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1989-1999 Chiefs ranked among the greatest ‘Dynasties of Heartbreak’

Recent articles from Football Outsiders haven’t been kind to former Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer.

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Joseph Patronite/Getty Images

Two years ago, the football analytics site Football Outsiders published a list of the NFL’s all-time top dynasties. Three Kansas City Chiefs teams — headlined by the 1966-1971 team that ranked 14th — were among the top 40.

A year later, the site published a list of the top anti-dynasties — that is, the teams with the worst extended periods of failure. Somewhat surprisingly, the 1974-1979 Chiefs team was the only one on the list — and it was ranked 53rd.

This year, FO’s Brian Knowles has been releasing a list that he has called “the Dynasties of Heartbreak.” These are defined as NFL teams that were very good over an extended period but were unable to bring home the ultimate prize.

Like the previous compilations, the series began with an explanation of the scoring system that FO devised to create these rankings. The site has now released the rankings from 44th through 11th. In the most recent article of the series, the 1989-1999 Chiefs are ranked 12th.

No. 12: 1989-1999 Kansas City Chiefs

Total Heartbreak Points: 715.6
Playoff Points: 186.8
Win-Loss Points: 252.8
DVOA Points: 276.0
Record: 110-65-1 (.628)
Playoff Record: 3-7 (one AFCCG loss, three divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 14.4%
Head Coaches: Marty Schottenheimer, Gunter Cunningham
Key Players: QB Joe Montana, OT John Alt, G Dave Szott, G Will Shields, C Tim Grunhard, DE Neil Smith, NT Dan Saleaumua, LB Derrick Thomas, LB Tracy Simien, CB Dale Carter, CB James Hasty, CB Albert Lewis, S Kevin Ross

The third and final of Marty Schottenheimer’s teams just fails to make the top 10. Fitting for Marty, I suppose—even here, he can’t quite seem to make it to the end.

It’s interesting to compare Schottenheimer’s tenures in Cleveland and Kansas City, acknowledging that his San Diego legacy is at least half Norv Turner. In terms of playoff failure, the Chiefs don’t come close to matching the Browns’ legacy of The Drive and The Fumble. Cleveland earns 295.2 heartbreak points just from playoff losses, while these Chiefs don’t even pass the 200-point barrier. They only reached one AFC Championship Game and didn’t lose it in a fashion that earned a nickname.

But Schottenheimer’s Browns weren’t all that good in the regular season, at least comparatively—they won less than 60% of their games. Scottenheimer’s Chiefs were regular-season dynamos, with their 102 wins in the 1990s being third behind only the 49ers and Bills. Their average DVOA of 15.2%? Also third-best in the league behind the 49ers and Cowboys. At least as far as our statistics show, it was the Chiefs, not the Bills, who were the team of the 1990s in the AFC.

Of course, Buffalo went to four Super Bowls and have not yet been featured on this list. The Chiefs went to zero. Martyball strikes once again.

When I think of the 1990s Chiefs, I think of a swarming defense. Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas combining to terrorize quarterbacks, combining for 212.5 sacks in their time together in Kansas City. I think of a bruising offensive line, the law firm of Grunhard, Szott, and Shields paving way for Christian Okoye or Marcus Allen. That’s the Martyball way: stifle your opponents defensively, control the ball on the ground, win games.

I also think of the San Francisco 49ers, because the strange pipeline from SFO to MCI was in full force in this era. Schottenheimer inherited ex-49ers quarterback Steve DeBerg when he took for the job and, after one season messing around with ex-Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg, proceeded to trade for Joe Montana and Steve Bono and picked up Elvis Grbac in free agency, 49ers all. I suppose ex-49ers quarterback coach Paul Hackett needed someone to run his offense, but this was taking things to an extreme. The Chiefs didn’t get a single start from a quarterback they drafted between Doug Hudson in 1987 and Brodie Croyle in 2006, and Schottenheimer was the real start of that. Don’t knock it if it works, mind you—the 1990s Chiefs finished in the top 10 in passing DVOA in six out of 10 seasons, even if they preferred to use it as a changeup to the rushing attack.

That’s all well and good in the regular season. It never worked quite so hot in the playoffs. Under DeBerg, the Chiefs were beaten 17-16 by a late Dan Marino drive and a painful offensive holding call in the 1990 wild-card round, then destroyed in a 37-14 stomping against the Bills in 1991. With Krieg under center, the Chiefs were blanked 17-0 by the Chargers in the 1992 wild-card round, never moving the ball beyond the Chargers’ 34-yard line.

Montana brought with him more success—Joe Montana being better than Steve DeBerg and Dave Krieg is another one of those deep insights you’ve come to expect from Football Outsiders. In 1993, we were a game short of what would have been arguably the biggest Super Bowl of all time, with Montana battling his former 49ers in Super Bowl XXVIII. Neither team lived up to their end of the deal, however. Montana was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a concussion as Thurman Thomas and the Bills ran all over Kansas City. The next year, Montana ended up losing a shootout against Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the wild-card round in what would turn out to be his last game as a professional.

And that was as close as the Chiefs got. They were the No. 1 seed in both 1995 and 1997, only to lose in the divisional round both times. 1997 was especially painful and comes out as the highest-scoring year of this run. They were 13-3 with a 29.4% DVOA, second highest in the league. Against the Broncos, they had more yards, more first downs, more time of possession, and a higher single-game DVOA. And yet they lost, 14-10, destroyed by missed opportunities—a holding call wiping out a Pete Stoyanovich field goal, Tony Gonzalez failing to stay in bounds for a potential touchdown, a fake field goal attempt that fooled nobody. A little better luck and maybe the Chiefs come out on top of this one—but then, they probably would have just lost to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. That’s Martyball for you.

This Chiefs team is missing that signature heartbreaking playoff loss that would have pushed them into the top 10—something agonizing and painstaking that can play over and over on highlight reels and in your mind when you’re trying to sleep at night. Give these guys a Fumble or a Drive, and they’re right up there with the very best of the best. But once again, Schottenheimer comes up just short.

Takeaway

As Knowles pointed out, this is one of three teams that were primarily coached mostly by Marty Schottenheimer — the others being the 2004-2010 San Diego Chargers (16th) and the 1983-1989 Cleveland Browns (23rd) — that appear in the top 30.

And yes... there is some overlap. Two years ago, Football Outsiders ranked the 1990-1997 Chiefs as the league’s 35th-greatest dynasty. While on the surface, that seems like a contradiction, it really isn’t. If Kansas City’s early-90s teams had won a championship, that period would have been ranked more highly among the dynasties — and since they didn’t, they are ranked highly among the “dynasties of heartbreak.”

Some may be surprised that Dick Vermeil’s 2001-2005 teams have not appeared on this list. It’s worth noting why this is so. While 2003’s Divisional round loss to the Indianapolis Colts — in Knowles’ vernacular, The No Punt Game — is certainly among the franchise’s most heartbreaking losses, Vermiel coached the team for five seasons, winning only one division championship and finishing at 0.500 or below three times. That’s hardly an extended record of success that also includes heartbreaking postseason losses.

Since three of Schottenheimer’s teams have now been ranked on this list, it’s not unreasonable to lay the blame for their lack of postseason success squarely on the shoulders of the late coach. Many who remember that period might also want to give some of the responsibility to then-general manager Carl Peterson.

That said, Schottenheimer’s coaching record remains among the best in league annals — and his work in Kansas City re-established the winning culture that had been lost for the better part of two decades, while providing fans with a consistent level of success that had been unmatched in team history.

So while we can rightfully characterize Schottenheimer’s tenure in Kansas City as filled with heartbreak, we should also never forget everything else he gave us.