The 1991 Kansas City Chiefs continued a franchise revival in the third year under head coach Marty Schottenheimer. After a 20-year stretch of mostly bad football, Kansas City welcomed Schottenheimer to town in 1989 and immediately posted a winning record. In 1990, they made the playoffs. In 1991, the team wasn’t quite as good, but still made it back to the postseason and this time won a game.
A strong running game was always the staple of “Marty-Ball” and this 1991 Chiefs team was no different. Christian Okoyoe ran for over 1,000 yards, finished sixth in the league in rush yardage and made the Pro Bowl. Barry Word and Harvey Williams were reliable backs, the former a power runner, the latter bringing more speed into the mix. In spite of the fact Kansas City had no Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line and a marginal passing game, they still finished 10th in the league in points scored.
Steve DeBerg was the veteran quarterback and he ranked in the lower half of the league in all of the key categories—completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interceptions. No individual receiver even reached the 600-yard mark on the year, although J.J. Birden’s 17.2 yards-per-catch at least provided a big-play element to the passing game.
The defense had some terrific individual talent and ranked 7th in the NFL in points allowed. Derrick Thomas, the future Hall of Fame outside linebacker, enjoyed a 1st-team All-Pro season with 13 ½ sacks. Neil Smith at defensive end was Pro Bowl-bound with eight sacks. Deron Cherry, the playmaking free safety, picked off four passes.
That defense showed its big-play capacity right out of the gate in a home date with the Atlanta Falcons. The Chiefs forced six turnovers, including three interceptions from corner Albert Lewis, against a team that would end the season in the playoffs. Kansas City won 14-3.
But the offense went into hiding the next two weeks against two more opponents with the postseason in their immediate future. The Chiefs were held to 67 rush yards in a 17-10 home loss to the New Orleans Saints. Kansas City then made a Monday Night visit to Houston. DeBerg could only generate 93 passing yards in a 17-7 loss to the Oilers.
DeBerg, who had enjoyed a career year in 1990, showed flashes of that form the next week against Seattle. Playing at home in the late Sunday afternoon time slot, he went 21/32 for 214 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs forced four turnovers, played mistake-free football themselves and won 20-13. That was followed by a 14-13 escape at mediocre San Diego, where the Chiefs were mostly outplayed, but made up for it with red-zone execution on both sides of the ball.
The Monday Night stage awaited again, this time with the defending AFC champion Buffalo Bills coming into Arrowhead. Buffalo was flying high at 5-0 with an offense that looked unstoppable. Until Kansas City got a hold of them. The potent Bills’ attack never got into the end zone. Okoye and Williams each ran for over 100 yards and the result was a 33-6 rout that no one was expecting.
And that momentum rolled right into the following Sunday’s late afternoon battle with the Miami Dolphins, who had ousted the Chiefs from the playoffs in 1990 and would contend to the final week in 1991. Okoye ran for 153 yards, KC was up 28-zip by halftime and won 42-7.
Kansas City was a team on a roll, but if there’s one man who represented Kryptonite to Marty-Ball—be it in KC or Cleveland—it was Denver Broncos’ quarterback John Elway. And a road trip to the Rockies resulted in another tough chapter of that ongoing saga. Elway turned 14 completions into 270 yards of pass offense and the Chiefs lost 19-16.
Another tough divisional foe awaited in the Los Angeles Raiders, who had won the AFC West and reached the conference championship game in 1990. In their third Monday Night game of the season, the Chiefs dug themselves a 21-10 hole at home as the fourth quarter began. DeBerg rallied. He threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a six-yarder to Tim Barrett that produced the 24-21 comeback win.
Kansas City went into their bye week at 6-3, in a tough three-way AFC West fight with the Broncos and Raiders. The Seattle Seahawks, an AFC West team prior to 2002, were also lingering on the outside. There was little room for error, and the Chiefs made no errors in a 27-20 road win over the Los Angeles Rams. KC forced four turnovers and made up for some leaky pass defense with the turnovers, winning the game on Thomas’ 23-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter.
Another game with Denver, another tough loss for Marty-Ball. DeBerg threw four interceptions and the Broncos outrushed the Chiefs 172-125 in a 24-20 loss. That was disappointing, but the following week in Marty’s old stomping grounds of Cleveland was simply devastating. Playing a mediocre Browns team, in their first year under new coach Bill Belichick, Kansas City turned the football over five times, was outrushed 123-78 and lost 20-15.
The Chiefs were now 7-5, a game back of both the Broncos and Raiders for the division, though still one game ahead of the Dolphins and Seahawks in the race for the playoffs. Kansas City got back to playing their style of football in a big win at Seattle. They didn’t turn the ball over, committed only two penalties, stopped the run and got 96 rush yards from Word. The 19-6 win gave the Chiefs a little room to breathe.
Kansas City came home, dug themselves a 14-0 deficit against San Diego and watched DeBerg have to leave the game. Mark Vlasic, a backup signed away from the Chargers in the offseason had a signature career moment. He came on to go 12/18 for 150 yards and helped the Chiefs avoid another embarrassing loss, as they escaped 20-17 in overtime.
At 9-5, Kansas City was tied with the Raiders for the top wild-card spot and had a comfortable two-game cushion for the playoffs. The Chiefs fell out of the divisional race the following Saturday in San Francisco when some poor defense negated a 115-yard game from Word in a 28-14 loss. But a playoff berth was assured.
When Kansas City went to Los Angeles for the regular season finale, it was already known that these teams would rematch in the wild-card game between the #4 and #5 seeds (the format prior to 2002 had three divisional winners and three wild-cards, not the 4/2 split of today). The last game of the season was to decide where that game would be played.
Word ran for 152 yards, Birden had a big day with eight catches for 188 yards and the 27-21 win ensured the good people of Kansas City would see playoff football for the first time since the dramatic events of Christmas Day 1971, when they lost the longest game in NFL history to the Dolphins.
The only history made in Round 3 of Chiefs-Raiders that opened up wild-card weekend on early Saturday afternoon, was that of a new candidate for ugliest playoff game in NFL history. The Chiefs missed a couple field goals in a scoreless first quarter. DeBerg only threw for 89 yards on the day. Kansas City turned it over a couple times, bogged down at the one-yard line in the fourth quarter with a chance to ice the game and gave up over 100 yards rushing to Raider running back Nick Bell.
And yet…the Chiefs won the football game. They forced six turnovers, including four interceptions of Los Angeles quarterback Todd Marinovich. They got 130 yards rushing from Word. DeBerg’s 11-yard scoring pass to Fred Jones in the second quarter was the game’s only touchdown and they committed only three penalties against nine for the Raiders. It might not have been pretty, but given the history of this organization in the playoffs—especially at home—no one was complaining about the 10-6 win over a hated rival.
Eight days later in Buffalo it was time for the ride to end. There would be no reprise of the Monday Night beatdown of the Bills from earlier in the year. DeBerg was knocked out in the second quarter and Vlasic threw four interceptions in his stead. The Chiefs committed ten penalties, couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t stop the run and the rout was on by halftime. It ended 37-14.
The 1991 season represented just one part of a long line of Kansas City teams under Schottenheimer that would more or less follow this script through much of the decade. The Chiefs made the playoffs five of the next six years and even in the year they missed (1996), played winning football. They reached an AFC Championship Game in 1993 and earned #1 seeds for the playoffs in 1995 and 1997. They were a good, well-coached team and a lot of fun to watch and root for in those days. But as fans of both the Chiefs and of Marty know all too well, those years never ended with a Super Bowl trip.