This is another in a season-long series on the Kansas City Chiefs search for a franchise quarterback. It appears weekly on Thursdays throughout the 2015 season.
The quarterback occupies center stage in the grand drama that has become America’s preeminent sport.
The nature of quarterback play, however, is a mystery, a fascinating compound of talent and mystique that makes a team and a city of fans want to follow a specific individual.
It is not a single quality, or even a single style.
It can last a game, a season or an entire career.
Some of it is through oratory, expounding through inspirational rhetoric on the field and sideline or before the cameras, others by patient, workmanlike translation of a coach’s game plan, some of it the ability to crate magic out of chaos, and most of all by physical skill.
A few Chiefs quarterbacks come to mind here, some worked brilliantly to achieve individual and team success, yet their contributions differed as did their personalities. Successful qualities that work in one situation can also be counterproductive in another. Mike Livingston’s skills would never fit Marv Levy’s offense. Steve Fuller’s never fit John Mackovic’s.
Livingston’s skills didn’t fit Levy’s offense
Nor is success always inherently obvious. Excellent quarterbacks have lost important games and criticism remains ongoing of someone as talented and accomplished as Peyton Manning whose playoff record is disappointing, to hear some tell it.
Before he joined the Dallas Texans, Len Dawson’s mixture of traits was unknown, yet it was there just underneath the surface. When his chance came, he showed an almost perfect instinct for command of Hank Stram’s offense. Joe Montana’s successful play was an amalgam of intuition and experience with Bill Walsh’s offense merging easily with Paul Hackett’s.
Players follow a quarterback for characteristics they can observe: the way he gives direction in the huddle, the way he prepares for games, his seeming lack of personal regard, and the fact he consistently guides them to victory. Those were certainly Trent Green’s qualities.
For fans, it’s not that apparent.
Too many Chiefs quarterbacks did not lead their teams to the ultimate victory or to a degree, or even with a style that fans wanted. They were all gone soon enough, but thoughts of Dan Marino seemingly never. Followers of the team have grown accustomed by this time to the complaint that the Chiefs missed their chance when they passed on drafting Marino. If only the Chiefs had taken Marino back in 1983 the quarterback debate would be a thing of some distant past, the argument goes.
Such a claim is overwrought.
Dawson had perfect command of Stram’s offense
The truth is there was much that was needed beyond a quarterback after Dawson exited the field for the final time. The team’s struggles at quarterback, however, remains the focus of every fan and every management and coaching staff as this series of columns has exposed. But there were deeper issues at play and they were more than who would take Len Dawson’s place and produce as he did.
Player procurement, owner Lamar Hunt admitted, in many private memoranda to his president Jack Steadman, was at fault and he took responsibility for that, too much given the responsibilities he had with his other business and sports ventures.
Like the Chiefs, the Baltimore Colts had been losers, but from five drafts between 1971-75, their personnel department selected 20 players who would make up the club’s active roster by 1977 — 12 of them starters. The centerpiece of the team’s 1973 draft class was quarterback Bert Jones (2nd pick of the 1st round). The Chiefs had no first round pick that year.
Bert Jones, centerpiece of Baltimore’s resurgence
In contrast to the Colts, the Chiefs drafts between 1971 and 1975 had only five players left by 1977, four of them starters. Baltimore finished in first place in its division for three consecutive years, the direct result of those drafts.
Drafting mattered and the Chiefs had little to show for it over much of the 1970s and 1980s. The team’s drafts from 1973-75 were arguably among the worst in club history.
Yet Hunt, always one to stay out of the limelight, would say publicly, at least, in the midst of the Fuller-Kenney-Blackledge debate that his personnel staff ranked as “one of the top ten in the league,” as criticism rained down from the media and the fan-base.
The Chiefs player personnel team
At few times that Fuller, Kenney, and Blackledge took the field did any have the necessary weapons for success. There were holes everywhere.
Not that any of these quarterbacks was the equal of, say, John Elway who led his team to the Super Bowl with lesser known wide receivers Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel. “The great quarterback is like the parish priest,” a Boston columnist once told me, his thoughts turning no doubt to Tom Brady, “he can absolve you of a lot of your team’s sins.”
The public’s lament raises the fascinating “what if” parlor game known as counter-factual history. What would have been the team’s fate if it had taken Marino? The team he would lead would have had the same holes that it did going forward with Kenney and Blackledge. Would the head coach at the time, John Mackovic, have employed the same strategy? Would he sit Marino his first year as he did Blackledge? Would the ongoing pressure from fans have forced him and management as well, to insert him? What of Kenney? Would his statistical outburst in 1983 kept Marino sidelined anyway?
And what if Mackovic had not been the head coach? What if there had been no strike, and Levy had kept his job? Would he have stepped up for Marino? Coaching changes had great consequences for the Chiefs in personnel decisions, as they continue to do throughout the NFL.
Would Kenney’s success have kept Marino on the sideline
The second part of our series conclusion continues next week.