After a disappointing ending to 1996 that left them home for the playoffs for the first time in seven years, the 1997 Kansas City Chiefs bounced back with a vengenance. They had a big year, won a division title and earned a #1 seed for the playoffs. But the all-too-familiar specter of heartbreak in January caught up with them in the end and augured the end of an era.
Marty Schottenheimer’s run of success here in Kansas City was founded on defense and running the football. The defense was built around the talents of Hall of Fame outside linebacker Derrick Thomas, who recorded 9 ½ sacks and racked up another Pro Bowl season in ’97. The same went for perennial Pro Bowler Dale Carter at corner. James Hasty also made the Pro Bowl in the secondary.
Even though the Chiefs parted ways with defensive end Neil Smith, a staple of their success and let him walk to divisional rival Denver, the KC D still ranked first in the league in points allowed.
The running game had been a two-pronged attack for several years, with Hall of Fame veteran Marcus Allen combining with Greg Hill. A third prong was added with Donnell Bennett. These three backs, along with Kimble Anders, all were in the neighborhood of 400-550 yards for the season.
Anders real strength was catching the football, and had his third straight Pro Bowl season at fullback on the strength of 59 catches. What makes that number significant in context is that it no longer led the team. At long last, Kansas City found a receiver who could stretch the field and be the primary target.
That receiver was Andre Rison, fresh off winning a Super Bowl in 1996 with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Rison came in and caught 72 balls, averaged better than fifteen yards a catch and made the Pro Bowl. Between Rison going deep and Anders, tight end Tony Popson and a 21-year-old rookie tight end by the name of Tony Gonzalez, KC had a passing game for the first time in three years.
Elvis Grbac had the keys to the offense, replacing veteran Steve Bono. Grbac’s numbers weren’t great—his 57% completion rate was middle of the pack and 6.2 yards-per-attempt were below the league average. But they were an upgrade from what Bono had been giving and Grbac only threw six interceptions all season. It was enough to win in the Schottenheimer system.
An early August 31 start saw Kansas City make a high-profile trip to Denver. The Broncos had been the 1-seed in the AFC playoffs in 1996 before a crushing loss sent them home early. They wanted redemption as much as the Chiefs and this game did not go well. KC fell behind early and even though Hill popped for 92 yards on just seven carries, that was the only bright spot in a 19-3 loss.
It was now four straight losses dating back to the end of 1996. That losing streak started with a Monday Night visit to Oakland. Perhaps it was appropriate that the streak would end the same way. KC made an MNF visit to their archrivals.
For the better part of three quarters, it was more of the same, the Chiefs in a 27-13 hole. Then, after a field goal, defensive back Darren Anderson picked off a pass and went 55 yards to the house. Grbac hit Rison a 33-yard touchdown strike. The quarterback ended the night 21/35 for 312 yards. Rison caught eight balls for 162 yards. As it turned out, Anderson’s Pick-6 had not just turned the tide of this game, a 28-27 win, but the entire trajectory of the season.
Trailing 13-9 against Buffalo, a perennial 1990s contender that would fall hard this season, the Chiefs got a 94-yard kickoff return from their great return man, Tamarick Vanover. Playing mistake-free football, KC pulled out a 22-16 win.
A road trip to Carolina was next. The Panthers were fresh off a run to the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence. This year would see them fall back to mediocrity. Grbac threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Anders, then found Rison from eight yards out. Staked to a 14-0 lead, the Chiefs defense got down to work. They delivered five sacks, four interceptions and an easy 35-14 win.
Kansas City came home for a late afternoon kick against mediocre Seattle. Grbac didn’t play well and threw three interceptions. But the running game pounded out over 200 yards and kept the ball from the Seahawks’ veteran Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. It took overtime, but the Chiefs won 20-17.
A road trip to Miami was a battle of playoff contenders. Kansas City fell behind 7-0. Grbac then tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Rison and a 21-yarder to Gonzalez. But KC’s running game did not get started. Neither did the Dolphins’ and the game stayed tight. Dan Marino made a few more plays than Grbac and the Chiefs lost 17-14. They went into their bye week at 4-2.
The Chargers came to Arrowhead on a Thursday Night. San Diego, after producing good-to-decent teams for the past several years, collapsed in 1997. Grbac tossed a couple short TD passes to Rison in the second quarter, the score was 24-0 by halftime and ended 31-3. Kansas City then crossed the state to play the St. Louis Rams, won the turnover battle 4-zip and the football game 28-20.
Now up to 6-2, a Monday Night visit from Pittsburgh, another AFC contender, loomed large. It was the first of three straight games against good playoff teams. The Chiefs fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, but led 13-10 by halftime. Then a tough defensive battle loomed for the second half. Kansas City’s running game controlled the clock for 36 minutes and rolled up 183 yards. That was the difference as the 13-10 lead stood up to the end.
Something else happened in the course of the win. Grbac had been knocked out. Rich Gannon was coming in. It was the start of what would turn into a heated debate at season’s end.
The Chiefs went to Jacksonville and turned the ball over five times, losing 24-3 to Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars. It set up the biggest game to date, a visit from Denver on November 16. KC was two games back of the Broncos in the AFC West and a second loss to their archrival would basically finish any hopes of winning the division.
By most standards, Kansas City was outplayed. Gannon only went 11/21 for 98 yards. John Elway played pretty well for Denver, and Terrell Davis ran the ball for the Broncos. Between the 20-yard lines, Denver more or less did as they wished.
But inside the red zone, the Chiefs defense was on. They forced five field goals. In the meantime, KC was making their drives count. In spite of being outplayed, they only trailed 22-21 late in the game. Gannon drove the Chiefs down to Bronco 37-yard line.
There was time for one more play. Pete Stoyanovich came on to try a 54-yard field goal into a slight wind. He nailed it. Bedlam ensued. Kansas City was 8-3, a game back in the AFC West and now holding the tiebreaker on Denver thanks to divisional record.
A road trip to Seattle (an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002) followed. There was a bit of a letdown. But the defense got to Moon five times, two of the sacks coming from defensive end Vaughn Booker. Gannon found Rison six times for 90 yards and the Chiefs were able to grind out a 19-14 win.
The San Francisco 49ers were on their way to the 1-seed in the AFC. Both Kansas City and Denver still had to play the 49ers, so this had the potential to be the X-factor in the AFC West. The Chiefs hosted San Fran on the final day of November.
Kansas City delivered a thoroughly dominating performance. Rison caught five balls for 117 yards. The defense pressured San Francisco’s great quarterback Steve Young, with outside linebacker Pellom McDaniels and defensive end Dan Williams each getting home twice. When Young could throw, he was kept to underneath routes. If there were any doubts that the Chiefs were Super Bowl contenders, this 44-9 demolition ended them.
A soft schedule was now ahead—the final three opponents were Oakland, San Diego and New Orleans and none would finish better than 6-10. Denver, by contrast, had road trips to Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The Chiefs needed to win out and hope the Broncos lost once.
Gannon was sharp at home against the Raiders, going 15/21 for 225 yards. The balanced running attack produced over 200 yards and over 40 minutes of possession time. The final was 30-0. And out in Pittsburgh, the Steelers knocked off the Broncos. Kansas City controlled their destiny for everything in the AFC.
Thomas got unleashed in the road trip to San Diego, ringing up three sacks. Williams added two more. Defensive back Mark McMillian delivered an 87-yard Pick-6. The final was 30-0. The following night, Denver lost in San Francisco. The Chiefs were AFC West champs and had the 1-seed locked up.
They also had a quarterback controversy on their hands. Grbac was back and old-school thinking said a player should never lose his starting job due to injury. Grbac got the start in the meaningless finale, a 25-13 win at home over the Saints. But the debate was on—Grbac or Gannon for the playoffs?
From the perspective of history, we know that Gannon would eventually leave Kansas City, win an MVP award in Oakland and take the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002. From the perspective of 1997, it was less clear. Players were reported to prefer Gannon as the better leader. But the head coach, old-school to his core, went with Grbac.
Kansas City and Denver were clearly the best two teams in the AFC, finishing 13-3 and 12-4 respectively. So when chalk held in the wild-card round, it meant they would meet up for a third time in the divisional playoffs.
On a late afternoon start on Sunday that brought an end to Divisional Round weekend, the Chiefs and Broncos played a fantastic, slug-it-out football game. Kansas City trailed 7-0 at the half and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter. They nudged ahead 10-7 in the fourth quarter.
What the Chiefs were not doing was running the ball. Rison caught eight balls for 110 yards, but that was all the offense that could be mustered. Neil Smith, anxious to prove a point to his former employers, sacked Grbac twice. Denver could run the ball, with Davis going for 101 yards. The Broncos took a 14-10 lead.
Grbac led the Chiefs down the field on one last drive late in the game, getting to the 23-yard line. But his fourth down throw into the end zone was batted away. Another Kansas City season ended in heartbreak.
This was also the effective end of the Schottenheimer era. Allen retired after the season. The Chiefs slipped to 7-9 in 1998. Marty and the front office decided it was time to move on. The franchise did not return to consistent prominence until Andy Reid arrived in 2013.