1995 Kansas City Chiefs: Overachievement & Heartbreak
Over the course of Marty Schottenheimer’s excellent coaching career in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego, his teams were noted for two things. They were tough and overachieving. And they managed to suffer terrible heartbreak in the playoffs. No team exemplified both traits better than the 1995 Kansas City Chiefs.
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The Chiefs entered ’95 facing significant uncertainty. Joe Montana spent the last two years of his Hall of Fame career here in 1993 and 1994 and had led the team as far as the AFC Championship Game. Montana retired and the reins were being given to 33-year-old Steve Bono, a career backup.
What’s more, the AFC West was tough. The Chargers were fresh off a run to the Super Bowl. The Broncos had John Elway at quarterback and were a contender every year. The Raiders were consistently at least on the fringe of the playoffs. The Seahawks (an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002) weren’t bad. In fact, every AFC West team finished at least .500 in 1995. No one knew quite what to make of KC coming into a new season.
Kansas City continued to have great players on the defensive side of the ball. Derrick Thomas, one of the game’s all-time great outside linebackers delivered another Pro Bowl season. Neil Smith at defensive end was one of the NFL’s best pass rushers in this timeframe and he went to the Pro Bowl behind 12 sacks. Dale Carter was a Pro Bowler at corner.
Those three—Smith, Thomas and Carter—were perennial Pro Bowlers. The ’95 Chiefs got a lift from defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua who recorded seven sacks coming up the inside, made the Pro Bowl himself, added another dimension to this defense and the unit was the best in the NFL.
Kansas City relied on a balanced running game, with veteran Marcus Allen and Greg Hill sharing duties. They combined to produce over 1,600 yards rushing and each averaged better than four a pop. Kimble Anders chipped in nearly 400 yards of his own at the fullback position.
Where Anders big value was, though, was as a pass-catcher and that was what consistently sent him to the Pro Bowl during this era of success in Kansas City. His 55 catches led a passing offense that had always relied on working underneath and accelerated that trend with the transition at quarterback.
Tight end Keith Cash caught 42 passes. Lake Dawson, a young and physical receiver caught 40 balls for a little over 500 yards. The best downfield threats were Webster Slaughter and Willie Davis, who combined to catch 67 passes for over 1,000 yards.
The offensive line was led by Hall of Fame guard Will Shields, coming into his own with a Pro Bowl season at age 24.
And the quarterback? Well, Bono didn’t exactly light it up. He was near the bottom of the league in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt. But Bono steered clear of mistakes. He was only intercepted 1.9% of the time, fourth-best among starting quarterbacks. That fit well with a defense-first philosophy and it was enough to get him a Pro Bowl ticket in 1995.
The season opener was indoors at the Seattle Kingdome and there were no signs Bono would have any problems getting the football down the field. He hit Davis on touchdown strikes of 60 yards and 40 yards, going 18/23 for 278 yards. Hill ran for 109 yards and the Chiefs rolled the Seahawks 34-10.
A Week 2 home opener against the New York Giants saw KC dig themselves a 17-3 hole going into the fourth quarter. Again, there were no signs that throwing the football would be a problem. With Anders catching 11 balls and Allen rushing for 86 yards, the Chiefs rallied to tie the game and then won 20-17 in overtime.
Another fourth quarter comeback followed in Week 3 at home against Oakland. Trailing 17-7, Bono threw a 19-yard TD pass to Davis. A field goal tied up the game. The Raiders were driving for the win in overtime when KC defensive back James Hasty intercepted a pass and went 64 yards to the house. 23-17 Chiefs. They were 3-0 and answering any concerns about how they would fare with Bono at quarterback.
A visit to Cleveland didn’t go as well. The Browns were coached by Bill Belichick and coming off a playoff season in ’94. While this season would collapse when the franchise announced its move to Baltimore during midseason, that moment hadn’t arrived yet. The Cleveland team that Kansas City faced in late September was a good one and put the Chiefs in a 21-3 hole. There was no fourth quarter comeback. Even though Cash caught eight passes for 111 yards, Bono threw two Pick-6s in the final period of a 35-17 loss.
The woeful Arizona Cardinals were just what the doctor ordered. Even though Bono only went 7/17 for 78 yards, he made an unlikely difference with his legs—a 76-yard touchdown run that got the ball rolling in the second quarter. The Allen/Hill combo carried 22 times for 108 yards and the result was an easy 24-3 win in the desert.
A Monday Night visit from San Diego was up next. Both teams prided themselves on running the ball, but neither got that facet of their offense going tonight. Bono and Charger counterpart Stan Humphries each threw for over 300 yards. The Chiefs were down 23-16 in the fourth quarter when some more late-game magic went down. Bono hit tight end Derrick Walker with an 18-yard TD pass to force overtime.
Those of you keeping count have surely noted this is the third overtime game the Chiefs have played and it’s only the sixth game of the season. You have also noted that each time they rallied from behind in the fourth quarter and then won in OT. How much longer could this hold out? At least one more night. Tamarick Vanover, their electric return man, fielded a punt on his own 14-yard line, took it to the house and Kansas City celebrated a 29-23 win.
Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots had made the playoffs in ’94 and would reach the Super Bowl in ’96. This in-between season was a bad one. The Chiefs broke open a 10-10 tie in the second quarter when Bono went 18 yards to Davis and 26 yards to Vanover to stretch the lead to 24-10. Allen and Hill combined for 144 yards. KC churned out a 31-26 home win.
Denver was the team that always gave Kansas City fits head-to-head. But not on this visit to Mile High Stadium. Allen ran for 121 yards. Carter picked off Elway twice and Smith sacked him 2 ½ times. The Chiefs won 21-7 and were riding high at 7-1 going into the bye week.
A home date with a bad Washington Redskins team was on the far side of the bye and a balanced KC running game rolled up 178 yards in an easy 24-3 win. More physical football followed the next week in San Diego. Allen and Hill went back to sharing the load and they combined for 136 yards. The Chiefs controlled the ball for over 35 minutes, gradually taking control in a 22-7 win.
Kansas City did not play well in a Sunday Night home game with the mediocre Houston Oilers. Favored by 9 ½ points, the Chiefs were tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter. Bono was erratic and mistake-prone The running game was unable to get started. Enter veteran defensive back Mark Collins. He scooped up a fumble, raced 34 yards for a touchdown and KC escaped with a 20-13 win.
It was time for the biggest test, a Thanksgiving Day date in Dallas. The Cowboys, along with the 49ers were the class of the entire NFL in the four years from 1992-95. Dallas had won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993 and would win another one this year. Even with a 10-1 record, the Chiefs were a 10 ½ point dog in Big D.
Bono played well, going 20/36 for 276 yards. What did Kansas City in was an inability to run, particularly in the red zone. Four good drives bogged down in field goals. They lost 24-12. But for whatever it’s worth, they had won respect. According to the book Hellbent, written by FS1 personality and then-Dallas sportswriter Skip Bayless, the Cowboy coaches felt they were fortunate to win…and were concerned about what a potential Super Bowl matchup against these Chiefs might bring.
Kansas City had a commanding position in the AFC. Even though no one in their division was bad, no one else was really standing out. The Chargers were the only other team that would make the playoffs and at this point with four games left, only the Raiders were even within two games of the Chiefs. The same went for the conference as a whole, with the Steelers and Bills giving chase at 8-4.
That meant December was just about taking care of business. Kansas City went to Oakland ten days later and did just that. Allen, who loved to torment his former team, rushed for 124 yards. The defense held the Raiders to eight yards rushing. KC led 29-10 in the fourth quarter and then held off a Raider rally to win 29-23. The victory clinched the division crown.
Miami was fighting for its playoff life when Kansas City went to South Beach on a Monday Night. Allen ran for 88 yards, but there was nothing else to the offense. Bono struggled to a 15/37 for 180 yards performance in a 13-6 loss. The Steelers nudged to within a game in the race for the top seed.
Kansas City still had command of the tiebreaker situation and they still had their last two games at home. They came out pounding against Denver, working Anders into the running game mix along with Allen and Hill and jumping out to a 14-0 lead. Each team scored defensive touchdowns, but KC’s 145-64 edge in rush yardage was the difference in a 20-17 win.
The #1 seed in the AFC was theirs. For good measure, the Chiefs put the finishing touches on a 13-3 season by beating the Seahawks 26-3. Vanover started the game with an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Hill rolled up 113 yards. The defense made their last pre-playoff statement by holding Seattle to 89 total yards. Kansas City was ready.
Two weeks later, the Indianapolis Colts came to Arrowhead. Jim Harbaugh, then a veteran whose career resurgence in Indy was actually charming, had gotten the team on a nice run to get into the postseason and then pull off a win in San Diego. But the Chiefs were a solid eight-point favorite. When they took the field on late Sunday afternoon to end Divisional Round Weekend, a lot of us were already mentally looking ahead to their AFC Championship game with Pittsburgh.
Maybe the Chiefs were too. Maybe the bitter cold—(-15) degrees with the windchill—had an equalizing factor that always works against the favorite. Or maybe there was the ice-cold reality that weaknesses that can be covered up during the long regular season almost always come exposed in the playoffs.
Especially when that weakness is the quarterback position. Bono threw an early 20-yard touchdown pass to Dawson for a 7-0 lead, but that was it. Three interceptions followed. Allen rushed for 94 yards, but that only led to the second big problem—one that this game is most remembered for—and that’s in the kicking game. Lin Elliot struggled with the rock-hard football and missed field goals from 35 and 39 yards.
The Colts nudged ahead 10-7 in the fourth quarter. Schottenheimer turned to Rich Gannon. The backup quarterback came in, went 5-for-8 for thirty yards and got Elliot another chance. This one was from 42 yards and there were 42 seconds left. The kick missed badly. A special season had come to an undeservedly early end.
It’s hard for anyone to think of the 1995 Kansas City Chiefs without thinking of the ending. That might be reality, but it’s not fair. This was an exceptional team, one that achieved well beyond what they were expected to do. Heartbreak is an unfortunate part of sports, something Schottenheimer knew all too well and this great fan base knew all too well before Patrick Mahomes. But overachievement should be the ultimate legacy of the ’95 Chiefs.