Heat is on Chiefs to return to successful ways

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Sept. 13, 2010 editions of The Star.

If in, say, 10 years the Chiefs have returned to NFL glory, they’ll look back on tonight’s game as the start of their latest franchise renaissance.

That’s the plan, at least.

"It’s one of the biggest showcases we have for this team to get back to the ’90s, the middle 2000s, to the Chiefs traditions that we’re used to," said guard Brian Waters, who joined the Chiefs in 2000. "I’m not just talking about the play on the field. I’m talking about the environment.

"It’s been a long time since we’ve been on the national stage."

"Monday Night Football" returns to Kansas City for the first time since 2004 tonight when the Chiefs officially open a renovated Arrowhead Stadium against the Chargers.

The Chiefs asked the NFL to have this game played during prime time and the league complied, though kickoff is at the awkward time of 9:15 p.m. The Chiefs wanted to show off not only their refurbished stadium but also a team they believe is ready to be competitive again after three of the darkest seasons in franchise history.

It can easily become a defining moment for the Chiefs — and even their community. With a strong showing and a victory over the four-time defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers, the Chiefs can serve notice they’re indeed ready to be contenders.

The Chiefs also have much to lose. With a loss, the Chiefs would be already in an all-too-familiar position of looking up at the Chargers in the standings. Fans will be jumping off the bandwagon in great numbers.

Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt was careful not to place too much public emphasis on one game, but he’s aware of what’s at stake.

"Success on the field, whether it comes week one or week two or week three, can be a big boost to the organization," Hunt said. "Whether we get the result on Monday night or not at the end of the day is not what’s important, it’s how we fare over the 16 games during the regular season."

A lot of elements contribute to the rebirth of the Chiefs: last year’s hiring of general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley, this year’s addition of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel to the coaching staff, a rookie class the Chiefs believe could be as good as any in the league and the renovated stadium.

All of those elements come together in tonight’s game.

"I think it might be sooner than 10 years that you look back on this game ... as the start of something special," said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who will be ESPN’s analyst for tonight’s telecast. "I like the way this team is being rebuilt and the pieces they have in place. I think they’re a little ways away, but I don’t think they’re light years away."

Dilfer was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 1990s when the Buccaneers were going through a drought similar to the one experienced by the Chiefs in recent seasons. Tampa Bay hired Tony Dungy as their coach in 1996 and changed uniforms and moved into a new stadium in 1998.

Soon the Bucs were a playoff team, and eventually won a Super Bowl.

"All of that gave us a new look, a new outlook, a new identity," Dilfer said. "The sense among the players was, ‘the old is gone, the new is in.’ That kind of launched the success we had."

It also helped that the Bucs had better players. The Chiefs, after years of selecting near the top of the draft, believe they have enough skilled players to allow them to again be competitive with most NFL teams.

The NFL agreed, and it’s why the league granted the Chiefs a prime-time spot for their opening game. At first, it was about the stadium. The league lately has shown off many of its new venues in prime-time games.

But now it’s about more than that.

"It ties to everything we have going this year," Hunt said. "Most important is the opening of the new Arrowhead, but it’s turned out to be a lot bigger in many ways."

The Chiefs were routed twice by the Chargers last year, losing the games by a total of 59 points. It adds some spice to tonight’s game that the opponent is the team that’s won five straight games against the Chiefs and has been the beast of the division for several years.

"We’re chasing what they have," Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. "So this will be a good test for us early on."

If the Chiefs fail that test, the league might not be so quick to give them another national showcase. Closer to home, a defeat means looming local TV blackouts for other home games and playing in a half-filled Arrowhead, as they did much of last year.

"Hopefully, Kansas City will buy back in," Waters said. "It also showcases us to the America that forgot about us. Do a survey around the country, and we’re kind of put in the category of bottom-feeder type of team right now.

"If we can go out and do a great job, it will kind of continue the momentum we have going and really it will jump start even more momentum."

Few places are more tied into their pro football team than Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium was the NFL’s most feared venue among opposing teams for much of the previous two decades until the place fell largely silent in recent years as the fortunes of the home team sunk to historic lows.

The city desperately wants to return to those glory days. Arrowhead will be raucous tonight, and how the Chiefs fare could determine whether it’s that way the rest of the season, too.