Sam Mellinger

In 2012, the Chiefs left Oakland as a disaster. They return as Super Bowl contenders

What would Kansas City look like if the Chiefs won the Super Bowl?

Can we dare to imagine what Kansas City would look like if the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl? Or, picture this, WON the Super Bowl. After all, it has been 48 long years.
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Can we dare to imagine what Kansas City would look like if the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl? Or, picture this, WON the Super Bowl. After all, it has been 48 long years.

Reasonable minds can disagree because lord knows enough choices exist. But if you had to pinpoint the football low point of the 2012 Chiefs you could do worse than their game in Oakland.

They managed just 119 yards. They completed a pass on fourth-and-1, but the receiver was short of the sticks. They did not score a point, losing for the second time to a team that finished 4-12. Afterward, the coach thought about starting Ricky Stanzi.

“That was the worst team I was ever on,” said Brady Quinn, who started eight games at quarterback that year.

The 2012 Chiefs finished 2-14, losing by an average of more than 13 points, with airplanes flying over Arrowhead Stadium on gamedays demanding the general manager be fired. That season will always be remembered for the tragedy of linebacker Jovan Belcher murdering his girlfriend, then driving to the practice facility and killing himself in front of coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli.

But in terms of pure football, that miserable afternoon in Oakland stands as the deepest valley.

So as the Chiefs go back to the East Bay, it’s worth remembering just how far they’ve come, and how they did it — from dysfunction to contention, from one of the worst seasons in modern NFL history to the betting favorite for the Super Bowl with a first-year starting quarterback and injuries to key stars.

Andy Reid, hired just days after the 2012 disaster ended, inherited the Chiefs at their worst and now has them at their best.

“I’ve been lucky,” Reid said.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. The 2012 season marked the Chiefs’ low point in many ways. It was their fifth losing season in six years, and in a league built for parity they had just three playoff appearances and no playoff wins in the previous 15 years.

The Chiefs’ last win ensures a sixth consecutive winning season. They are now a model of consistency. Every other division team has had a 5-11 record or worse since 2012. Every other AFC team has been 6-10 or worse, with the exceptions of the Steelers (8-8 in 2013) and Patriots (the exception to the NFL rule of gravity).

This was, basically, unimaginable back in 2012. The Chiefs weren’t just bad. They were inept. They once started Jonathan Baldwin and Jamar Newsome at receiver. Crennel fired himself as defensive coordinator, saying he needed to spend more time with the offense, which then performed even worse.

Quinn remembers Dwayne Bowe — “for God knows what reason” — blocking the backside cutoff on an outside zone play in Cleveland. His lung punctured on the play.

“After that,” Quinn remembered, “you came over to the sideline and (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll is like, ‘All right, we have to figure out what to do.’ Because we really didn’t have anything.”

That team became the first in NFL history to lose a game after rushing for 350 yards, and just the third to score 13 points or fewer in a game with more than 500 yards of offense. They once went 102 plays without a point.

The 2018 Chiefs have scored 57 points on their last 102 plays.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes set a new touchdown passing record for the Chiefs in the teams 26-14 win against the Arizona Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday November 11, 2018.

Coaches and front office executives talk a lot about culture, and in 2012 the Chiefs’ was pretty rotten. Quinn said that purely from a football standpoint some of the teams he played on in Cleveland felt worse.

Yet — and these aren’t Quinn’s words, but based on reporting at the time — a disconnect grew between some key players, coaches, and the front office. Cohesion was replaced with distrust.

The Chiefs played their last game of 2012 on the second-to-last day of the year. They were blown out, of course, and afterward Crennel was asked to make a case for keeping his job. He stammered, essentially saying he’d work hard as long as he was there, but everyone in the room knew what would happen.

He was fired shortly after landing in Kansas City, and the search lasted just a few days before Reid was hired.

Chairman Clark Hunt values stability anyway, but in that moment Reid was the perfect hire. He’d had just two losing seasons out of his last 13 in Philadelphia, with a steady demeanor that Hunt hoped would calm an organization that had become a bad soap opera.

Immediately, Reid projected solidity. He brushed aside questions of what the Chiefs had become in recent years, and talked extensively of the organization’s place in NFL history — all the way back to founder Lamar Hunt’s role in getting the league up.

The main thing was getting better players, of course. The Chiefs always had some stars — Eric Berry, Justin Houston, and Derrick Johnson were among six Pro Bowlers in 2012 — but the talent was shallow. Reid and then-GM John Dorsey traded for Alex Smith, valuing his professionalism as much as anything.

But the team also remade its culture. Reid had credibility from what he’d done with the Eagles, and the added advantage of a talented roster plain sick of losing and being embarrassed.

Desperation is a heck of a motivator, in other words.

“When I first came here, I remember that group grabbed me,” Reid said. “The leaders of that team, for whatever their record was or anything else, they grabbed me and said, ‘Just tell us what you want done and we’ll do it, and we’ll make sure everybody comes with it.’ And they all did that.”

Reid is often credited for helping innovate how offenses operate, and that’s true, but his greatest influence on the league is through his assistants. Seven are now head coaches, a sign of the quality of those he surrounds himself with.

That means an increase in both togetherness and accountability, two traits that were largely lacking before he arrived.

Football teams are living organisms, and must be tended to constantly. When the results fade and trust dissolves, players (and coaches) begin to make what those in the game often refer to as “business decisions.” Less effort here, a scheme that protects a reputation there, and before you know it a bad situation turns even worse.

Reid killed all of that, to the point that at least a few players who previously talked privately about their distrust of the coaches and executives in 2012 were sacrificing their own stats for the greater good a year later. The Chiefs won their first nine games with Reid, which equaled the total from the previous two seasons.

The team has still been a postseason failure. That remains Reid’s most important challenge here, to rewrite the reputation of both the franchise he now leads and a head coaching career now 20 years long with just one Super Bowl appearance. But the path from here to there is no longer implausible.

Which brings up a specific memory from 2012. A sign hung outside the locker room reading “Eliminate Bad Football,” but it was replaced in October with one reading “Play Good Football.”

“After we put that ‘bad football’ sign up, we didn’t eliminate bad football,” Crennel said by way of explanation.

He was asked about a sign saying, “Let’s Win the Super Bowl.”

“We’re not ready for that yet,” Crennel said.

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Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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