You could not find many places more schooled in watching bad teams, or more familiar with the markers of a future disappointment than Kansas City.
Just in this century we’ve seen the 2003 Royals blow a seven game lead at the All-Star break. We’ve seen the 2003 Chiefs earn a bye and a home playoff game and nosedive right away because of a fraudulent defense.
We’ve seen the 2012 Our Time Royals make a mockery of optimism, and the 2013 Chiefs turn a 9-0 start and 28-point playoff lead into a cruel prologue, to say nothing of Sporting Kansas City’s most recent fade or, because we don’t want you to punch the screen you’re reading this on, anything about the area’s major colleges.
All of that is true, and the following paragraph is not meant as a challenge to Kansas City’s collective Ph.D. in sports letdown. This is just an honest statement about how past and factually irrelevant experiences color the way we feel about the now:
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The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named has nothing to do with Harrison Butker, and Greg Robinson has nothing to do with Justin Houston. If this exact group of players with this exact record played in another place, many in Kansas City would almost certainly believe it to be a better team than these Chiefs.
Fan satisfaction is impossible to measure, but if social media, emails, voicemails and other forms of expression are to be believed there is an enormous disconnect between the Chiefs’ 6-2 start and their fans’ general fatalism.
No Chiefs team has started a season with higher expectations in some time, so the same results that would be interpreted with encouragement in the past are now being scrutinized like a doctoral dissertation.
They blew out the Patriots — but that was too long ago.
Alex Smith is the league’s best quarterback halfway through the season — but he’s still Captain Checkdown.
Kareem Hunt leads the league in rushing — but the defense can’t stop the run.
Houston looked healthy again against the Broncos — but the Chiefs couldn’t put away a mediocre team with a horrendous quarterback.
NFL power rankings are among the most useless things in American sports, other than to gauge the current perception across the league rather than locally. The Chiefs rank as high as second and no lower than fourth in power rankings by ESPN, NFL.com, Sports Illustrated, CBS, NBC, and the Associated Press. Most of those rankings are topped by the Eagles, who lost their only game at Arrowhead Stadium. According to OddsShark.com, the Chiefs have the fourth-best odds of reaching the Super Bowl.
Every factual positive from this specific group is weighed against a past that’s taught Chiefs fans that every highlight is the lead-in to a punch in the face, that every bit of playoff optimism is a setup for embarrassment.
Let’s be clear about something, too: that’s unfair to this particular team, but absolutely deserved for this particular franchise.
The Chiefs have taught their fans that failing to at least prepare for a letdown at the end is a bit like standing on the roof with a 3-iron toward the sky during a lightning storm.
By any logical measure, this Chiefs team is very good, with the potential to be great. Only three teams can feel they have a realistic shot at representing the AFC in the Super Bowl — the Chiefs, Patriots, and Steelers. The Chiefs beat the Patriots in a blowout on the road and lost to the Steelers in a close game at home.
The following are objective facts: the Chiefs are 6-2 against one of the league’s toughest schedules, fourth in point differential, fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and first in the so-called Mother Of All Stats, which is essentially a measurement of the difference between how efficiently a team passes and how well it defends the pass.
But, wait — there’s more!
The NFL is largely about attrition, and the Chiefs have already lost star safety Eric Berry and No. 2 receiver Chris Conley for the season. But they’ve also played most or all of the first eight games with important pieces who are starting to return.
Center Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will strengthen the interior of the offensive line, which has been a significant problem. Tamba Hali will almost certainly be back at some point in the second half, providing more pass rush juice.
Steven Nelson’s return means the defense’s single greatest positional weakness — slot corner, where Phil Gaines had been playing out of position and poorly — is now a strength.
None of this is meant as a case that the Chiefs are the best team in the AFC, or a team without significant weaknesses. The Chiefs’ loss to the Steelers last month was a virtual replay of their loss to the Steelers last postseason, and more than anything else, that’s where the fan fatalism is coming from.
If the Chiefs had the same record, but swapped out losing to the Steelers for, say, the Eagles, then the general self-esteem of fans would undoubtedly be higher.
Losing to that team, in that way — again — is cruel treatment for Chiefs fans. Sort of like losing a fistfight, then being forced to watch a boxing match with the guy who beat you up.
Combined with the mostly cruel history of being a Chiefs fan, it doesn’t matter that losing to the Steelers last month doesn’t guarantee a result in a hypothetical playoff game any more than beating them would have. We have seen this movie. The ending is gory, and tearful. It’s up to the Chiefs to convince fans the sequel is better.
Because that loss — and even the win over Denver — shines light on what’s always been the team’s most likely fatal flaw. They just can’t stop the run. Some of that is an emphasis on defending the pass, some is Berry’s injury, some is Derrick Johnson’s aging, and some is that offenses have found success running at Dee Ford and Daniel Sorensen.
But there are no boats without holes in a league that priorities parity over everything except profits.
The Patriots are actually giving up more yards per rushing attempt than the Chiefs, and have surrendered more yards and yards per play than any other team in the league (even the Colts).
The Steelers’ offense is mediocre, and Ben Roethlisberger is clearly not what he used to be (10 touchdowns, nine interceptions and his worst completion percentage since 2008).
But you don’t notice your neighbor’s leaky roof as much as your own leaky faucet, so Chiefs fans of a certain age will never fully trust a quarterback after Elvis Grbac, or a kicker after You Know Who, or a playoff lead after Indianapolis.
That’s not necessarily fair for these players on this team, who either weren’t around or virtually without exception had different roles in those past disappointments.
But fair’s got nothing to do with it, and none of this is the fault of fans. Those scars don’t go away by themselves. It’s up to the Chiefs to heal.
In that way, the end of this season will affect how this franchise is viewed for years — by either changing or dramatically reinforcing the history of even the brightest moments being followed by the darkest letdowns.