Editor’s note: It’s SB Nation NFL’s What-If Week, and we’re getting involved with a good piece from John Dixon regarding Gunther Cunningham.
December 25, 2000.
It was just 3 degrees as the sun rose behind overcast skies in Kansas City that morning. The thermometer never went above 17 as families gathered for their Christmas gift-giving.
In his luxury apartment on the Country Club Plaza, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson’s mood was as cold and dreary as the weather outside. The day before, the Chiefs had lost their final game of the season — an embarrassing 29-13 road loss at the hands of the 3-12 Atlanta Falcons.
In his first nine seasons, Peterson’s Chiefs had put together one of the best records in the NFL. But while the team had made the playoffs seven times, it had little to show for it. Twice in those years — in 1995 and 1997 — the Chiefs had grabbed the first seed in the AFC playoffs, only to be humiliatingly defeated in their home stadium in their first postseason game.
After that, things went even further south.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer resigned after leading the team to a 7-9 record in 1998. Peterson had chosen popular (and effective) defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to take Schottenheimer’s place, but things hadn’t improved; Cunningham had been 16-16 over the two seasons that had concluded the day before.
So sometime around that Christmas morning nearly two decades ago, Peterson decided that three years out of the playoffs was enough. It was time to do something.
When Peterson had first been named Chiefs general manager in 1989, he had tried hard to bring former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil to Kansas City; Peterson knew Vermeil well, having served with him at UCLA and Philadelphia. At the time, Vermeil was out of coaching — he had resigned as Eagles head coach after the 1982 season — and was perfectly happy to remain a network television analyst for pro and college football.
So in 1989, Peterson had to settle for Schottenheimer — although Vermeil did become a part of the Chiefs organization, often serving as a color analyst for the locally-produced broadcasts of the team’s preseason games.
That Christmas, Vermeil was still out of coaching. But this time, he had been back.
In 1997, Vermeil had been persuaded to leave the broadcast booth and take over the St. Louis Rams. He led what became known as The Greatest Show on Turf to a Super Bowl victory the previous season. But citing burnout — just as he had done in Philadelphia 17 years earlier — he had resigned as head coach of the Rams with two years remaining on his St. Louis contract.
Peterson saw an opportunity. He traveled to Vermeil’s home and made the pitch to his old friend: would Vermeil consider coaching the Chiefs?
“I told him he was spinning his wheels when he said he was going to come down and talk to me,” Vermeil said later. “But what a presentation Carl made to me and my wife Carol. She was more impressed than me.”
By January 4, it had been widely reported that Vermeil had agreed to sign a three-year contract with the Chiefs worth $10 million. But another obstacle remained: Vermeil’s existing contract with the Rams. After some legal maneuvering over the following week, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue set the price: the Chiefs would give the Rams a 2001 second-round draft pick, a 2002 third-round pick and $500,000 in exchange for Vermeil.
On January 12, Vermeil was officially named head coach of the Chiefs.
“Lamar Hunt gave me the opportunity to run this franchise 12 years ago and there was only one person I wanted to coach the Kansas City Chiefs and that was Dick Vermeil,” Peterson told the press. “So after 12 years, I finally get to accomplish what I set out to do.”
“I changed my mind based solely on my personal relationship with Carl Peterson and [Chiefs vice-president of operations] Lynn Stiles and also realizing what I am as a coach,” Vermeil said. “I knew sooner or later Carl and I would be back together and initiate a new crusade.”
I was among the press that Friday. I remember being personally impressed with Vermeil’s demeanor — in fact, I grew to like Vermeil very much during his years with the Chiefs — but I also remember wondering, “What about Gunther Cunningham?”
By then, it had been reported that Cunningham had learned of his dismissal as head coach the hard way: by seeing television reports that Vermeil was to be named head coach. No one knows what kind of interactions Peterson and Cunningham had after that, but I can tell you that the following season, an Arrowhead source told me that after hearing the news, Cunningham punched a hole in the wall outside the stadium’s coaching offices.
That would have been completely in character for Cunningham, who was famously short-tempered.
But on the day Dick Vermeil was hired — and still today — I believe that during the previous two and a half weeks, Carl Peterson made the worst mistake of his Chiefs career.
Those of us who knew Cunningham pretty well recognized he would have been angry about being dismissed as head coach. But we also knew Gun was burned out after his two years running the team. His passion for the game had led him to not only burn the candle at both ends, but from the middle, too. Might he have welcomed the chance to return to being Chiefs defensive coordinator?
What if Peterson had called Cunningham into his office on the day after Christmas?
“Gun, I know you’re burned out,” Peterson could have said. “No one has been more dedicated to our success than you. I want you to know I appreciate and respect all the effort and passion you’ve put in to being head coach of this team.
“But you and I both know that this isn’t what you’re cut out to do. I want you to stay with us, and do what you do best: be our defensive coordinator. I believe I have a very good chance to bring Dick in as head coach. Look what he did in St. Louis. Can you imagine what we could do with Dick running the offense and you running the defense? We would be unstoppable — and I’m sure Dick would love for you to stay.
“I haven’t talked to Dick yet. I don’t even know if he’ll agree to do it. Even if he does, it’s going to take some time to work out the details. So I want you to use that time. Think about it. I know it would be hard for you to step back from being head coach. But I’d like for you to consider staying. Please... think about it.”
Knowing Gun, I believe he still would have punched a hole in the wall outside Peterson’s office; Peterson would have been telling him that one way or another, his days as Chiefs head coach were over.
But I also believe that once he got home and had a chance to cool off, he would have thought about it carefully — and might have decided to stay. There was no doubt that Vermeil was an offensive genius. Cunningham would have had to know that he and Vermeil would have been a fearsome combination.
But that isn’t what happened. Peterson and Cunningham never had that conversation, and Cunningham went to the Tennessee Titans to become linebackers coach and assistant head coach.
With Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator, the Chiefs defense was a mess for the next three seasons. I never heard it more succinctly described than the way a press box colleague put it during those years: “Robinson teaches these players to think. Gunther taught them to kill.”
It all came to a head in the 2003 postseason, when the Chiefs — for the third time during Peterson’s tenure — got the first seed in the playoffs with a 13-3 record, only to fall to the Indianapolis Colts 38-31 in what became known to Chiefs fans as the “No-Punt Game.”
Is there any Chiefs fan who remembers those years and doesn’t think the Chiefs would have been better off to keep Cunningham? If Cunningham had been allowed to maintain the continuity of his defense through 2003, is there anyone who believes the Chiefs couldn’t have forced one punt against the Colts in that game?
Apparently, Peterson and Vermeil believed it. Cunningham returned to the Chiefs as defensive coordinator in 2004 — proving that he and Vermeil could have worked together — but by then, it was too late. Too much had happened. Peterson had missed his opportunity to do the right thing — the smart thing — during the Christmas season of 2000.
I could be wrong. It’s a rare thing for an NFL head coach to accept a demotion to remain with a team. It’s entirely possible that if Peterson had floated such a proposal to Cunningham, he would have told King Carl to stuff it.
But it was an unusual situation, and Gunther Cunningham was an unusual man. There would have been nothing to lose in asking Cunningham to stay — and if Peterson had done so, Chiefs history might be much different today.