As the Chiefs' deep receiving threat in the early '90s, J.J. Birden provided plenty of highlights for Chiefs fans during the success years under Marty Schottenheimer. Now? Birden has stepped away from any thoughts of remaining in the football world for various business endeavors and the need to spend more time at home with his family.
In this AP interview, Birden tells us about the ability to play with a quarterback like Joe Montana, the benefits of being under Coach Schottenheimer and his thoughts on Derrick Thomas. And don't forget to come back for Part Two tomorrow. Enjoy!
AP: From your start with the Chiefs in 1990 to the end of your days in Kansas City, you were a part of such a successful stretch run during the Marty Schottenheimer era. Do you reflect back on that at all...
JJ Birden: Definitely, I do. My first year I was with the Browns and my second year, I was with the Cowboys where went 1-15 during Aikman's rookie year. So to get on a Chiefs team and experience success right away was definitely a privilege. Marty was such a great coach. He led a good team and he had a lot of respect from the players. He was a hard-nosed coach but he knew what he was doing and he had a system that proved successful over the years. So I was definitely excited to be on a winning program.
Birden: It's a crazy story because I was drafted by the Browns when Marty was there. I tore my ACL up in rookie camp or mini-camp which was a big deal because I was a track athlete and I qualified for the Olympic trials in long jump and I was getting ready for that. I was drafted and I was like, 'Well, I might as well go to rookie camp' and then I tear my knee up.
So track was done at that point, but I went to the Browns on IR and I was rehabbing and gained some weight. That was a blessing in disguise because that year I realized I could really play in the NFL. Before that, I was terrified.
Birden: Yeah, I was like, 'What am I doing here?' I remember being at the combine sitting at the table with Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe and Michael Irvin and all these first rounders wondering, 'What am I doing here?' [Laughs] But that first year in Cleveland, I didn't have any pressure. I just had to get healthy, learn the system and get bigger. And that year I was able to do that.
So at camp the next year, I was the very last person who got cut and I went to Dallas and then was on the practice squad all year. Everyone is wanting that chance to play and I never got called up. The team was so bad, too, so I couldn't want to get out there. But then we all know how well they did after that. [Laughs]
So I was going into my third year and what is funny is that I had been given two credits for those two years even thought I'd never played in anything but a pre-season game. So I knew that whoever I signed with, it had to be the right team because it would be my last shot. I was running well and in great shape.
I loved the Chiefs as a team. First of all, Marty was there. Secondly, I didn't they they had any speed. They had no speed at all, so that was the right thing for me being a speed guy. That's why I chose them. We went through camp and had a great camp. Fred Jones was drafted and he got hurt. It was one of those things where he has to make the team and so they cut me. Then they brought me back two weeks later. Marty said they'd bring me back two weeks later and they did. I don't know if a lot of people know that, but that's exactly what happened.
I remember during week two, I was waiting for them to pick me up and they hadn't yet. My wife was pregnant and I remember going to Marty because there were two or three other teams calling me and I was like, 'Marty, what are you going to do? I gotta make a decision soon.' Then they brought me on at the end of that week.
AP: That first year, you have the 90 yard catch. Is that your favorite personal highlight?
Birden: Yeah that was exciting. When I started playing in that third or fourth game, I played against Detroit and I just came in as the fourth receiver. They didn't throw me the ball at all. The next game was in Seattle at home and my whole family was up there in Seattle and I scored a 33-yard touchdown. It was my first, so that was very exciting. Then the very next game, I had that San Diego one where it was the third play of the game and I remember that play like it was yesterday.
We worked it on all week in practice and the deep DBs - one was covering me and the other was covering Robb [Thomas]. When Robb went in motion for one second, the DBs got confused and I just split 'em and [Steve] DeBerg laid it up and it was just about getting to the end zone. [Laughs] I have that highlight and it's one of the ones I watch every now and then because it was such a thrill.
AP: Wow, I would imagine. You mention DeBerg and I was wondering about that. You received nearly equal results with DeBerg and Joe Montana and even Dave Krieg was in there. Was there one you had a particular chemistry with greater than the others?
Birden: It was really different stages. When I was with DeBerg, I was just the deep guy. I caught a lot of long balls with DeBerg because everything was meant for me to go deep. That was exciting because I knew the streaks and the posts were coming for me and those couple years I caught some of those long balls. When Krieg came in, it was weird because I was reluctantly a starter. I don't know that I was ever supposed to be a starter. I was always supposed to be the third guy, but because I knew the positions and didn't make mistakes with the ball, I became a starter. They weren't really sure if I was the deep guy or the short guy. It was weird.
Then when Montana came... Oh, I loved playing with Montana. I had to be a student of the game with him. You knew the game those first couple years, but Montana really knew the game and you had to know it as well. It was like having an offensive coordinator in the huddle. So those couple years with Montana, I had to study like crazy. He was always changing the play. He reminds me of Peyton Manning in that way. When he sees a weakness in the defense, he knew what play to go to and whichever one of those 200 plays he chooses, you gotta know what it is.
So there was more pressure from that end, but it caused me to be a student of the game and that made my game progress. The thing about Montana was if you knew the defense the way he did, you almost knew what he was seeing. He was so into the pre-snap read that you could tell exactly where he's going to throw it. There was an advantage of having Montana because he knew the game so well and it caused you to prepare at a higher level, too.
Read part two of the interview here.