gusting winds in South Beach. But the previous night, Cleveland had defeated Houston, taking away the surest path Kansas City had to get in.
Ironically, it was Schottenheimer’s old team that kept him out of the playoffs this season. The playoffs expanded one year later to six teams per conference. It was a year too late for the 1989 Kansas City Chiefs, who were in the 6-spot in the AFC.
But the Chiefs had finished the season strong and could hope for better days ahead. And those days were coming, as they made the playoffs in seven of the next eight years and were as consistent a contender as any in the entire NFL.