As anxiety dreams go, it's a doozy. Elvis Grbac is standing on
the turf of chilly Arrowhead Stadium, trying to drive the Chiefs
to a game-winning touchdown in an AFC divisional playoff against
the Broncos, when suddenly his world turns to mush. The final
seconds are ticking away, he can't hear the play call in his
helmet radio receiver, and everyone in the joint--Grbac's
teammates, his coaches and 77,000 unsettled fans--is screaming
for the quarterback to do something. He wants desperately to
block it all out, take charge and rally his team to victory. But
Grbac is numb and, in a sense, naked, stripped of aggressive
options by a Kansas City offense he calls "constrictive."
This isn't a dream though. It is harsh reality, the memory of a
14-10 defeat last Jan. 4 that added to the Chiefs' nine-year
litany of postseason misery under coach Marty Schottenheimer.
The sordid season-ending sequence, which ended when Grbac's
end-zone pass to Lake Dawson into double coverage on
fourth-and-two from the 20-yard line fell incomplete, exposed
the flaws in a team that finished with the AFC's best record in
1997. To the organization's credit, the bulk of its off-season
energies were directed toward avoiding a similar disaster.
Grbac, who was flourishing in his first year as a starter until
he broke his left clavicle in the ninth game and missed most of
the rest of the regular season, should have much less cause for
anxiety this year, because the departure of offensive
coordinator Paul Hackett to USC brings a shift in philosophy. To
replace Hackett and his West Coast-style offense, Schottenheimer
promoted running backs coach Jimmy Raye, who previously served
as offensive coordinator with the Rams ('84), the Buccaneers
('85-86) and the Patriots ('90). Whereas Hackett's players were
seldom drilled to anticipate and execute certain audibles, Raye
has installed an offense that gives the quarterback much more
freedom to change calls at the line of scrimmage.
"This year we're going to try to win on every offensive play,"
Grbac says. "That means everyone on the field will be prepared to
improvise and attack."
An improved receiving corps will make the job easier. Andre
Rison, released by three teams in the two previous years,
resurrected his career in '97 and became the Chiefs' first Pro
Bowl receiver since Carlos Carson in 1988. But as defenses
caught on to Rison--he had just 29 of his 72 catches and two of
his seven touchdowns in the second half of the season--no other
viable receiving threat emerged to keep opponents honest. "It
got to the point where we knew pretty much every coverage that
we were going to get: It would be rolled to Andre's side," Grbac
Kansas City addressed that issue by signing fifth-year man
Derrick Alexander, fresh off a 1,000-yard season for the Ravens,
and elevating its No. 1 pick in '97, Tony Gonzalez, to the
starting tight end spot. "Tony is big and athletic," says Raye,
"and if he stays healthy, he could become the standard by which
[tight ends] are judged."
If Raye has his way, the Chiefs' fate in important games won't
come down to Gonzalez or Rison, or to Grbac's ability to call
audibles. Like any old-school disciplinarian with a yen for
physical play, Raye aims to stay on the ground when possible. "I
want us to be able to run the ball in the fourth quarter," he
says, "when the other team knows we're going to run."
Kansas City should get plenty of chances to do that, because its
defense seldom gives up enough points to let games get out of
hand. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham may be the best in the
business, and his fast, punishing unit of last season has been
fortified by adding former Raiders defensive tackle Chester
Whether K.C. can grind out yards when necessary is the question.
The offensive line is solid, anchored by guards Will Shields,
who made the Pro Bowl, and Dave Szott, who should have. But the
retirement of Marcus Allen and the release of former first-round
draft pick Greg Hill leave the halfback job in the hands of the
inexperienced Donnell Bennett. The 236-pounder says he is fully
recovered from a torn ACL suffered as a rookie in '94. He
battles asthma and does nightly breathing exercises in an
attempt to control his condition.
"I've dealt with adversity all my life," Bennett says. "I have
to stay on top of the asthma because I don't want it to be a
hindrance to me getting 100 yards in a game. I'm at the point
where if I relax, block out everything and concentrate real
hard, I can control it."
Thanks to the changes in K.C., the next time the pressure peaks,
Grbac should be able to do the same. --M.S.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZITO/SPORTSCHROME MIDAS TOUCH Impressive as a rookie last year, the athletic Gonzalez brings an added dimension to the attack as starting tight end. [Tony Gonzalez]
B/W PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN Alexander [Derrick Alexander]
Sept. 6 OAKLAND
13 at Jacksonville
20 SAN DIEGO
27 at Philadelphia
Oct. 4 SEATTLE
11 at New England
18 OPEN DATE
26 PITTSBURGH (Mon.)
Nov. 1 N.Y. JETS
8 at Seattle
16 DENVER (Mon.)
22 at San Diego
Dec. 6 at Denver
20 at N.Y. Giants
26 at Oakland (Sat.)
1997 Record 13-3 (1st in AFC West) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 5/24/14; defense 7/16/11
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 19 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .484 Games against playoff teams: 6
Tough When It Counts
Ten teams allowed fewer yards in 1997 than did the Chiefs, but
none allowed fewer points. How did Kansas City do it? Some
factors: The Chiefs finished fourth in the NFL in takeaways,
held their opponents to the second-lowest red-zone-touchdown
percentage in the league and were the only team that didn't give
up any "cheap" touchdowns (i.e., no touchdowns on returns of any
kind--interceptions, kickoff returns, punt returns, fumble
----ALLOWED PER GAME---- Opponents'
Pts. per red-zone- Opp.
Yards Points 100 yds. Takeaways TD pct. ret. TDs
Chiefs 305.0 14.5 4.75 34 38.1 0
Giants 316.7 16.6 5.23 44 52.4 3
Jets 332.5 17.9 5.39 25 46.7 1
Buccaneers 289.3 16.4 5.68 26 36.8 6
Patriots 317.8 18.1 5.68 32 49.0 3
New No. 2 receiver Derrick Alexander gives quarterback Elvis
Grbac not only a big (6'2", 195) target but a familiar one. The
two played together at Michigan....Left guard Dave Szott had one
of the gutsiest performances of '97. He graded out as the team's
best offensive lineman despite wearing a brace throughout the
season to lock down a dislocated left shoulder....Defensive
tackle Chester McGlockton wanted so badly to play for the Chiefs
that during an Oakland-Kansas City game on Dec. 7 he told Chiefs
linemen not to cut-block him because he was going to be playing
for them in '98....The acquisitions of McGlockton and former Ram
Leslie O'Neal, who will play in the nickel package, will allow
the Chiefs to move versatile Derrick Thomas up and down the line
of scrimmage in K.C.'s Falcon role.
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Marty Schottenheimer
10th season with Chiefs (138-76-1 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Elvis Grbac 26[PVR*] 314 att. 179 comp. 57.0%
1,943 yds. 11 TDs 6 int. 79.1 rtg.
RB Donnell Bennett 97[PVR*] 94 att. 369 yds. 3.9
avg. 7 rec. 5 yds. 0.7 avg. 1 TD
FB Kimble Anders 131[PVR*] 79 att. 397 yds. 5.0 avg.
59 rec. 453 yds. 7.7 avg. 2 TDs
RB Rashaan Shehee[N](R) 181[PVR*] 139 att. 862 yds.
6.2 avg. 15 rec. 146 yds. 9.7 avg. 9 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Andre Rison 40[PVR*] 72 rec. 1,092 yds. 7 TDs
WR Derrick Alexander[N] 68[PVR*] 65 rec. 1,009 yds. 9 TDs
WR Danan Hughes 336[PVR*] 7 rec. 65 yds. 2 TDs
TE Tony Gonzalez 52[PVR*] 33 rec. 368 yds. 2 TDs
K Pete Stoyanovich 19[PVR*] 35/36 XPs 26/27 FGs 113 pts.
PR Tamarick Vanover 212[PVR*] 35 ret. 10.9 avg. 1 TD
KR Tamarick Vanover 212[PVR*] 51 ret. 25.6 avg. 1 TD
LT Jeff Criswell 6'7" 294 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Dave Szott 6'4" 293 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Tim Grunhard 6'2" 307 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Will Shields 6'3" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Glenn Parker 6'5" 305 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Chester McGlockton[N] 64 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
NT Tom Barndt 12 tackles 2 sacks
RE John Browning 33 tackles 4 sacks
LB Derrick Thomas 34 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
OLB Wayne Simmons 51 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB Donnie Edwards 100 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
OLB Anthony Davis 88 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
CB Dale Carter 55 tackles 2 int.
SS Reggie Tongue 88 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
FS Jerome Woods 86 tackles 4 int.
CB James Hasty 74 tackles 3 int.
P Louie Aguiar 82 punts 42.3 avg
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)