Every sports fanbase can name dozens of times their favorite team made key decisions that turned out badly. Despite the team’s current high level of success, Kansas City Chiefs fans are no different. For most of us, recent division, conference and Super Bowl championships haven’t dulled some painful memories — and we all can hone in on at least one past decision that we believe prevented the team’s ultimate success.
For my father’s generation, that decision would undoubtedly be the failure to draft quarterback Dan Marino over Todd Blackledge in 1983. Throughout my formative Chiefs seasons, interceptions and ugly sacks by the likes of Dave Krieg and Steve Bono were frequent reminders that Marino could have been a Chief.
The “what if” that continues to plague me, however, involves a different quarterback situation — one where Kansas City made the wrong choice over and over again.
Following the 1996 season — in which the 9-7 squad had just missed the playoffs — the Chiefs released Bono. To replace him, the Chiefs passed over in-house option (and fan favorite) Rich Gannon in favor of signing another former San Francisco 49ers backup: Elvis Grbac. The move was instantly polarizing; a vocal contingent of Chiefs fans felt Gannon should have been the choice.
Grbac over Gannon remains a popular “what if” because of the second half of Grbac’s first season in Kansas City. He left the Week 10 Monday Night Football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a broken collarbone. Gannon started the next six games, in which the Chiefs went 5-1 and scored 26 points per game. Grbac returned for the final game of the season against the New Orleans Saints, passing for only 51 yards (and taking three sacks) before Gannon entered the game in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the year, the Chiefs’ second 13-3 record in three seasons made them the AFC’s No. 1 seed. In one of the most second-guessed decisions of his career, head coach Marty Schottenheimer announced that Grbac would be the starter for the Divisional round playoff against John Elway’s Denver Broncos.
Six weeks after defeating the Broncos 24-22 with Gannon under center, Grbac and the Chiefs scored only one touchdown in a 14-10 defeat. Grbac was sacked four times — and the talented Kansas City defense had no answer for Broncos running back Terrell Davis. The Broncos went on to defeat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII — but it was Schottenheimer’s last playoff game in Kansas City.
Grbac missed much of the following season with injuries, so Gannon would start 10 games of the disastrous 1998 campaign. He would then sign with the Oakland Raiders in free agency, becoming one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks over the next four seasons.
A “what if” scenario with Gannon as Kansas City’s unquestioned starting quarterback has two main questions.
The first: what would have happened in the 1997 playoffs? With Gannon as the starter, the Chiefs were clearly playing more confident football down the stretch; it’s not hard to imagine that a Gannon-led Kansas City team could have won home playoff games against the Broncos and Steelers — both of which it had already defeated in Arrowhead that season. While it’s a bit harder to imagine the team defeating Brett Favre’s Packers in the Super Bowl, Gannon would have been capable of making the crucial late-game scrambles that Elway made to seal the victory.
The second question: what would have happened if the Chiefs — instead of signing Grbac — had simply passed the torch to Gannon in 1997? Could he have reached the same level of play he would later have in Oakland, where he was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and was twice named an All-Pro?
Given Schottenheimer’s conservative style, it’s probably unrealistic to think Gannon could have reached those heights in Kansas City. By the end of Schottenheimer’s tenure, the offensive staff had shown no signs of the creativity and innovation Gannon would find in then-Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. This was in spite of the fact that current Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy — who would later coach the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLV — was serving as the Chiefs’ quarterback’s coach. A further example of the staff’s shortcomings was its inability to see the talent of depth receiver Joe Horn, who became one of the best players in football after signing with the Saints in 2000.
In retrospect, the possibility that the late-1990s Chiefs could have retooled their offense around Gannon, Horn and Tony Gonzalez (who joined the team in 1997) is particularly frustrating. Given all the opportunities to make the right decision at quarterback, the Chiefs repeatedly passed on their best option. Looking back, the degree to which the Chiefs were insistent that Grbac should remain the starter is almost comical.
What is your ultimate “what if” scenario that would have made a Chiefs era better?