The decision made 25 years ago would shape a franchise and define a decade of excellence for Kansas City Chiefs football.
Once Carl Peterson, in his first year as the club’s general manager, selected Derrick Thomas with the fourth overall pick in the 1989 draft, Pass Rush City had its first mayor.
Thomas helped transform Arrowhead Stadium into a cacophony of terror for opposing quarterbacks, and he even detailed his job description on his personalized license plates:
Thomas rolled up a franchise-record 126 1/2 sacks from 1989-99 before his untimely death from injuries sustained in a January 2000 auto accident. Thomas, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, teamed with Neil Smith for 188 sacks as teammates from 1989-96, the most by any NFL tandem in that time.
And the Chiefs, who qualified for postseason play just once in the previous 17 years before Thomas and Smith teamed up, went to the playoffs seven times in eight seasons from 1990-97.
“He put his mark on Kansas City Chiefs football like very few players have,” Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt said at Thomas’ induction into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2001.
At the time of Peterson’s hiring, he inherited a team coming off 4-11 and 4-11-1 seasons, and he hired a defensive-minded head coach in Marty Schottenheimer. The Chiefs had traded up in the first round of the 1988 draft and selected Smith with the second overall pick. The idea of pairing Thomas with Smith was enticing to Peterson, Schottenheimer and player personnel director Whitey Dovell.
“Neil did not have a good rookie year; everybody thought he was a bust,” Peterson said. “But the essence was, if Neil turned out to be the player Whitey drafted, and we can get another guy on the other side to compliment him, we have a good start in building a defense to make a difference.”
Thomas and Smith — whom Thomas referred to as his “partner in crime” — wasted little time making an impact together.
As a rookie, Thomas led the team with 10 sacks. He doubled that with a league-leading 20 sacks in 1990, capped by a league-record seven against Seattle on Veterans Day, a performance Thomas had dedicated to his late father, who had perished flying a bomber in the Vietnam War. Thomas came close to matching that record with six sacks in the 1998 season opener against Oakland, giving him two of the four biggest sack days in NFL history.
Smith, meanwhile, was nearly as dominant from the left side. Smith, who would amass 86 1/2 sacks in his Chiefs career, tied Thomas for the team lead with 14 1/2 sacks in 1992. Smith led the NFL with 15 sacks in 1993 and led the club in 1994 and ’95.
“When we drafted Derrick,” Smith said in a 2009 interview, “I felt the pressure was off me a little bit. When he became the fourth man in the pass rush, I had a lot of one-on-ones, a lot of free rushes.
“We came to grow a bond together and put up some great numbers. That made the 1990s fun.”
Thomas beat his blockers with sheer speed, quickness and determination in what he called ‘five seconds of excitement.” His 126 1/2 sacks were fourth most by a linebacker at the time of his death.
“He had the quickest first couple of steps I had ever seen by anybody,” Peterson said. “It almost felt like he was cheating, (as if) he knew the snap count. He was also very smart. He watched a lot of things. He told me later, many times the way a quarterback put his hands under the center told him when the ball was coming up.”
Smith, who stood 6 foot 4, used his toughness to whip blockers and his 7-foot-1 1/2-inch wingspan to distract and frustrate quarterbacks.
“Neil was a very good technique player,” said former Chiefs defensive line coach Tom Pratt. “He had such long arms; he would come off the edge. Normally your right-side end is going to be your guy, he’s going to be your killer, which Derrick was.
“But Neil was strong enough, he was able to get that good dip under the offensive tackle and still get that pressure from the left side. That’s not easy to do. There aren’t that many left end rushers who reached the level he did.”
Thomas’ 116 1/2 sacks in the ’90s were the most in the decade by any player, and 37 of his career sacks — 29 percent — came against Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway (17 times), Jim Kelly (six), Steve Young (four), Warren Moon (three) and Troy Aikman (two), plus future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning (four) and Brett Favre (one). All were protected by standout left tackles.
But Thomas was never content with merely sacking the quarterback. He didn’t consider the play complete without hacking the ball loose. He forced 45 fumbles in his career and recovered 19 (four for touchdowns), and recorded three safeties.
“When he would come in, he would always secure the tackle,” Pratt said. “His inside hand, his left hand, as he was coming ’round the right side, was always on the waist of the quarterback. That right arm was going up to the ball. He was a master at it.”
Smith, too, had a signature move that resulted in an NFL rule change. Taking advantage of the noise in Arrowhead Stadium, he would flinch before the snap, causing offensive linemen to jump offsides. That led to the Neil Smith Rule, outlawing the maneuver.
“The other aspect you cannot diminish is we had such a great crowd noise at Arrowhead, the way the stadium was built (to be loud),” Peterson said. “You have to fill the stadium first of all, and when the defense was on the field, and the quarterback came up to the line of scrimmage, that’s when the volume got turned up.”
Peterson found two more pass-rushing terrors in Jared Allen, a fourth-round pick from Idaho State in 2004, followed by Penn State’s Tamba Hali in the first round in 2006.
Allen, fittingly the Buck Buchanan Award winner as the outstanding defensive player in NCAA Division I-AA, caught the Chiefs by surprise with his pass-rushing skills and led the Chiefs with nine sacks as a rookie and 11 in 2005.
After leading the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in 2007, Allen, who had some off-field issues earlier in his career, clashed with Peterson.
He was traded to Minnesota in 2008 in a deal that netted draft picks Branden Albert and Jamaal Charles.
“He was a cowboy,” Peterson said of Allen, who continued as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers with Minnesota and now is with Chicago. “He had this uncanny ability on pass rushes, not so much like Derrick, but he was relentless like Tamba. He had excellent feet, balance and so forth, and … he was an outstanding long-snapper. We thought we had a two for one.”
Hali fell to the 20th pick in the first round because he didn’t test well at the scouting combine or at his pro day. But he proved to be a relentless worker on and off the field. Hali, a three-time Pro Bowler, now ranks third in Chiefs history with 73 1/2 sacks.
“Guys who play against him hate him because he’s still giving the same effort in the fourth quarter as the first snap of the first quarter,” Peterson said. “He wears you down.”
Hali is a study in perseverance on and off the field. He escaped the war-torn African country of Liberia as a 10-year-old, joining his father, who was a teacher in the U.S. Succeeding in the NFL was a means to bring his mother to America after not seeing her in more than 12 years, and Hali — now a U.S. citizen — says that determination is his greatest attribute as a pass rusher.
“You can have all the moves in the world,” Hali said, “but if you don’t have any will, you’re not going to get there.”
Hali was joined in 2011 by fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston, who has racked up 26 1/2 sacks in his last 32 games, and they were the league’s most devastating tandem last season until Houston missed the final five games because of an elbow injury.
Because Hali is turning 31 this season and Houston was entering the final year of his contract, the Chiefs added to their collection of pass rushers with the selection of Dee Ford in the first round of the 2014 draft.
Though Ford, who coined the phrase Pass Rush City in training camp, played at Auburn, he chose uniform No. 55 — the number Thomas wore at archrival Alabama.
“Here, they take pride in their pass rush,” said Ford, who had 10 1/2 sacks at Auburn in 2013. “They know what it can do to a game — it can change a game …
“This is,” he said at the time he was drafted, “The home of Derrick Thomas.”