I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade because it has been fun watching the Chiefs start the season winning its first four games. After all, this is only the second time in team history that the Chiefs have opened the season with a 4-0 record. The other squad that started 4-0, however, did not end the season on a good note and that’s what makes me nervous.
The 1996 team starter by beating the Oilers 20-19, Raiders 19-3, Seahawks 35-17, and the Broncos 17-14, but then lost two games in a row. The team split the next four games after that, but was in good shape at 9-4 to reach the playoffs. Unfortunately, they proceeded to lose the last three games by a combined score of 35-70 to finish at 9-7 and out of the playoffs. Ironically, the 1996 squad had to play its inter-Conference games against Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago, and Detroit – just as this year’s squad will. The ’96 squad and this year’s squad were both veteran teams. The 1996 team starters averaged 5.82 seasons of experience, while the average of the ’03 starters is 5.77 seasons. In 1996, 10 of the 22 starters were at least 30 years old. There are eight on this year’s squad. Guard Will Shields started for the 1996 team and he’s starting in ’03. Al Saunders is and was the Assistant Head Coach. That’s enough similarities to make one uncomfortable, but a deeper comparison between the two squads is in order.
Let’s start the comparison with the head coaches. Dick Vermeil is in his third season as the KC Head Coach. His previous teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Rams, both enjoyed success in his third season as the coach. KC was Marty’s second head coaching job. KC was team disarray when he came over from Cleveland to become the seventh head coach in team history. He quickly turned the team around and had the Chiefs in the playoffs in his second season. Marty, however, proved to be a better regular season coach than he was in the playoffs and none of his teams could advance to the Super Bowl. Vermeil coached both the Eagles and the Rams into the big game.
For Offensive Coordinator, Marty had Paul Hackett. Vermeil has Al Saunders. Hackett was very conservative in his play calling – a problem that continues today given how dull the NY Jets are. Saunders, on the other hand, is a proponent of the Don Coryell school of offense. He’s not afraid to take chances and is easily the winner in this comparison. At Defensive Coordinator, Guenther Cunningham easily takes the nod over Greg Robinson. To be fair to Robinson, however, he does have the defense playing much better this year than they did during his first two years on the job.
The receiving corps in 1996 was Chris Penn, Sean LaChappelle, and Keith Cash. This year’s starters are Johnnie Morton, Eddie Kennison, and Tony Gonzalez. ‘Nuff said.
The 1996 squad relied on Marcus Allen, Greg Hill, and Kimble Anders. Allen was old, but certainly was a steady and reliable runner/receiver. Anders was an excellent blocker and receiver who could run the ball effectively. Hill had all the tools to be a star, but never developed into the player everyone hoped he would become. None of these backs, however, can compare to Priest Holmes. Tony Richardson, when healthy, is an excellent blocker and an effective runner/receiver. Give the ’96 team the nod at Fullback, but Priest Holmes is infinitely better than the Allen/Hill combo.
The offensive lines are comparable in quality. In ’96, the starters were Jeff Criswell (due to an injury to John Alt), Dave Szott, Tim Grunhard, Will Shields, and Glenn Parker. This year’s team lines up with Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields, and John Tait. Roaf is a much better player than Criswell. Waters & Wiegmann are more athletic than Szott & Grunhard, but Szott and Grunhard were great players. Parker was a steadier performer than Tait, but Tait is improving as he gets used to playing on the right side.
Quarterback Steve Bono was very effective at times, dismal at other times, and somewhere in between most of the time. To be fair, he was hampered by working with a very average receiver corps and the play calling of Paul Hackett. Overall, however, the best you could say about Bono was that he wasn’t going to lose many games for the team. Trent Green is more consistent, has better receivers, and Al Saunders calls the plays. However, Green tends to start slowly every season and, like Bono, is not going to win games for you but won’t lose many either. Call it a draw.
The kicking game is probably a draw too. Morten Anderson is a better kicker than Pete Stoyanovich, but Louis Aguiar takes the nod over Jason Baker at punter.
Where the 1996 team had the clear edge was at defense – especially at cornerback. With stars like Derrick Thomas, Dan Saleaumua, Neil Smith, Donnie Edwards, and James Hasty in the starting lineup, great things were expected. For the first half of the season, the “D” did play well. Injuries struck hard in the second half and the defense gave up a lot of points. The ’03 edition has played very well to open the season, but you have to wonder when the corners are going to start getting burned.
Games 5-8 killed the 1996 team. They lost to San Diego and Pittsburgh, beat Seattle, and then lost to Denver. The ’03 team faces Denver, Green Bay, Oakland, and Buffalo in games 5-8. It seems that this stretch of games will be as critical to the ’03 team as it was for the’96 squad. There’s a different feel about this year’s team, however, than there was in 1996. The ’96 squad came into the season feeling pretty cocky. After all, the 1995 team finished with a 13-3 regular season record. Sure they lost in the playoffs to the Colts, but it was a game played under horrible weather conditions. There was no reason to believe that they couldn’t run through the opposition again. This year’s squad reminds me the 1966 team. The 1965 Chiefs finished with a 7-5-2 record and had been fairly inconsistent, but there was a feeling that the team was headed in the right direction. The 2002 team was much like the ’65 team – still learning to win, but headed the right way. My feeling is that the 2003 team will be as successful as the 1966 team was.