Thirty years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were on the clock trying to determine their destiny as a football team. They were lousy . and had been, on and off, for a decade. They had just fired their coach - a likable World War II veteran with an English history degree from Harvard named Marv Levy. They had drawn fewer than 12,000 people to their last game in 1982. They desperately needed to win back a city that had given up on them.
The Chiefs had the seventh pick in the draft. They wanted a quarterback. This would become perhaps the most famous quarterback draft of them all. John Elway was the first pick. Dan Marino was on the board when the Chiefs drafted. Jim Kelly was on the board. But the Chiefs had something very specific in mind. They wanted a leader. They wanted a winner. They did not just want someone Kansas City could rally around - they wanted someone to build an entire future around.
They took Todd Blackledge, a bright and driven quarterback who had led Penn State to the national title. And, no, it didn't work out.
That was the moment it all changed. That was last time the Kansas City Chiefs went looking for a young quarterback to build the future around. For the next 30 years, the Kansas City Chiefs would build their future on quarterbacks on other teams.
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There is no sure way to find a franchise quarterback. You could draft a quarterback with the first overall pick, if your team happens to be bad enough to get that first pick. That might be the most likely way to find a franchise quarterback. That's how Pittsburgh acquired Terry Bradshaw, how Denver got Elway. You might get Eli Manning or Troy Aikman or Joe Namath that way. Then again, you might get David Carr or Tim Couch or JaMarcus Russell.
(The ideal way happened in Indianapolis where in 1998, with the first pick, the Colts took Peyton Manning. He dominated the game for more than a decade and led the Colts to annual playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title. When he got old, the Colts got the No. 1 pick again and took Andrew Luck, who looks like he might do similar things.)
You could draft a sleeper after the first round and develop him - that's how San Francisco got Joe Montana (3rd round), how New England got Tom Brady (6th round), how San Diego got Dan Fouts (3rd round), how Green Bay got Bart Starr (17th round!). But you should know, since 1950, more than half the quarterbacks taken second round or later (56.6 percent if you're scoring at home) never started a single game in the NFL.
Well, yes, there's another way. There's the Kansas City Chiefs way. You could go and get somebody else's discarded quarterback. You can get them when they're young, the way Green Bay did when it got a raw Brett Favre from Atlanta. You can get them when they're old, the way Oakland did when it scooped up a 32-year-old Jim Plunkett. You might con teams for them, the way New Orleans did with Drew Brees. You might give them a chance after they had been rejected, the way Baltimore did with John Unitas and St. Louis did with Kurt Warner.
These quarterbacks mentioned, of course, are the winning lottery tickets. The bet is that if you get someone else's quarterback, you know more or less what you're getting. You get a player with some experience, a player who has dealt with NFL adversity. You might get to skip some steps and plug that quarterback right into the starting lineup without enduring the young quarterback growing pains.
Of course, at the same time, you are almost always getting a quarterback that, for whatever reason, the other team really does not want.
The Kansas City Chiefs have been snapping up lottery tickets since that draft day debacle in 1983. They have not taken a single quarterback in the first round since the Blackledge miss. They have not taken a quarterback in the second round in more than 20 years. (Only the New Orleans Saints boast a similar streak of avoiding QBs high in the draft.) This year, they have the first pick in the NFL Draft - and that's the quarterback spot. Teams have taken a quarterback first overall in the each of the last four drafts (Indianapolis: Luck; Carolina: Cam Newton; St. Louis: Sam Bradford; Detroit: Matt Stafford) and in 12 of the last 15 drafts.
The Chiefs will not take a quarterback. This much is sure. It is widely believed they will take Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel, but even if they go in a different direction they won't take a quarterback. We know this because the Chiefs just traded draft picks to San Francisco for Alex Smith, a one-time first overall pick who the 49ers moved to backup quarterback at the end of the year. This isn't the first time Chiefs traded for a 49ers backup quarterback. It's the fourth.
Yes, this is how the Chiefs have been doing business for many years. They hope this time it will work.
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Last season, you might recall, there was a bit of controversy in Kansas City when some fans at Arrowhead Stadium cheered after quarterback Matt Cassel got hurt. Offensive tackle Eric Winston spoke out about it. There was much handwringing about how many fans actually cheered and whether they were really cheering his injury and whether Winston's comments were fair. There's no reason to revisit all of it.
But there is a larger point: Kansas City is hard on quarterbacks. This is true in every NFL city, but for some reason people don't think of Kansas City this way. Many of the stories about the Cassel injury had some reference like "Even genteel Kansas City" or "Kansas City, a place known for its friendliness." Well, Kansas City can be genteel, and it's certainly friendly. It's a wonderful place. But it eats up quarterbacks.
But it takes that sort of thick skin to survive, and not many people have that. Steve Bono once made a little joke about how the worst restaurant in San Francisco tops the best restaurant in Kansas City, and then he expanded on that joke by making specific cracks about Kansas City restaurant owners. He followed this up with a woeful 68.0 quarterback rating in 1996 and he was so mercilessly despised in town that, at the end, he semi-broke down during a tear-stricken newspaper interview.
Another Chiefs quarterback, Elvis Grbac, reached a Pro Bowl, but after one tough loss he talked about a dropped pass by saying," I can't throw the ball and catch it too." This became a catch phrase in Kansas City, not in a good way, and he left for Baltimore right after his Pro Bowl year. One year later, he was out of football.
There are a lot of stories like that. Kansas City is no different from other cities where pro football is the unifying presence - the quarterback is under more intense scrutiny than the mayor or the school superintendent or just about anybody else. Ron Jaworski will tell you Philadelphia was a tough place to play, but Kansas City was plenty tough too.
The Chiefs made a conscious decision, after watching Todd Blackledge falter (he started 29 games, completed 48 percent of his passes and posted a 60.1 quarterback rating) to keep bringing in veteran quarterbacks. As one former Chiefs executive told me: "Kansas City has this reputation as a great place, and it is a great place. But we always knew: it would be a tough place for a young quarterback to grow up."
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So, let's go through the years - stay with me for a minute here, it will get a bit repetitive. When the Chiefs drafted Todd Blackledge, their starting quarterback was a man named Bill Kenney, who was the Mr. Irrelevant of the 1978 draft. He was cut and out of football when the Chiefs picked him up in 1980. Blackledge was supposed to take the job, but Kenney threw for 4,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl in 1983. He stuck around for a few spiceless years and, later, was the majority floor leader of the Missouri State Senate.
In 1988, the Chiefs picked up journeyman Steve DeBerg, who was the backup in Tampa Bay. In his career backed up Joe Montana, John Elway and Steve Young. The Chiefs made him their starter, and the team started to win. He was smart and solid - exactly what new coach Marty Schottenheimer wanted. DeBerg was the Chiefs' leading passer through 1991 - he shared a little bit of time with other veterans quarterbacks like Jaworski and former Dallas Cowboys backup Steve Pelluer.
When DeBerg expired, the Chiefs got longtime Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg. He was 34 then and was well on his way to setting the NFL record for most times sacked in a career (494; he was subsequently passed by John Elway and Brett Favre). The Chiefs had a good defense and a good running game - they were mind-numbingly boring - and the Chiefs won with Krieg managing the game.
The move worked in ways even Peterson and the Chiefs could not have anticipated. The Chiefs, with a rejuvenated Montana, won their first divisional playoff game in 25 years - their first since winning Super Bowl IV. And the Chiefs achieved a level of popularity unmatched in the city's history. Montana jerseys were everywhere. A huge wait list for season tickets built - it was rumored to top 50,000 at one point. It was heady stuff. Then Montana retired. The Chiefs had their formula down: Get an old quarterback who can manage a game and let the sellout crowds make the team all but unbeatable at home.
The Chiefs started Steve Bono, who was 33 and had been a backup in Minnesota, Pittsburgh and San Diego.
When Bono faltered, they went with Rich Gannon, who was 31 and had been a backup in Washington before becoming a backup in Kansas City.
The Chiefs then went out and got Grbac, who was the backup in San Francisco. Grbac and Gannon competed for the job, and there are still people in Kansas City who will say that the 1997 Chiefs - who had the AFC's best defense and best record - might have gone to the Super Bowl if Gannon had been the playoff quarterback.
Gannon went to the Raiders (where he DID lead the team to the Super Bowl . so it works sometimes), Grbac left for Baltimore, and the Chiefs acquired Trent Green, who was 31 and had been the backup in St. Louis. Green played in two Pro Bowls as he led the highest scoring offense in the NFL from from 2002 to 2006. But the defense was so bad, the team only made the playoffs once in that stretch.
The next quarterback: Damon Huard, 33, a backup in New England. In 2006, Huard and Green handed the ball off to running back Larry Johnson 416 times, an NFL record that likely will never be broken (unless the NFL goes to 18 game regular seasons . and even then, it probably won't be broken).
The Chiefs, for the first time in many years, did try a couple of younger quarterbacks in 2008 - Tyler Thigpen and Brodie Croyle - but this was largely because Huard got hurt. Neither worked out. Then the Chiefs traded for New England backup quarterback Matt Cassel, and you know how that turned out.
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Now, finally, the Chiefs were back on the market for a new quarterback. They did not hesitate. They traded for another San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback, Alex Smith.
What we know is this: He will be 29 in May, he had 30 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions the last two seasons, and the 49ers were very eager to trade him.
What we also know is this: The Chiefs - rather than take the big chance on a young quarterback like West Virginia's Geno Smith - are going to once again rely on the hope that a veteran quarterback who could not start for a team will blossom in Kansas City.
It certainly could work. Smith, after dealing with numerous injuries and struggles (he had one touchdown pass as a rookie along with 11 interceptions), became a very efficient quarterback the last couple of years. In his last game before suffering the concussion that would give Colin Kaepernick the chance to show his stuff, Smith was 18 for 19 with three touchdown passes against Arizona. The Chiefs - now under the watchful eye of Andy Reid - believe he has turned the corner and is ready to be an elite quarterback.
"There's a lot of talent in Kansas City," one NFL GM says. "A lot of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. I would say they've underachieved their talent level. Alex isn't coming into a situation where the team is barren. . But, let's face it, he will have to learn a new system, he will have to win over his teammates, it won't be easy. It won't be like San Francisco the last couple of years. It will be a more like San Francisco when he first got there."
I asked the GM if he thinks it will work in Kansas City. He shrugged and basically said, hey, everybody's trying to find a good quarterback, and he's got his own problems. It's a fair point. There's no surefire way. The new Cleveland Browns in their history have drafted three quarterbacks in the first round - one of them with the first overall pick - and have made the playoffs exactly once. The Detroit Lions have drafted five first round quarterbacks since 1968 and have won one playoff game in those 45 years.
So, there are a lot of ways a quarterback chase can go wrong. For now, the Chiefs are sticking with their plan. Get a veteran quarterback. Work him into the system. Hope for the best. It hasn't worked all that well so far. But there's always next year.