This time last year, the misery settled in. Only a matter of how deep, and how painful. You want to understand the NFL’s greatest turnaround story? First, you must remember just how desolate it was a year ago. Look around this Chiefs locker room. The collection of them, here, now part of the league’s last undefeated team, is nothing short of a miracle.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This time last year, Alex Smith was about to play perhaps the greatest game of his professional life a half-continent away. Andy Reid was chasing another playoff spot, and, besides Bill Belichick, there wasn’t a coach in the league more tied to his franchise’s identity. Tyson Jackson was in this room, but back then he was the unwitting face of a front office long on arrogance and short on results.
Nobody could’ve known the extent of it, of course. Nobody could’ve known the Chiefs would end up with two wins and the mixed emotions of mourning a teammate who killed his girlfriend before driving to the practice facility and killing himself.
This time last year, the Chiefs were 1-5 and coming off their bye week and wondering how bad it would get. They couldn’t have known that Romeo Crennel would vow to spend more time with the offense, only to see the offense slide. They couldn’t have known that fans would start dressing for games in black and tailgating with bags over their heads (holes punched over the mouth to drink and eat, of course).
Chris Bass had a bad feeling about the whole thing, though. Being a season-ticket holder had always been a point of pride, a status symbol of sorts. Nice house, nice car, Chiefs tickets. But he didn’t sign up for this. When he and his friends started leaving at halftime, no desire to stay, he knew he would give up his tickets.
“It hurt too much to care,” he says. “It went to a feeling of helplessness.”
So much has changed. Where to begin?
This time last year, Andy Reid is the head coach of his 14th Eagles team and chasing his 10th playoff appearance. He has just fired his defensive coordinator. The Eagles were 3-3 after two heartbreaking losses in a row. There is a growing criticism in Philadelphia, but then, there is always growing criticism in Philadelphia.
Reid knows how this works. He is the longest-tenured coach in the NFL. Since he arrived in Philadelphia as an unknown and relatively inexperienced assistant in 1999, 12 coaches have been fired in his division alone. Shoot, when he started, the Arizona Cardinals were still in his division. Doug Pederson was his starting quarterback. Eric Bieniemy a reserve tailback. Al Harris a star cornerback. None of them imagined they’d all be coaching together someday.
Anyway, by Reid’s 14th year in Philadelphia, he knows the pressure is mounting to bust through to another Super Bowl. Coaches just don’t stay in one spot this long. This is already longer than Mike Ditka was in Chicago, or Tony Dungy in Indianapolis. The last coach in one spot this long was Jeff Fisher with the Titans.
Maybe some of that is why Reid reached. Success earned him power, and eventually, Reid’s Eagles went away from building through the draft and toward splashy free agents. Nnamdi Asomugha. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Jason Babin. Vince Young. Babin and Young started the “Dream Team” talk after joining the Eagles, which sent expectations through the roof. Expectations the Eagles would never live up to.
This time last year, the team that would be Reid’s last in Philadelphia finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. His Eagles will either save their season, or this will be it for Reid.
The Eagles are coming off a bye. Reid has never lost out of a bye week. This time, though, they are playing the undefeated Falcons, who are also coming off a bye. There is a growing feeling around Philadelphia that this game could have a lasting impact on the rest of the season, good or bad.
The Eagles give up the game’s first two touchdowns. They’re blown out and, by the end, booed. Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, traded away by Reid before the season, asks reporters if they think Reid should keep his job.
“I didn’t see any pride,” Eagles back LeSean McCoy says.
“An embarrassing performance,” Reid says.
This time last year, the Chiefs are 1-5 with the growing stink of unsalvageable garbage. The locker room has the feel of a funeral, an analogy that will become too real too soon.
The Chiefs are becoming a civic embarrassment. The bye week means general manager Scott Pioli has been talking publicly. He takes responsibility for the disappointment, but it doesn’t do much to comfort fans. As the heat turns up on Pioli, a report surfaces that he turned down a contract extension from chairman Clark Hunt before the season. A Chiefs source denies it, emphatically. Pioli says he doesn’t know where the report came from.
This is the second game played after a banner is flown over the stadium calling for Pioli to be fired and quarterback Matt Cassel to be benched. The money was raised in minutes by a grassroots fan movement, and the man who owns the skywriting company will say he’d have given them a big discount. The group announces plans to come to the next home game dressed in mourning. At least one fan wrote to the team demanding his tickets be refunded — and they were.
For now, the Chiefs keep making themselves a punchline. A sad punchline. Romeo Crennel put up a sign in the locker room urging the team to “ELIMINATE BAD FOOTBALL,” which, really, wouldn’t leave much else. Coaches are getting into shoving matches during practice, and players are convinced that snitches are in their midst.
Pioli and his first coach, Todd Haley, talked a lot — on the record and off — about how bad the team was when they arrived. And they were right. It was awful. But going on four years in, the incompetence hasn’t changed as much as it has been reinforced and updated.
It is an unmitigated disaster, with the head coach answering “I’m not exactly sure” when asked why his star running back only touches the ball eight times in another loss. Less than halfway through, many players are already sure this is the worst year of their professional lives.
“You’ve just got to believe,” Jamaal Charles says.
This time last year, Alex Smith is the starting quarterback for a first-place team with Super Bowl expectations. In the last 365 days, Smith’s life has turned upside down. He lost his job, watched from the sideline feeling certain his team would’ve won the Super Bowl with him, got traded, moved his family across the country — and in some ways, he’s the one in the most familiar position.
Think about it. This time last year, Smith is the quarterback of a team built on defense. He has a respected coach and a few good weapons on offense, but really, his job is to protect the football and avoid mistakes. His defense is too good for any other plan.
And he is very good at this job with the 49ers. He is completing 67 percent of his passes and, other than a disastrous game against the Giants, has thrown nine touchdowns and just two interceptions.
This is Smith’s team, finally. He was drafted first overall in 2005 by what was then a dysfunctional 49ers franchise. The stories Smith could tell. He has been a bust and booed and benched for quarterbacks few remember. He had shoulder surgery, then lost virtually an entire season because a wire left behind in the first surgery eventually broke a bone.
But this is different now. Smith is coming off the best season of his career. They made it within a game of the Super Bowl, and only lost because of two freak special-teams turnovers. Jim Harbaugh has brought out the best in Smith, which turns out to be smoothness, calm, and accuracy.
Smith is about to play a near-perfect game in an easy win. His only incompletion out of 19 passes is a drop by the backup tight end. There had been reports earlier implying that Smith had lost his confidence, which after a game like this seems so misguided.
“I think it was just a lot of gobble-gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers,” Harbaugh says, whatever that means.
Nobody could’ve known that would be the last game Smith would start and finish for the 49ers, or that he would soon notice that the Chiefs would likely be looking for a quarterback.
Today, everything is so different. Who saw this coming? Reid is cracking jokes at news conferences in Kansas City, and the sight of him in red rather than green is no longer jarring. Smith and his family are growing comfortable in Kansas City, the rhythms here.
The locker room is a happy place again. Guys hang out when they don’t have to, away from the practice facility. Veterans and rookies, offense and defense. Those divides are gone now.
“No lie: it’s a complete block, bro,” says Tyson Jackson. “I can’t even think back that far (to a year ago). Oh, man. Such a long time ago.”
Without pain there is no joy, so with such a deep wound so recent the ecstasy of this perfect start is hard to describe. Dexter McCluster says he pinches himself to make sure it’s real, and promises a new touchdown dance the next chance he gets. Jamaal Charles says he couldn’t have dreamed this, and Dwayne Bowe says it’s his dream come true.
Part of the NFL’s magic is that things happen so quickly. Games are decided on a razor’s edge, so most years there are worst-to-first stories and legitimate hope in situations that would sour fans in other leagues. But nobody expected this. The Chiefs have gone from embarrassing to hated to recovering to competent to now contending, all in warp speed.
In many ways, they are the story of this NFL season. From a stain on the league to an example of what makes it great. This collection of men who a year ago were in such different places have come together to make this such a different place.
Less than a year after shaming their own team, fans have set a world record for crowd noise. No more angry banners. No more punch lines. No more mutual distaste between fans and franchise.
No more calls to the ticket office demanding a refund.
“I’ll probably end up spending more money and going to (fewer) games than if I’d just hung in there,” says Bass, the fan who gave up his season tickets. “I need to talk to my friend Shane. But I think the Chiefs ticket office will be hearing from us.”