No words spoke better to a generation-plus of Royals’ futility than manager Buddy Bell’s immortal cautionary quip amid a 19-game losing streak in 2005:
“Don’t ever say it can’t get worse.”
The notion became a prevailing mind-set until it was finally purged by the exploits of the Royals the last two seasons.
But the residue of that thinking and shaky faith still waits to be exorcised among fans of the Chiefs, whose colorful catalogue of playoff misery would have seemed impossible to eclipse … until it was, two years ago, in their epic collapse against the Indianapolis Colts.
Now, all can judge for themselves which Chiefs playoff misadventure was more stupefying or damaging, and you can certainly argue that this one was simply most distinguished by its timing.
Still, it seems another tier removed from the double-overtime Christmas Day loss to Miami in 1971 that would be their playoff farewell for 15 years, beyond poor Lin Elliott after the 1995 season and the bizarre no-punt game after the 2003 season.
This was a four-touchdown lead in the third quarter, lowlighted by an unfathomable fumble off an offensive lineman’s head that was alchemized into an Andrew Luck touchdown.
This you couldn’t make up.
And now you can’t make it go away until the distressing story line is put behind … if even then, starting with the Chiefs’ playoff opener Saturday at Houston.
“Sometimes the game speaks for itself,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said that day in Indy. “You don’t have to say much.”
The unspeakable brought the third-longest current postseason-victory drought in the NFL to 22 years and made it eight straight postseason losses for the Chiefs, who have won only three playoff games since playing in two of the first four Super Bowls and winning it in 1970.
This is what might be called a trend, and it seems the last cut was the deepest because it seemed absolutely over: a 38-10 lead that went poof in a 45-44 loss.
“It was a devastating thing in the moment,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said Wednesday.
“It has to drive you,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
Even if the loss actually just mirrored the regular season, which began with a 9-0 start built on a defense allowing just 12.3 points a game and ended with a 2-5 funk in which opponents were averaging 27.7.
After the game, punter Dustin Colquitt remembers staying in the hushed, somber locker room longer than he ever had in his 11 seasons with the Chiefs, “searching for answers.”
Whatever they were haven’t been enough to appease anyone connected to that day with the Chiefs, whose current 53-man roster features 22 players from that team.
“Some of those scars you take with you the rest of your life, and that one probably will (stay),” said quarterback Alex Smith, who had one of the best games of his career with 378 yards and four touchdown passes. “And for this team, it’s still with us, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Smith said this last Sunday in a moment of apparent postgame candor.
By Tuesday, he was at least publicly dismissing the idea that anyone was lugging this with them.
“This is a completely different team,” he said. “It’s a new challenge, a new year.”
That’s all true, of course, just as Smith and Johnson are correct when they say it helps no one to try to channel the weight of the last 22 years going into this year’s playoff opener.
“Every year’s different,” Johnson said. “If you go on the field thinking about what happened a couple years ago, or what happened in the past with the playoff games, you have no chance of going out there and winning the game. Our mind-set is, man, we’ve got blinders on.”
But one way or another, the past lurks as part of the franchise DNA — whether as a hangover or inspiration or a lesson or just something that once happened that added to the wretched lore they aim to end.
And one way or another, the last one will remain with them until they change the narrative.
If siphoned properly, though, it also perhaps could be of service in reversing all this.
Of course, there’s a fine line between moping about something like that and examining it critically as something to be learned from or motivated by.
That line can be heard in Colquitt in one breath saying the Chiefs need to have flushed that away and in another adding, “It’s something that needs to be fresh in our minds.”
That’s why safety Eric Berry watched it repeatedly that offseason, remarking in 2014 that he learned something from it with each viewing.
That’s why many Chiefs talked about “finishing” when they began the 2014 season … only not to finish well enough to make the playoffs.
But that game also is why they are acutely conscious of finishing now, an emphasis that has to have been bolstered by a 2015 season-long trend of establishing a fine lead and being left barely holding on.
“Rather than dwell on it, try to learn from it,” said Reid, who in his first season had revived the Chiefs from a 2-14 2012 to a 9-0 start and that postseason berth.
Some aspects of that defeat, of course, were just cruel quirks of fate.
How could it be that the Chiefs could force Donald Brown to fumble … and have it carom to Luck, who gobbled it up and bashed into the end zone as if he were anticipating just that bounce?
Why would it be that five Chiefs would be knocked out of that game, including Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers and Donnie Avery with concussions and Justin Houston with an injury unspecified at the time?
Meanwhile, in the more rational realm, what might have happened had Reid opted to go for it on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line instead of settling for a field goal after Indianapolis zoomed to a touchdown on its first drive of the game?
And why couldn’t the Chiefs simply stop Luck, who somehow threw for a career-high 443 yards despite essentially being in obvious passing situations the entire second half?
Whatever it is the Chiefs took from that game, virtually to a man they sum up the solution thusly:
“You’ve got to finish the game,” Reid said.
Added Sutton: “You’ve got to play it all the way to the end, and don’t even look (at the score). You’ve just got to go.”
Lest they go and add another infamous chapter to a prologue that seemingly can’t be topped.
“No matter how you lose it, it takes your breath away a little bit, you know?” Sutton said, adding that in the playoffs, “There is no next time, there is no next game. There’s nothing, and I think the finality of that … slaps you in the face.”
Sometimes worse than others.