The essence of a great football team is partnership — the willingness to fight for one another. The Kansas City Chiefs have been around since 1960, when they were founded by Lamar Hunt as the Dallas Texans.
In 1963, then-Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle convinced Hunt to move the team to the Midwest, where he guaranteed the team would triple the season-ticket base. Within three months, the ticket goal was achieved, and the Texans moved to Kansas City, becoming the Chiefs.
But that duo of Hunt and Bartle was only the first memorable tandem in Chiefs history. There would be plenty more duos to come over the next 57 years — and several that would specifically help lead the franchise to Super Bowl championships in 1969 and 2019.
These are the top five duos in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs.
5. Willie Lanier and Jim Lynch
BY JOHN DIXON
Just on the basis of their play on the field, you might place Lanier with fellow Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell. Both played on the 1969 championship and richly deserved their inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But we instead choose to pair him with the other linebacker from that 1969 squad; it says so much more about the team — and the era in which they played.
Both Lanier and Lynch were selected as middle linebackers in the second round of 1967’s AFL Draft. Only Lynch was well known, having played for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In contrast, Lanier had played for Morgan State in Baltimore, Maryland — and according to the story Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt told at Lanier’s Hall of Fame enshrinement, no one from the Chiefs had actually talked to him; they had selected him solely on the word of part-time scout Frank Barnes.
Despite this, by the time Lynch arrived at training camp after playing in the College All-Star game (he had won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top college player), Lanier had already taken his job as the team’s middle linebacker — something that was particularly shocking at a time when Black players were kept away from leadership positions.
Chiefs head coach Hank Stram — who immediately thought Lynch also deserved a starting spot, but as an outside linebacker — put an exclamation point on his decision by announcing the two men would be roommates at training camp and on the road; at the time, assigning white and Black players to the same room was almost never done. But it was the way the Stram operated.
Lynch took it all in stride, immediately recognizing that Lanier was the better player for the more prestigious position. And as roommates, the two soon discovered they had similar interests, becoming fast friends who remained together at camp and on the road through the rest of their NFL careers. Both retired after the 1977 season — and are now enshrined in the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor. With Bell, they might make up the greatest linebacker trio in NFL history.
4. Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali
BY PETE SWEENEY
The Chiefs could not have known it at the time, but with their first-round picks in 2005 and 2006, they formed a duo in their front seven that would trouble opposing offenses for the next decade. The Chiefs selected Derrick Johnson with the 15th overall pick in 2005 and Tamba Hali with the 20th overall pick a year later.
The Chiefs knew they had hit on their picks very soon after making them. The players won the franchise’s Mack Lee Hill award — given to the team’s outstanding rookie — in back-to-back seasons.
Johnson — born in Waco, Texas — was a two-time consensus All-American from the University of Texas. He was named 2004’s Big 12 defensive player of the year. As a Chief, Johnson went to four Pro Bowls over 13 seasons, becoming the franchise’s all-time tackle leader.
Hali escaped his home country of Liberia — then in the midst of a civil war — at the age of 10. Hali and his father moved to New Jersey, where he played for the high school football team and was recruited to Penn State. Similar to Johnson’s accolade, he was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2005. He played outside linebacker in most of his seasons in Kansas City. As a Chief, Hali went to six Pro Bowls over 12 seasons and finished second — behind only Derrick Thomas — on the franchise’s career sack list.
Together in the front seven for 12 seasons, the duo created havoc. Unfortunately, only the tail end of their tenure was met with consistent offensive success with the arrival of Andy Reid in 2013. The height of their partnership was their only playoff win in 2016, when the Chiefs ended a 22-year victory drought with a 30-0 Wild Card win over the Houston Texans.
“Tamba’s been giving me a big boost since he’s stepped here in 2006,” Johnson said, via The Kansas City Star, back in 2017. “He’s a guy that loves to play despite of what’s going on with his body (Hali was injury-riddled at the time). When he’s out there, he’s a warrior. He’s the first person I’d take in a back alley with me for sure.”
3. Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith
BY JOHN DIXON
When general manager Carl Peterson and head coach Marty Schottenheimer took over the Chiefs in 1989, they were handed the keys to a franchise that had been above .500 only twice in the previous 15 seasons; under former special teams coach Frank Gansz, the team had been 4-11 during the last two.
For Schottenheimer — a former linebacker — the first order of business was always defense. The team had already cashed in 1987’s 4-11 record by acquiring Nebraska defensive end Neil Smith with the second overall pick of the draft. Schottenheimer and Peterson used the more recent 4-11 chit to take Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas with 1989’s fourth overall selection.
Over the next eight seasons, the pair would unleash a reign of terror against opposing quarterbacks. If opposing offensive linemen could find a way to stop the 6-foot-4, 270- pound Smith, they still had to deal with Thomas’ speed and athleticism around the edge; if they could keep Thomas from screaming around tackles almost horizontally — a technique that is common today, but almost unheard-of three decades ago — they still had Smith on their hands.
During the years they played together in Kansas City, they combined for 20 sacks or more in six consecutive seasons — including 29.5 in 1990 and 29 in 1992. In those same two seasons, they forced 10 fumbles — while averaging 7.2 across the eight-year span. They averaged a combined 122.5 tackles during that period, leading a defense that was top-10 in points or yards in six of those seasons. Between them, they accumulated 14 Pro Bowl selections and three first-team All-Pro honors.
And the Chiefs became one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, making the playoffs in six straight seasons from 1990 through 1995.
Following the 1996 season, Smith left for the Denver Broncos in free agency. Thomas died tragically as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash following the 1999 season. But for fans in the early 1990s, Thomas and Smith were the Kansas City Chiefs.
2. Len Dawson and Hank Stram
BY JOHN DIXON
It’s hard for younger NFL fans to fully appreciate the way the game was played before the mid-1990s, when teams were allowed to have radio receivers in their quarterbacks’ helmets. Today, we still sometimes refer to quarterbacks as signal-callers — but until the coach was in their ear, a big part of their job was deciding what the next play would be. While some plays were sent in from the sidelines when players were substituted, high-pressure situations called for a quarterback who could not only execute the plays, but also decide what they would be.
And that’s how Len Dawson became quarterback of the Dallas Texans in 1962.
A first-round pick out of Purdue in 1957, Dawson had languished on the benches of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns for five seasons. Chiefs head coach Hank Stram needed a quarterback who could not only play the position, but run the forward-thinking offense that was beginning to take shape in his mind. In Dawson — with whom he was familiar from his days as a Purdue assistant coach — he believed he had found his man.
With Dawson as the starter, the franchise won the AFL championship in 1962. Dawson made the AFL All-Star Game and was named a first-team All-Pro, leading the AFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating. In fact, through the next seven seasons, Dawson would lead the league in passer rating in six of them.
After the franchise moved to Kansas City, Stram began to implement the ideas floating around in his head — and he and his quarterback began developing chemistry between them. Dawson not only understood what Stram was trying to create, but also how Stram wanted it to be called on the field. The two men developed a deep respect for each other — referring to each other as “Leonard” and “Henry” — that showed up in the team’s success.
The now-famous sideline film from Super Bowl IV shows the relationship clearly. Stram isn’t telling Dawson what plays to run; he’s giving advice — albeit strongly. And Dawson had the intelligence (and the power) to go his own way, too — most notably in the 1969 Divisional round game against the New York Jets, as described in Michael MacCambridge’s book about the 1969 Chiefs.
Flanker Otis Taylor had drawn up a play in the dirt for Dawson, believing he had found a way to beat the Jets defense. “Are you going to call it?” asked Taylor. “No,” replied Dawson. “I’m going to wait until we get in the huddle, so everybody can hear, and then I’m gonna call the play.” Taylor gained 61 yards, setting up the final score in the Chiefs’ 13-6 victory.
Stram and Dawson’s partnership led to three AFL championships and two Super Bowl appearances. The last one — a 23-7 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings — firmly established that the AFL had arrived.
1. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes
BY PETE SWEENEY
Considering the Chiefs already had a successful quarterback in Alex Smith, it was a bold move. Smith had led the Chiefs to a 41-20 record from 2013-16 and then — while tutoring Mahomes about how to be a professional — had the best statistical season of his career in 2017. The Chiefs still traded Smith to Washington during the 2018 offseason, making it Mahomes’ team.
As a first-year starter under the guidance of Andy Reid, Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions en route to being named the franchise’s first Associated Press NFL MVP. The Chiefs came up just short of the Super Bowl, losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, but the team would be right back in the mix next year.
Mahomes’ regular-season statistics took a hit in 2019 due to lingering injuries throughout the season. But healthy for the playoffs, Mahomes dazzled, throwing for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in three games — including the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in 50 years.
Reid and Mahomes take our top slot on this list for a simple reason: They don’t seem anywhere close to done. Mahomes agreed to a 10-year contract with the team this offseason, and Reid reportedly extended his deal through 2025. Mahomes realizes he would not be the same player under someone else, and after 20 seasons a head coach, Reid knows he has finally found his man.
Early in the 2020 season, Mahomes became the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach the 90-touchdown plateau (37 games), passing Dan Marino (40), and the Reid-Mahomes duo has already done something Marino never could.
During press conferences, we’ve slowly watched how Mahomes has adopted the Reid way. In-house matters are to stay in house, and lofty goals are to be kept to themselves. Actions speak louder than words.
But those guidelines don’t apply to the kicker.
“I just think with Patrick as a quarterback and seeing his work ethic and his drive, there is going to be no letting up and take our foot off this gas pedal,” said Harrison Butker this offseason. “And obviously, with coach Reid at the top, he’s already been talking about how he’s studying film and getting ready for next year and trying to do it again, so I think we just have the culture in our facility — it’s just that we’re going to put our head down, work hard, keep doing our thing. We know what works to win games. We know that process, and we’re just going to repeat it and hopefully get a couple more rings.”
Reid and Mahomes have won 30-plus regular-season games and a Lombardi Trophy — and the best part? There is more to come.