The 1990 Kansas City Chiefs marked the second year under the leadership of head coach Marty Schottenheimer and one of the most talented staffs in NFL history. It marked a breakout year for the franchise and in ways both good and unfortunate, set the tone for the 1990s.
Schottenheimer took over a dead franchise in 1989 and immediately posted a winning season. With an uncanny eye for coaching talent, Marty had Bill Cowher as his defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy and Bruce Arians as position coaches and Herm Edwards in scouting.
This was a team built on running the football and playing defense. Barry Word and Christian Okoye combined to rush for over 1,800 yards. Defensively, the Chiefs could get after the quarterback with outside linebacker Derrick Thomas (20 sacks and 1st-team All-NFL) along with an elite pair of corners in Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross. On the defensive front, Kansas City got 16 ½ more sacks from the combination of Neil Smith on the edge and Dan Saleaumua inside.
Kansas City ranked fifth in the league in points allowed and all this team needed was a competent game-manager to play quarterback. Steve DeBerg, at age 36, filled the bill. He finished the season with a 23/4 TD-INT ratio, still averaged 7.8 yards-per-attempt and helped the offense also finish in the Top 10 in scoring. Stephon Paige was the preferred target, but DeBerg also spread the ball to Emile Harry, Robb Thomas and Todd McNair out of the backfield.
The Chiefs were up and down in September and October, going 4-3 against a schedule that did not include any eventual playoff teams. A 24-23 loss at defending AFC champ Denver on the Monday Night of Week 2 was aggravating, while a 34-0 whitewash of Schottenheimer’s former team, Cleveland, was heartening. But Kansas City went into its bye week at the end of October still a borderline playoff team and two games back of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC West.
November marked a turning of the corner. The Chiefs hosted the Raiders and the KC defense was ready. They forced three turnovers, held Bo Jackson to 40 yards on the ground, forced Jay Schroeder into a 10/31 for 139 yards passing performance and allowed kicker Nick Lowery’s three field goals to be enough in a 9-7 win.
The month ended with another win over the Raiders, this one at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Kansas City had a tougher time containing Bo and were outrushed 155-97. But the Chiefs continued to be the more opportunistic team, recovering three fumbles and not turning the ball over themselves. They broke open a 17-17 tie in the third quarter with ten unanswered points and won 27-17.
Kansas City was tied for first and held the tiebreaker, but the losses to teams not as good as they were continued to add up. Seattle, an AFC West rival prior to 2002, missed the playoffs, but on November 11, they completed a season sweep of the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium. The result was Kansas City went into the final three games with no margin for error.
On December 16, it caught up to them. Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers, desperately needing a win for their own playoff hopes came into Arrowhead Stadium and the KC defense had an off-day. Moon threw for 527 yards, just shy of a single-game record and the Chiefs lost 27-10. The Raiders won at home over playoff-bound Cincinnati the same day and closed out the season with two more wins.
Thus, instead of being AFC West champs, the #2 seed and having a bye, Kansas City dropped to #5 and was forced to travel to Miami for the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The playoff game was a microcosm of the season, both good and bad. The Chiefs played well and built a 16-3 lead. But that lead could have been larger, as Kansas City kept settling for field goals. In the fourth quarter, Dan Marino got hot for the Dolphins and led a pair of touchdown drives. Trailing 17-16, DeBerg had moved the Chiefs to what appeared to be the Miami 26-yard line before a holding penalty negated a key play. Lowery was instead forced to try a 52-yard-field goal on the final play—it came up just short.
The Kansas City Chiefs were back as a contender and this marked the start of a eight-year run that saw seven playoff trips. It was also the first of several postseason heartbreaks that included notable crushing losses in 1995 and 1997. The tone for the Marty-Ball Era in Kansas City had been set.