Of all the things that the Chiefs' organization has done over the years that were just plain dumb, one that still makes me mad is when they fired Marv Levy. That anger is up front and center again because Levy will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in just a couple of weeks - as the coach of the Buffalo Bills.
After the heartbreaking double overtime loss to the Dolphins on Christmas Day, 1971, it was becoming apparent that the Chiefs were getting old. The younger players Hank Stram had brought in to replace the old stars simply didn't have the talent. By the time Stram was fired at the end of the 1974 season, there wasn't much left in the cupboard for his successor, Paul Wiggin.
Replacement players came and went by the truckload during Wiggin's two-and-a-half year stay at Arrowhead. The 5-9 embarrassment in 1974 that caused Stram's dismissal was followed by 5-9 embarrassments in 1975 and 1976. The 1977 season was even worse. Wiggin was fired after starting the season with a 1-6 record. Tom Bettis, the interim coach, led the team to an identical record for the second half and followed his ex-boss to the unemployment line. Three years after the rebuilding started, the team was in worse shape than before.
Enter Marv Levy, holder of a Masters Degree in English History from Harvard University and fresh from a five-year stint as head coach of the CFL Montreal Allouettes. Levy certainly did not fit the stereotype image of a head football coach and one had to wonder if an articulate man who looked and sounded like a college professor was up to the task. To make matters really difficult, whatever Levy was going to do, he would have to do it without standouts Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch, Ed Podolak, and Jerrel Wilson, who all opted for retirement rather than deal with more rebuilding.
Under Levy, the team philosophy was to draft for defense and control the ball on offense with a strong running game. To those ends, Levy drafted future stars Art Still, Gary Spaini, Mike Bell, and Lloyd Burris. He converted Deron Cherry, a free agent punter, to safety. He resurrected the 1940's - era Wing-T formation. Unfortunately, the Wing-T did nothing to help the passing game and the 1978 team finished dead last in the AFC West with a 4-12 record. However, six of the losses were by six points or less and two of them cam in overtime.
Levy realized that he needed to replace Mike Livingston at QB if the team was going to improve. He drafted Clemson QB Steve Fuller and brought in Bill Kenney as a free agent. He also started to wean the team away from the Wing-T formation. After six games, the young Chiefs had forged a 4-2 record, which included a 14-0 whitewashing of the Colts and a 35-7 rout over the Raiders. The injury bug hit hard and the team lost five games in a row before coming back to win three of the last five. Despite losing four games by six points or less, the team finished with a 7-9 record. The defense, led by Defensive Coordinator Rod Rust, gave up only 16.4 points a game, which was the best the Chiefs had done since 1973.
The 1980 team opened the season by losing its first four games, including a one-point loss to the Seahawks. At this point, Levy decided to open up the offense. With the Wing-T gone, the Chiefs won eight of the next twelve games. The 8-8 finish was the best the team had done since 1973.
The 1981 draft provided additional offensive punch in the form of a running back from Northwest Louisiana State - Joe Delaney. Delaney, the team's second round pick, was considered something of a risk due to his size (5-10 184). However, he had track star speed and was absolutely fearless. When Ted McKnight went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of the year, Levy turned Delaney loose. Joe responded with three straight 100-yard-plus games, finished third in the AFC with 1,121 yards, and was named the AFC Rookie of the Year. Bill Kenney proved to have a much stronger arm than Steve Fuller had and took over as the starting QB. After 12 games, the Chiefs were 8-4 and seemed assured of a play-off spot. Unfortunately, Kenney was injured early in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions and missed the rest of the season. With Fuller back at the helm, KC dropped three in a row before winning the final game of the year. It was a disappointing end to the season, but the Chiefs finished with a 9-7 record and three of the losses were by three points or less.
There was good reason for optimism as the team entered the 1982 season. Unfortunately, Delaney suffered an eye injury (detached retina) which bothered him all season. Several other offensive players, including QB Bill Kenney, were also injured. After a 1-1 start, the players went out on strike. The next seven games were cancelled before the strike was settled. The players returned, but the offense didn't and the team stumbled to a 3-6 finish. Shortly after the season ended, Levy was fired.
The official explanation for Levy's dismissal was that the team had leveled out and Levy wasn't what the team needed to get to the next step. Levy took a year off, then coached the Chicago Fire of the USFL in 1984. In 1985, he went back to the Montreal Allouettes as the Director of Football Operations. Midway through the 1986 season, Levy took over as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. By 1988, Levy had his team in the AFC Championship game. In 1990, the Bills began their run of four straight appearances in the Super Bowl.
Back in KC, Levy was replaced by former Dallas Cowboys QB coach John Mackovic with indifferent results. Frank Ganz who turned out to be a terrible head coach replaced Mackovic. Finally, Lamar Hunt woke up and hired Carl Peterson to run the team. Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer, who finally turned the team around on the field. And who were the older players who helped Schottenheimer finally get the Chiefs into the playoffs? Mike Bell, Lloyd Burris, Deron Cherry, and Nick Lowery, who were all Chiefs because of Marv Levy.