Yes, we know it’s preposterously early to be indulging comparisons between the exhilarating 5-0 Chiefs and teams of yesteryear that had similar hallmarks. The landscape of what suddenly seems possible may seem altered as soon as Sunday night at New England, the NFL’s enduring modern benchmark of success. And this Chiefs team, of course, has its own unique DNA and destiny.
Just the same ... the fantasy offense led by the stunning Patrick Mahomes and further distinguished by the bewildering array of talent around him and ingenuity of coach Andy Reid naturally evokes parallels to two teams with contrasting legacies: the 1999 St. Louis Rams, aka “The Greatest Show On Turf,” who won the Super Bowl … and the 2003 Chiefs, an offensive juggernaut undone by an albatross of a defense.
“The offense gets you into the playoffs; the defense wins it for you,” Dick Vermeil, the coach of both those 13-3 regular-season teams, said in a phone interview Saturday. “I hope they don’t run into that same problem.”
Whether they will or not can’t be known, of course, especially since nothing stays static: For instance, even as the defense comes off its best effort of the season, amassing five sacks and five turnovers and Chris Jones’ pick-six in a 30-14 win over Jacksonville, linebacker Justin Houston is doubtful and safety Eric Murray is out for the matchup against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Meanwhile, down the road, how might things change when — if? — Eric Berry returns at safety?
But even with so much season left, even with the health of a team always an X-factor, it’s not necessarily too early in the season for a team to have a sense of being able to command what’s ahead … or not. While Chiefs fans are as excited as they’ve been since who knows when, we don’t know what the prevailing conviction is in the Chiefs locker room right now. But sometimes there is a groundswell that becomes a reality — even if it might not get out for a while.
While Vermeil still believes that 2003 team was one of the best in the NFL but just had an unfortunate matchup issue against Indianapolis and Peyton Manning in the 38-31 No-Punt Game, he also had an inkling about his 1999 Rams team that he never quite felt in 2003.
Those Rams, you might remember, had been 9-23 in Vermeil’s first two seasons and seemed to have their 1999 prospects shredded when Trent Green was injured in the third pre-season game and the virtually unknown Kurt Warner took over the job.
(Vermeil once told me “I sincerely believe we would have won the world championship with Trent Green,” and Green was deeply touched by Warner’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech last year that singled him out: “You could easily be the one standing up here tonight. But the class that you showed while dealing with the toughest of situations is etched in my mind. ... The character you displayed and the way you modeled the definition of teammate was priceless. Those lessons followed me the rest of my career. Thanks for sharpening my character with your own.”)
Within weeks, though, the Rams were a sensation. After they ended a 17-game losing streak against San Francisco to improve to 4-0, Vermeil’s friend and then-49ers general manager Bill Walsh entered the postgame interview room at the Trans World Dome and said, “You’re going all the way, baby.”
“Oh, thanks, Bill,” Vermeil, now devoted to the wine business, said with playful sarcasm as he recalled the moment.
Much as coaches want no part of that sort of stuff publicly, though, the next day in a team meeting as Vermeil couldn’t help himself as he delivered an address he warned he didn’t want to “read one word of in the newspaper.”
“I remember this like it was yesterday: (He said), ‘You know, guys, there’s only one frickin’ team that can beat us — and fortunately for us we’re all sitting in this room,’ ” he said. “ ‘(As long as) we keep doing what we’re doing and stay focused … if we stay in this frame of mind and don’t lose that edge and think we’ve arrived or don’t have to play like this every Sunday.’”
Flash-forward to 2003: “I never had the feeling that I could walk into the room and say that to that team,” he said.
In hindsight, part of that was that Vermeil thinks he was guilty of feeling too good about things along the way. Then again, a lot of other people did, too.
When the Chiefs quarterbacked by Green improved to 9-0 with a 41-20 win over Cleveland, the Sports Illustrated headline started with “Can anyone stop the Chiefs?” and ended with Peter King writing, “It’s beginning to look, as it did in 1999, like Dick Vermeil is back on the road to the Super Bowl.”
To that point, the Chiefs not only were well on their way to scoring a still-standing franchise record 484 points but also were fourth in the league in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) and tied for the NFL lead in takeaways with 29.
Next thing, you know, they lost 24-19 to a 4-5 Cincinnati team and surrendered 45 points to Denver and Minnesota in a three-week span in December that seemed to portend the loss to Indy.
Even as he notes that defense came up big in several games, Green, like Vermeil, sees perhaps more comparisons overall between these Chiefs and their 2003 predecessors than the 1999 Rams — who were fourth in the NFL in points allowed and had 57 sacks and generated 47 turnovers.
“The (1999) offense gets all the recognition, and rightfully so … but the thing that gets overlooked on that team is the defense,” Green said.
Only time will tell if this current intriguing group of Chiefs might be considered a facsimile of that Rams offense coordinated by Mike Martz that featured three future Hall of Famers (Warner, Marshall Faulk and Orlando Pace) and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt as 2019 nominees.
Even as innovation has defined this team, that’s an almost impossible standard, a seemingly unique moment in time.
And compared to that 2003 offense? Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez, Dante Hall and Eddie Kennison made for a formidable range of options, but Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins give the Chiefs a foursome with 1,000 yard seasons in their backgrounds on a team that has 175 points through five games against the 151 the 2003 team had to this point.
“I would think there are probably more weapons this season, when you just go top to bottom with everything that’s out there,” said Green, who in 11 seasons, including six with the Chiefs, made two Pro Bowl appearances and threw for 28,475 yards and 162 touchdowns.
That 2003 team, though, had what Vermeil considers one of the best offensive lines in NFL history, anchored by Hall of Famers Willie Roaf and Will Shields, and this team just lost guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif for the foreseeable future.
But maybe the most significant contrast between this edition and that 2003 team was pointed out by my friend Michael MacCambridge, author of “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” and “Lamar Hunt: A Life In Sports,” and a lifelong Chiefs fan.
“Age difference is really striking. The YOUNGEST guy in the skill players in 2003 was Tony Gonzalez, at 27,” MacCambridge wrote. “Everybody else among the front-line skill position guys — Green (33), Priest Holmes, Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton — were all at least 30. Compare that to today’s team, where the OLDEST guy is the tight end, Kelce (29), and all of the other key players are 25 or younger — Mahomes (23), Hill (still just 24), Watkins (25), Hunt (23).”
So if a transformative future isn’t necessarily now, at least it appears in range.
It’s Mahomes, of course, who will have the most to say about what’s to come and whether this year or the next few can end the generation-plus of playoff misery and get the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1969 season.
“It all depends on how mature he is and handles the accolades,” Vermeil said. “If he can keep that same frame of mind … from what I have seen, his future is just unlimited.”
With the present waiting to be unwrapped … and both hopes of a Greatest Show spinoff and fears of 2003 in the air.