When the Kansas City Chiefs play a game at home a visitor can't help noticing the fans known as the Wolf-pack. The group got its name in the days when the Chiefs were stumbling—playing to crowds of 20,000 or less—and a reporter for The Kansas City Star wrote that sitting in a section of particularly aroused fans made him feel as if he were in the middle of a wolf pack. Now there are sell-outs in the 40,000-seat Municipal Stadium, and there are Wolfpack buttons, Wolfpack license plates, Wolfpack shirts and Wolfpack membership cards that entitle the bearer to snarl, howl and yell as long as he stays off the field.
By playing a fired-up Boston team to a 27-27 tie last Sunday, the Chiefs remained 1½ games ahead of Oakland in the AFL's Western Division, and if the wolves were not howling as loud as usual, they were confident that the Chiefs would go on to the championship and the supergame. That confidence is justified. If the Chiefs get that far, it could be a better game than NFL fans anticipate.
The Chiefs have long had some of the finest personnel in professional football, including a number of players who would be stars in the NFL. But after winning the AFL championship in a double-overtime game in 1962, they went into something of a decline for the next three seasons. They would beat a good team one week and lose to a bad team the next. As usual in such situations, everybody in the locker room had his own explanation. Perhaps the most common complaint was over Owner Lamar Hunt's moving the club from Dallas to Kansas City in the spring of 1963. The veterans, many of whom are Texans, resented having to settle in a foreign place. All-League Linebacker E. J. Holub, for example, made it quite clear that he missed his horses and his ranch and would no more have considered signing with a team in Missouri than with one in Guatemala. Holub, who was a top draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, started talking about playing out his option and going home, as did Jerry Mays, who has been All-AFL in two positions, and several other key players.
Soon after the move, bad luck hit. Rookie Stone Johnson was killed in a game in Kansas City. The players, already unsettled, seemed to take his death as an omen. Halfback Abner Haynes, the AFL's Most Valuable Player in 1960, ceased to be an effective runner for the Chiefs but became one of their outstanding critics. He got himself traded to Denver in 1965 when his roommate—All-AFL Corner Back Dave Grayson—was traded to Oakland.
Through it all, Coach Hank Stram stuck doggedly to his system and Lamar Hunt stuck doggedly to Stram. Being professionals, the players soon realized they were going to have to work in Kansas City, and most of them eventually came to like the town. The trouble was that, with Haynes gone, the Chiefs lost their one game-breaking runner, their only outside threat.
Stram is an inventive, imaginative offensive coach. But without Haynes he found himself using two fullbacks—Curtis McClinton and Mack Lee Hill—and a stereotyped offense. Quarterback Len Dawson led the AFL in passing in 1962 but thereafter was bothered by a chronic sore arm. Concerned about not being able to put enough muscle on the ball, he began to hesitate to throw unless his receiver was completely open, and he was knocked down for many big losses. At the end of last season Mack Lee Hill died in a freakish way, from massive shock while being operated on for a routine knee injury. Then, in the expansion draft, Miami selected the Chiefs' flanker, Frank Jackson, and Stram's offense lost its only deep receiver.
In order for the Chiefs to have any success this season, four things had to happen. Dawson had to get his arm cured, the field-goal kicking had to be improved, second-year man Otis Taylor had to come through as a flanker and a running back had to turn up from somewhere. All four of those things did happen—with the result that the Chiefs, now 8-2-1, are the best bet to go all the way to the championship.
Dawson began building up his arm with an exercise device. He started working 20 minutes a day on February 1 and kept it up through the training-camp season. Now he is throwing the ball better than ever before, is leading the league again and Stram calls him "the most accurate passer I ever saw." It is a good thing for Dawson that his exercising paid off. He is being pushed for his job by Pete Beathard, who, many observers think, is the young quarterback in either league.
"If Beathard had gone to the Jets and Namath had gone to the Chiefs, Beathard would be a star and everybody would be wondering what happened to Namath," says one AFL coach. Stram says, "We could win with Pete right now."
Also, Dawson has finally emerged as a thinking quarterback. He has become very sharp at checking off plays at the line of scrimmage. Against Houston, he noticed the Oilers slipping into an eight-man line overshifted to the wide side of the field. Dawson changed the play to a quick pitchout to Mike Garrett heading to the short side, and Garrett went 77 yards for a touchdown—the longest run from scrimmage in the AFL this season. Dawson also has learned to find alternate receivers. Half a dozen of his touchdown passes have gone to receivers who were second or third choice. "After all these years," says Stram, "Lenny has come into his own."
So, evidently, has a field-goal kicker named Mike Mercer, who labored for Minnesota and Oakland and was on the Buffalo taxi squad until early this season. Last year the Chiefs kicked only 13 of 30 field goals. Now Mercer has kicked 12 of 15 field goals, including one of 50 yards, and one of his misses was from 44 yards.
Important as it has been for the Chiefs to have a healthy Dawson and a reliable field-goal kicker, those factors pale beside the other two—the finding of a flanker and a rather unusual running back, who has four legs, four arms and two heads and would be leading the AFL in rushing if somebody could put him together.
Taylor unquestionably has made it as the flanker. He is 6 feet 2, weighs 211 pounds, has run the 100-yard dash in 9.6 and got a reputation last year as a rookie for the ferocity of his tackling on the specialty teams. Through the Chiefs' first 11 games Taylor has caught 48 passes for 1,058 yards and a 22-yard average, the best in either league. He is a strong and tricky runner as well as a good receiver. Against Miami, he participated in a rare play. With the line of scrimmage at the Kansas City 11, Taylor caught a Dawson pass 20 yards down-field, then cut across the field, weaving and twisting and breaking tackles. He covered so much grass that by the time he reached the end zone for a touchdown, Dawson had already run more than 90 yards down the field following the play and had crossed the goal line before Taylor did.
The running back is a different case because he is two people—Bert Coan and Mike Garrett. Stram uses one or the other as the whim strikes him. "I just play it by ear," he says. "It sort of depends on the situation. Coan is a slasher and is better at running into the designated hole. Garrett is a daylight runner. We can aim him at the hole, but where he will wind up running we have no idea. He bleeds yardage. We were fearful about his speed, but he has shown that he is plenty fast enough. He thrives on work. He gets better with each carry. He's tough, a great competitor, a great team man, a great blocker and faker. Coan is improving as a blocker, but he's tall and rangy and has a hard time getting into striking position."
Through 11 games, Garrett has rushed for 516 yards and a 5.6 average with touchdown runs of 77, 61 and 42 yards. Coan has 476 yards and a 5.5 average. Their combination of 992 yards makes the Kansas City running attack the most effective one in the AFL. Coan and Garrett could hardly be less alike. Coan is 6 feet 4 and weighs 220. Garrett is 5 feet 9 and weighs 195. Coan has been in pro football for five years, first with the Chargers and then with the Chiefs. Garrett is a rookie. Coan has been almost constantly injured, ever since a broken leg finished his college career at Kansas. Garrett has seldom been hurt.
In 1964 Coan decided during training camp that he'd seen enough of pro football. He walked out of camp and vanished. Later he came back and Stram accepted him. "Bert is no problem to coach," Stram says. "His biggest problem is the battle within himself. He got down on himself because he hadn't been able to play an entire season. He never uses an overabundance of words. When he came back, he just said he'd made a mistake. I would have had to be blind not to see his potential. You could watch him in practice and see that he was a beautiful runner. It doesn't take any coaching ability to kick a guy off the squad. The coach's job is to try to get the player to play as well as he can."
There were doubts about Garrett's size as well as about his speed. But those doubts never occurred to Garrett. "I always knew I could make it if I got the chance," he says. "But at first I really looked terrible. I'd run a hole too wide or too tight. I had to learn how to pick up the blocking. There are two or three ways to block on one play. Our 56 Power Trap and our 56 Quick Trap might look the same, but the blocking is different and I was confused. But I'm learning, and I like this system. Neither of us gets too tired. I never know when they're going to use Bert or use me, except in a crisis they'll go with the man who has more experience—and that's Coan." Garrett came in with a bonus that was reported as $200,000, but players on other teams have not overly abused him about it. That may be because he neither talks to nor listens to them. "The only time I say anything is if it's some player I've heard a lot about. Then I'll tell him what an honor it is to meet him," Garrett says.
The running of Garrett and Coan has relegated McClinton—a former Rookie of the Year in the AFL—to the role of blocker, although McClinton is a good fullback who can carry the running game if defenses jam up on Garrett and Coan. The receiving of Taylor has allowed Split End Chris Burford more freedom, and Burford is having one of his best years. All of them operate with a superior offensive line that includes All-AFL Tackle Jim Tyrer and the fine tight end, Fred Arbanas.
If the Chiefs have any weakness, it is at defensive tackle now that Ed Lothamer is out for the season with a shoulder separation. Lothamer's replacement is Andy Rice, a veteran of the Houston and Chicago taxi squads. But Rice plays between Buck Buchanan, a 287-pound tackle who usually draws two or three blockers, and Defensive End Jerry Mays. Charger Coach Sid Gillman says, "Put Mays at linebacker and he would eat up all the other linebackers in the league. He was all-league at tackle, and he's all-league at end. He's the most versatile defensive lineman in the league—quick, tough and intelligent." A tip-off to the quality of the Chiefs' defensive unit is that Rookie Aaron Brown, a No. 1 draft choice who, at 265 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash as fast as Garrett, has not been able to take over as a starter at end or tackle.
MIKE GARRETT of USC and Heisman Trophy fame is the Chiefs' exciting rookie runner.