The 1986 Kansas City Chiefs are the one bright spot in a long stretch of franchise futility. The last high point of the Hank Stram-Len Dawson years that included a Super Bowl title was 1971. The first high point of the Marty Schottenheimer-led ascendancy was 1990. The 1986 edition is sort of dropped in the middle, with a surprise run to the playoffs standing out amidst nearly two decades of poor football.
John Mackovic had taken over as head coach in 1983 and produced a pair of 6-10 seasons surrounding an 8-8 year in 1984. The quarterback job was split between 25-year-old Todd Blackledge, one of the Class of 1983 quarterbacks that never made it, and veteran Bill Kenney.
Blackledge was awful, completing just 46 percent of his passes for a meager 5.7 yards-per-attempt. Even in an age friendlier to defenses, it was terrible. Kenney was marginally better, at 52% and 6.2 respectively.
Stephon Paige was a good receiver, catching 52 balls for 829 yards. Henry Marshall was decent, with 46 catches and 652 yards. Carlos Carson had big-play capability, averaging 23.7 yards-per-catch. If there was anyone who could deliver this trio the football more effectively, they would have been better.
The running game was a problem. Mike Pruitt was the leading rusher and he didn’t clear 450 yards. He was joined in the backfield by Herman Head and Boyce Green, both mediocrities.
Yet somehow Kansas City managed to finish 12th in the NFL in points scored. They made improvements in the offensive line, bringing in Irv Eatman and Mark Adickes from the defunct United States Football League. And they relied on an opportunistic defense and special teams.
Bill Maas was the anchor of the Chief defensive line, a Pro Bowl nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme that could tie up blockers. He also got seven sacks. Art Still was on the edge and got to the quarterback 10 ½ times. Pete Koch on the other end had 5 ½ sacks as KC was that rare 3-4 defense that got more plays from its lineman than its linebackers.
The secondary was the pride and joy of the team. Free safety Deron Cherry was the best in the business, a 1st-team All-Pro who intercepted nine passes. Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross were talented young corners. Though neither was a Pro Bowler in 1986, they each had Pro Bowl seasons in their immediate future.
Kansas City opened the season at home against Cincinnati. It was a non-descript game between two teams that hadn’t done anything notable in recent years (the Bengals were now four years removed from the playoff runs under Forrest Gregg). Somehow the game get moved to the 4 PM ET window. Maybe somebody knew something, because this would be arguably the most consequential regular season game once the dust settled at year’s end.
That knowledge was in the future. In the moment, it was just a nice win for the Chiefs. Cherry recovered a fumble in the end zone for the first points of the year. The running game produced, with Pruitt, Jeff Smith and Heard all sharing the load and KC tripled Cincinnati in rush yardage, 180-60. The result was a 24-14 win.
A road trip to Seattle seemed more in keeping with what Kansas City had been in recent years. The running game disappeared, Blackledge tossed up two picks and the Chiefs lost 23-17. But the defensive line turned it around against a subpar Houston Oilers team (today’s Tennessee Titans). The Chiefs got to Warren Moon for seven sacks, two apiece by Maas and Still and the result was a solid 27-13 win.
Blackledge had one of his finer moments the following week in Buffalo. He went 17/29 for 210 yards and two touchdowns, outplaying Jim Kelly who got picked off three times. The Bills were a bad team in 1986 and the Chiefs were able to escape with a 20-17 win. It might not have been impressive, but they were 3-1.
It looked like the good times might continue against the Los Angeles Raiders, one of the top franchises in the entire league through the first half of the 1980s. Kansas City jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but Blackledge and then Kenney were erratic, the running game was gone and the offensive line allowed five sacks. The lead melted away in a 24-17 loss.
The Chiefs weren’t much better the following week in Cleveland, facing a team that would come within a hair of the Super Bowl. Blackledge was sacked four times, the running game only produced 43 yards and the final score was 20-7.
A home date with the lowly San Diego Chargers proved to be the tonic the offense needed. Blackledge went up top to Paige for a 45-yard touchdown strike and the ball was rolling. The defense played its opportunistic football, with strong Lloyd Burress picking off two passes near midfield and bringing both to the house. The Chiefs led 42-34 before the Chargers scored one more touchdown, but in an era that didn’t have the two-point conversion, KC held on to the one-point shootout win.
Kansas City welcomed another horrible team to Arrowhead Stadium in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kenney was in the lineup and was 15/29 for 230 yards, connecting with Marshall five times for 91 yards. The Chiefs should have been in control throughout, but having to settle for field goals on a couple red zone trips kept it tight and the game was tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter. They avoided embarrassment when Smith took off on a 32-yard touchdown run for the win.
A road trip to San Diego started poorly when Kansas City snapped the ball out of their own end zone for a safety. It got worse, when consecutive Charger touchdowns made it a 16-0 game in the second quarter. Then everything turned around. Kenney finished 21/32 for 281 yards and hit Marshall and Carson for touchdowns. Lewis picked off two passes, part of a four-pick day for the defense as a whole. The Chiefs crawled to within 23-21 and then kicker Nick Lowery won it with a 37-yard field goal.
Kansas City kept the momentum going when Seattle made its return visit (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to 2002). After a scoreless first quarter, Kenney opened up. He finished 22/41 for 256 yards and spread the ball to ten different receivers. He tossed three touchdown passes. Even though three interceptions were also in the mix, the Chiefs got an easy 27-7 win over a good team.
Denver was a better team though, leading the division race and Kansas City played horribly in Mile High Stadium. They lost three fumbles, allowed five sacsks, gave up two special teams touchdowns and dug a 31-0 hole, en route to a 38-17 loss. The numbers weren’t as bad the following week at the St. Louis Cardinals, but the result was even more embarrassing. Four turnovers and no running game led to a 23-14 loss against a team that would win only four games in 1986.
Kansas City was at 7-5 and two games back of Denver in the AFC West. The Chiefs were within one game of a wild-card spot, where the Raiders and Bengals were both 8-4 and leading the race for one spot. The Seahawks and Dolphins were right in the rearview mirror at 6-6.
A rematch with Buffalo was next—the schedule formula prior to 2002 had two last-place teams from the same conference playing each other twice—and the result was a disaster. In a game that the Chiefs would appear to have to win, they were outrushed 164-73. Kenney threw three interceptions. Paige had a nice game, catching nine balls for 119 yards, but it wasn’t enough in a disheartening 17-14 home loss to a four-win team.
Kansas City was 7-6. They had lost three straight, the last two of which came to bad teams. They were looking like anything but a playoff team. But they got a break—the Raiders and Bengals both lost ahead of them, the Dolphins lost behind them and there was still a chance. The Chiefs made the most of it.
A visit from Denver was the lynchpin. KC blew open a game that was tied 10-10 at the half. They got five interceptions from five different players. They got five sacks from four different players—Cherry was the only one to have both an interception and a sack. Blackledge broke the tie with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Smith in the third quarter and the rout was on in the final period to the tune of a 37-10 win.
Cincinnati won and stayed in the lead for the last playoff spot, but the Raiders lost and were collapsing. The Chiefs went to the L.A. Coliseum and aided the collapse, with Cherry and Ross each intercepting two balls to help build up a 17-zip lead and then hanging on for the 20-17 win. When Cincinnati lost to Cleveland, Kansas City had improbable control of its playoff destiny.
A road game against a weak Pittsburgh Steelers team was the last hurdle. With the money on the table, Kansas City was outrushed 175-38 and gave up over 350 yards passing. But the defense and special teams, so crucial all year long, would have their finest moment.
Cherry recovered a blocked punt in the end zone and gave the Chiefs a 10-3 lead. After a Steeler field goal, Green brought the kickoff back 97 yards to the house and made it 17-6. Pittsburgh threatened again and lined up for a field goal. It was blocked, with Burruss bringing it 78 yards to the house. It was 24-6 and batten-down-the hatches time with the offense unable to move the ball. Kansas City hung on for a 24-19 win.
That Week 1 win over Cincinnati was the tiebreaker in the playoff picture. Kansas City was returning to the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
The Chiefs went to the Meadowlands to play the New York Jets, who took backing into the playoffs to new levels. After a 10-1 start, New York had lost five straight to close the year and only a strong conference record kept them in the playoffs.
Kansas City scored first on a 1-yard touchdown run by Smith. But they missed the extra point and it was downhill from there. They were outrushed 165-67 with no back gaining more than fifteen yards. Blackledge played poorly, 12/21 for 80 yards and a pair of interceptions. Kenney was acceptable, 8/16 for 97 yards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The Chiefs lost 35-15.
It had been a dramatic playoff run, but wasn’t something that Kansas City could build on. Mackovic was fired after players met with owner Lamar Hunt. The Chiefs collapsed as quickly as they rose up. Not until Marty-Ball arrived three years later would there be lasting football success again in KC.