The men stretched and jogged and prepared for the biggest moment of some of their professional lives, all the while smirking at the chubby old fellow staring them down.
They all noticed it. Joe Montana. Marcus Allen. Derrick Thomas. Albert Lewis. This was Jan. 16, 1994. Nancy Kerrigan’s knees had just been clubbed, Bill Clinton was preparing his second State of the Union address, and the Chiefs faced a franchise that now plays in a different state, in a building that no longer hosts professional football, in an NFL playoff game virtually nobody expected them to win.
The Houston Oilers were favored by a touchdown. They had Warren Moon and the run-and-shoot offense, Buddy Ryan and the 46 defense. They had already beaten the Chiefs by 30 points early in the season, and a few years before Moon threw for 527 yards at Arrowhead Stadium. The Oilers had not lost in more than three months, and before the game, cameras caught a Houston linebacker promising that Montana would be knocked out in the first quarter.
But in those pre-game moments, the Chiefs’ stars could not stop giggling. Teams stay on their own side of the 50-yard line before games. Exceptions are sometimes made for punters. But over there, maybe 10 yards past the unwritten boundary, stood Ryan — the Oilers’ graying, 59-year-old defensive coordinator, arms folded over a pot belly.
Presumably, Ryan meant the pose to be intimidating. He was an Army master sergeant at the height of the Korean War, and was said to have punched his soldiers in the face as a way to keep them in line. As a football coach, his defenses were mean, aggressive and unapologetically effective. In the Oilers’ previous game, he set off a national story by sucker-punching another assistant on the sideline.
But here, the Chiefs players saw a man nearing retirement age with a stomach that doubled as an arm rest.
Who the hell does this guy think he is?
The Chiefs would go on to beat the Oilers 28-20 in the AFC divisional round, a game perhaps best remembered for Keith Cash spiking the ball on a picture of Ryan’s face, and a fourth-quarter comeback led by Montana.
They would lose the AFC Championship Game in Buffalo the next week, and 22 years later, this remains the Chiefs’ most recent playoff victory. Only the Lions and Bengals are further removed from postseason success.
Eight-thousand-and-28 days later, the Chiefs return to Houston for a playoff game, this time against a team that did not exist back then in a stadium that makes the old one — once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World — look like a high school gym.
The Star watched the Jan. 16, 1994 broadcast and talked to dozens of people in, around and on both sides of the game to remember its highs, lows, twists and details. The game happened in another time, both literally and figuratively — the shoulder pads were huge, Lowery had that single-bar facemask, O.J. Simpson was part of the NBC broadcast team, and after big plays the Astrodome pulsated with Tag Team’s new smash hit, “Whoomp There It Is.”
“We only won that game for one reason, and that was Montana,” says Kevin Ross, then a Chiefs cornerback.
“That’s a bad memory,” says Mike Munchak, then an Oilers lineman.
“They were arrogant, mean, talked a lot, everything you hate,” Cash says. “They were (like) the Raiders.”
“God, that’s a long time.”
Recreating a moment now old enough to legally drink is a fun exercise. Babies born the day the Chiefs beat the Oilers are seniors in college now. They are planning lives of their own, and can remember a world without Facebook.
This was before the baseball strike, before the Shuttlecocks were installed at the Nelson-Atkins — so long ago that Kemper Arena was still a legitimate sports hub, hosting major events.
Watching the game now is like opening a time capsule. The cheerleaders have frozen their bangs high with hair spray, Zubaz pants are in style (sort of), and during a break the broadcasters giggle at a little girl pretending to talk on her father’s brick-like mobile phone.
Trainers and support staff wore honeycomb sweaters, and the coaches wore block-lettered windbreakers, even indoors. Their headsets were marked with those old pseudo three-dimensional helmet stickers.
The videoboard was one of the first in a stadium, but even so it was only a few years old. During commercial breaks, the stadium sat surprisingly quiet. No promotions, few advertisements. During one break, they played music from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
Will Shields was a rookie, one of seven future Hall of Famers in the game, and wore Reebok Pumps. Albert Lewis was playing what would turn out to be his last season with the Chiefs. As the team walked to its chartered Boeing 737 operated by America West Airlines, fans packed Kansas City International Airport and Lewis remembers doing something he never did before or since.
“I tomahawk-chopped it,” Lewis says. “That wasn’t me. I wasn’t a cheerleader. But I remember walking, with my son in my arms, and I was just so excited and confident that I couldn’t help myself.”
When the game finally started, Royals icon George Brett stood on the sideline wearing khakis, a red paisley shirt and a Chiefs hat. He was a few months into retirement and had been a Chiefs fan since arriving in Kansas City more than 40 years ago. The team always welcomed him on the sideline, even paying fines when the NFL caught wind of their breach of protocol.
The penalties increased for playoff games, and after this game the Chiefs received a bill for $50,000. Brett flew to Houston on Rush Limbaugh’s jet, and still remembers the steak dinner he had the night before.
“And Keith Cash, yeah, that was the game Keith Cash threw that ball against Buddy Ryan’s face,” Brett says now. “I stood on the sidelines a lot, and I know the Chiefs got fined, but they always told me they didn’t give a (damn). Back in those days, I just remember the way Joe Montana threw compared to the other quarterbacks we had in Kansas City. (Damn), he was good. God, he was good.”
“How long has it been?” he says. “I didn’t realize it had been that long since we won a playoff game. God, that’s a long time.”
“We’ve got them scared.”
Joe Montana was a 37-year-old man playing in his 199th NFL game. He had been hit from every angle by hundreds of angry men. He did not need this. He had won four Super Bowls with the 49ers, two MVP awards, his legacy as perhaps the greatest quarterback of all-time intact.
In the Chiefs, though, he saw one last chance to play. In Montana, the Chiefs saw their best opportunity to win.
The night before facing the NFL’s nastiest defense, Montana’s ribs hurt so much he could not breathe without pain. He had missed five starts that season and grunted through others with injuries to his wrist, ribs and legs. Scars hung on his arms. So much fluid wrapped his elbow that it looked like a tennis ball beneath the skin. His linemen knew how tough he was but jokingly called him “the porcelain doll,” and promised to protect him as best they could, even after the whistles.
On first down of the Chiefs’ first drive, Houston rushed seven at Montana and knocked him down before he could make it three steps back to hand the ball to Allen. The Oilers blitzed again on second down, Montana hurrying a throw off his back foot before being knocked down again. The ball floated in the air and was intercepted. Cue “Whoomp.”
“There was no guarantee he was going to make it,” says Carl Peterson, then the Chiefs’ president and general manager. “And you knew Buddy was going to come after him.”
The rest of the first half played out exactly how the Oilers expected, casual fans figured, and Chiefs fans feared. Kansas City could not move the ball, the Oilers regularly sending more rushers than the Chiefs had blockers. Montana didn’t have the time or space to pick the right reads.
At one point, Oilers safety Bubba McDowell was convinced they had knocked Montana out of the game. That was the goal, the preferred path to victory for the NFL’s meanest defense.
“Joe Montana,” Ryan would say after the game. “He just kept getting up.”
The Oilers turned that early interception into a field goal, and later added a touchdown on a classic run-and-shoot drive — enough pass protection, too many receivers to cover, yardage coming in chunks. The score came on an inside run by Gary Brown, who was untouched until after he crossed the goal line. The Oilers led 10-0. Cue “Luv Ya Blue.”
Houston Oilers, number one.
Houston has the Oilers, the greatest football team...
“The Kansas City defense didn’t do anything, really,” Bob Trumpy said on the broadcast.
“We knew we could move the ball on them,” says Kevin Gilbride, then the Oilers’ offensive coordinator. “We moved the ball on everybody.”
The Chiefs lost a chance to respond in one of the most excruciating ways possible. Willie Davis, the undrafted receiver out of Central Arkansas, beat cornerback Cris Dishman by five yards on a post route. The linemen gave the porcelain doll plenty of protection, and Montana’s throw was perfect. Davis had his eyes on it the whole time, but the ball slipped off his fingertips and fell to the hard turf.
Montana had raised his arms to signal a touchdown when the ball hit its peak, and when Davis dropped it he clenched his fists and looked toward the sideline. It should’ve been seven points. Instead, just disappointment.
Peterson watched from the press box. Even today, that’s where the general manager typically sits, but the problem with that open work space is that you can’t cheer or curse. Peterson’s discipline on the latter was being tested, his offense going nowhere, so at halftime he moved to a small, private box he had reserved for his wife and family.
Pessimism was everywhere. Except, it seemed, on the Chiefs’ sideline. Some of that was the relentless cool of Montana. Where others saw missed opportunities, the Chiefs saw chances that would keep coming and not be missed. Montana found Davis on the sideline.
“They can’t stay with you,” Davis remembers Montana saying. “I’m going to keep coming to you.”
“We’ve got them scared,” J.J. Birden yelled.
“We were up 10,” Munchak says. “But we felt like we should’ve had more points than we did.”
The year before, the Oilers led the Buffalo Bills by 32 in the second half of a playoff game and lost — still the biggest blown lead in postseason history, and forever a sore spot in Houston sports history. They knew the game was far from over. Maybe that experience wore on their minds.
“I’ll tell you what I remember about that,” Gilbride says now. “You watch them miss that play, and you think, ‘Oh my God, we’re so lucky, they have to feel devastated.’ Then I saw Montana’s face, and I remember clearly saying, ‘Man, he’s not reacting the way most guys react.’ He looked like, ‘(Damn), I won’t miss these in the second half.’”
The Chiefs’ locker room during halftime was somehow calm. No screaming. No anger about the missed blocks, or interceptions, or dropped passes. All of that failure was digested as fuel. The opportunities would come.
Defensively, the Chiefs made an adjustment with how they played the Oilers’ inside receivers and changed the way they disguised their blitzes. It was working, and would continue to work. The Chiefs would come around. They had Montana, after all.
“They’re not doing anything we didn’t think they were going to do,” several players remembered coach Marty Schottenheimer saying at halftime. “We’ve totally prepared you for this opportunity. You’re doing great. Just go do your job, do it well, and we’ll come back here excited and thrilled about our performance.”
Birden laughs at the memory.
“We just nodded our heads,” he said. “We thought, ‘You know what? He’s right.’”
“Marty and I never saw eye to eye on really anything,” Lewis says. “But I’ll tell you this: he was an outstanding motivator, and we took on his personality.
On the first possession after halftime, Keith Cash heard the play call and jogged to his stance on the left side of the formation, seven yards from the goal line, with a clear mind and supreme confidence.
“I’ve got him,” Cash remembers thinking. “Oh, I’ve got him.”
The Chiefs had the play all year but rarely ran it, knowing the timing had to be right. It preyed upon aggression, making the Oilers the perfect opponent. Cash squatted to the left of and behind tackle John Alt, almost like an H-back. When the ball was snapped, Cash ran behind the line of scrimmage to the right side. The play’s design left Houston right end William Fuller unblocked and with a decision — follow Cash on the route, or go after Montana.
That wasn’t much of a decision, but when Fuller stepped toward Montana, the quarterback lofted the ball over his head and softly into Cash’s hands. They had talked about this play during the week, marveling at how perfect it was to exploit the Oilers’ assault, but they could not have expected this: When Cash caught the ball at the 8, no defender was in the screen. Nobody had a chance to stop it. Coaches dream of scheming touchdowns this easy.
“Just had to walk into the end zone,” Cash says.
As it happened, the play took Cash toward the corner of the end zone with a giant fabric poster of Ryan’s face. Cash saw it as soon as he caught the ball and turned upfield, before he even crossed the goal line. He saw Ryan posing before the game, and heard all the trash talk from the Oilers throughout the week and during their first game.
Cash calls it surreal, the feeling of a touchdown in your hands and the sight of this antagonistic old man in your sights. Cash cocked his right hand back, stepped forward with his left foot, and threw as hard as he could. The ball whizzed past the photographers, crashed into Ryan’s chin and bounced maybe 10 yards back.
“It was like, ‘Screw you, we’re here to play ball, too,’ ” Cash says. “I knew I was going to let him have it. As a statement. We are here. We are not intimidated.”
Jeff Davis was photographing the game for The Topeka Capital-Journal, and was the closest person to the poster. He snapped the picture of Cash catching the ball and running toward the end zone, and then, well, he’s not too proud to admit a little fear.
“I thought we locked eyes on each other,” Davis says. “I thought he was throwing the ball right at me. I didn’t understand. I remember him throwing it, and then me kind of cowering, probably one of my weakest moments there. I heard the ball bounce off the wall. The guy next to me said, ‘You should’ve caught that!’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Gilbride was the fellow Houston assistant coach that Ryan had punched on the sideline the game before.
“There must have been as much hate on the Chiefs for Ryan as there was on our team,” he says, chuckling.
The moment remains among the most iconic in Chiefs history. The broadcasters laughed, circled the poster on the telestrator, and replayed Cash’s act several times. The Chiefs still trailed 10-7, but something fundamental was changing.
“That was like something you’d see in a movie,” kicker Nick Lowery says. “That’s the moment I knew we were going to win that game.”
The Chiefs trailed by six with about 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Montana kneeled in the huddle and looked at Birden with specific instructions. Montana knew the Oilers were blitzing, and knew on these plays the cornerbacks liked to play five yards off the line of scrimmage and shade toward the inside of the field to take away the slant.
That’s exactly the route Birden would be running, but Montana still thought it could work with a subtle adjustment. He told Birden to break his route early, in front of the defender, and get his hands up for the ball.
“If you break in front of his face,” Montana told Birden, “I’m throwing it to you.”
Birden nodded his head, and as he jogged to his position on the left side of the formation he told himself over and over again: come flat, come flat, come flat. The two seconds after the ball snapped happened exactly how Montana said.
The Oilers rushed seven against just six blockers. Montana looked to Birden’s side immediately, taking a four-step drop and throwing off his back foot as soon as Birden made his break. The Oilers never had a chance, and the Chiefs had their first lead.
“Total trust,” Birden says.
The whole fourth quarter was like that. The first play of the Oilers’ next drive, Moon dropped back against a simple four-man rush, which allowed a double-team on Derrick Thomas. His teammates had learned to read Thomas, before games. You could tell what kind of day it would be this way.
Thomas was always smiling, loved to laugh, and if you could talk to him in the hour or two before kickoff he may or may not have a big day. But if he came back from warmups dancing, unable or unwilling to talk to anyone while rocking back and forth to the music in his own head, well, those were the days that put him in the Hall of Fame.
This day in Houston was one of those days, so Thomas rushed upfield until the left tackle and running back stood shoulder to shoulder. He had told friends the Oilers had not seen his inside move, and was waiting for the right time to use it. In less time than it takes for you to read any word in this sentence, he planted his right foot, pushed the tackle forward with his left, and sprang at Moon’s back. The ball came loose, and Dan Saleaumua smothered it.
It was the Oilers who were supposed to be the intimidators, but the Chiefs had figured out the perfect balance between disguise and aggression. Thomas’ sack was one of nine for the Chiefs that day. Moon, normally adept at this, struggled to read when and from where the pressure would come. Gilbride, even now, says he regrets not calling special protections and screens the Oilers had installed to counter the Chiefs’ pressure.
But for the Chiefs, the moment was just one of many in which Thomas changed a game by knocking the quarterback on his back.
“Derrick always seemed to make plays like that,” Schottenheimer says. “He always seemed to rise to the moment.”
The Chiefs took over, and on third down, Montana read that Davis would have single coverage on a go-route down the right sideline. Davis didn’t get a good release, but the cornerback, Dishman, had his back toward the ball. Every day in practice, Montana told his receivers if the defender wasn’t looking for the ball, he would throw it soft and a little short. The term “back-shoulder pass” hadn’t been coined yet, but that’s what it was.
Davis caught it with his left hand, reaching around Dishman’s back as both men fell to the ground. Davis dropped the easy touchdown earlier, but here he made a spectacular catch. And just like Montana had promised, he kept throwing to Davis. Montana raised his arms for the touchdown, then squatted down to punch the air. The Chiefs led by eight.
“I live in Houston now,” Davis says. “So people don’t let me forget it.”
The Oilers drove down for a touchdown to Ernest Givens, who did the electric slide with 3:35 left, meaning the Chiefs now needed to protect a lead instead of chase it. They had the ball at Houston’s 21, on third down, at the two-minute warning. As the ball snapped to Montana, radio broadcaster Kevin Harlan called it “maybe the game’s most important play.”
Montana ran three steps toward Allen, who took the ball at full speed and cut to his right to get around the pile, then to his left to get past Dishman. Tim Barnett held a block on Bo Orlando, and that’s all Allen needed. When he crossed the goal line, no one was within seven yards. Montana raised his arms as soon as Allen made his first cut. He knew how it would end.
“How does he do it?” Oilers safety Bubba McDowell asked after the game. “Seriously. How does he do it?”
“This feels as good as it ever has,” Montana said.
In that moment, it all felt possible. Montana was healthy, or at least healthy enough, and the Chiefs had one of the league’s best defenses. They would go to Buffalo the next week to play for the AFC championship.
The Bills had already been to three straight Super Bowls, so it’d be no easy game, but one of their losses was in Kansas City.
“The fact we didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, we underachieved,” Lewis says. “I still feel like that. That was the closest team I ever played on. Probably the best, too.”
“I don’t want no more of these calls.”
As the Chiefs’ charter flight approached KCI, the players stared out the windows and some of their jaws dropped. Red tail lights dotted the roads in all directions. The players who knew Kansas City’s geography well could tell the service road connecting the airport to the highway, as well as Interstate 29 toward downtown, was swarmed with traffic.
So many people rushed to the airport that many could not even get within eyesight of the team, settling for the side of the road, hoping to wave as they drove by. The Chiefs’ flight actually had to land on a different runway to avoid the crowd.
“We were as close to rock stars as we’ve ever been,” Lowery says. “That’s the highlight of a lifetime. Nothing is better than that.”
When the plane landed and the team walked into the terminal, players and coaches saw fans literally hanging from the rafters. Some had climbed on top of pay phones — pay phones! — to see over walls or steal a better view.
Police or security guards had to clear a walkway to let them pass. The drive out of the airport was just miles and miles of people on the side of the road, honking their horns, waving their hands.
“Just a roar, a continual roar,” Davis says. “We’d had fans come see us off; this was nothing like that. They didn’t want autographs, they didn’t want anything. They just wanted to come and show support. I’d never seen anything like that. Never.”
The implications of that game may have shaped how the league looks today. Oilers owner Bud Adams was trying to secure public funding for a new stadium, and there are many in Houston who remain convinced that if his team had beaten the Chiefs that day, the money would’ve been approved. In that way, the last Chiefs playoff win may have been the obstacle that could not be overcome.
“Who knows?” Munchak says. “I’m sure it played a factor in it.”
As it happened, the Oilers were painfully unprepared for the start of free agency the next season. They lost Moon, among several others, and went 2-14 in 1994. The playoff game against the Chiefs set an attendance record at the Astrodome, but by 1996 the four worst-attended games in the NFL were in Houston. Gilbride came back to the Astrodome with the Jaguars and remembers telling his quarterback to speak softly in the huddle so the Oilers’ defenders wouldn’t hear the calls.
For the Chiefs, Kimble Anders dropped a pass and Montana was injured the next week in Buffalo. Starting with that day, they lost eight straight playoff games over 22 years against five franchises with seven different quarterbacks, from Jim Kelly to Andrew Luck.
That last win is long enough ago that several players are deceased, and others in and around the game have only vague memories of it.
“I’m sorry,” says Dick Enberg, the TV play-by-play man. “Some games stick out, and others are more like the thousands of others. I wish I could help you.”
For many, of course, that game will never be forgotten. Some point out the Chiefs have had three first-round byes since then, with the idea that the team should be given credit for advancing to the divisional round those years. Most, however, just want this losing streak to end. It’s been too long. This weekend in Houston is as good an opportunity to advance in the playoffs as the Chiefs have had in years, maybe more than a decade.
“I hear about it all the time,” says Davis, who not only lives in Houston but scouts for the Chiefs. “We need to win a playoff game so we can stop talking about 1994. I don’t want no more of these calls.”