They called him “Leonard the Cool” in Kansas City.
The unflappable Len Dawson won three AFL titles and a Super Bowl as the quarterback of the Chiefs and now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a special player, a special talent.
I arrived in Kansas City in 1977 to report on the Chiefs, first for United Press International and then the Kansas City Star, but never saw Dawson take a snap at Arrowhead Stadium. He retired after the 1975 season.
The Chiefs have spent 41 years since then looking for the next Len Dawson. That translated into four decades of football futility. I was there for the first 13 years of that misery as the Chiefs trotted out Mike Livingston, Tony Adams, Steve Fuller, Bill Kenney, Pete Woods, Tom Clements, Bob Gagliano, Todd Blackledge, Frank Seurer, Steve DeBerg, Ron Jaworski, Steve Pelluer and Mike Elkins to take the snaps.
In the 13 seasons I spent in that Arrowhead pressbox I covered one playoff team and one playoff game – a blowout road loss by the Chiefs to the New York Jets in the 1986 wild-card round. The Chiefs brought the NFL’s worst offense into that game with a quarterback (Blackledge) whose passer efficiency rating was a paltry 67.6.
So I learned early in my NFL reporting career that if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. I watched the Raiders roll into Arrowhead with Ken Stabler. I watched the Chargers roll in with Dan Fouts. I watched the Broncos roll in with John Elway. All quarterbacks in the AFC West, all Hall of Famers. And I watched the Chiefs lose game after game after game.
The absence of a franchise quarterback doomed the Chiefs no matter how productive their running backs, how physical their defense or how stout their special teams. The Chiefs won only 40.1 percent of their games during my time on the beat.
I left Kansas City in 1990 to cover a team with a franchise quarterback – the Dallas Cowboys with Troy Aikman – and witnessed three Super Bowl championships in the next six seasons. I also left behind the Chiefs and their troubles at the quarterback position.
The Chiefs became more competitive with Carl Peterson picking the players in the 1990s and Marty Schottenheimer coaching them. Dick Vermeil and, currently, Andy Reid have since coached the Chiefs and the winning has continued. Since I left Kansas City, the Chiefs have won 54.2 percent of their games, claiming seven division titles and 14 playoff berths.
The Chiefs have had NFL rushing champions (Priest Holmes, Kareem Hunt) since 1990. They have had NFL sack champions (Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, Jared Allen, Justin Houston). They have had Hall of Fame blockers (Will Shields, Willie Roaf) and arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history (Tony Gonzalez). In Schottenheimer, Vermeil and Reid, the Chiefs also have had some great coaching.
But those great coaches were doing it with, by and large, pedestrian quarterbacks. The Chiefs did have Joe Montana after his MVP seasons in San Francisco and Rich Gannon before his MVP season in Oakland. A 37-year-old Montana even took the Chiefs to an AFC title game in 1993. But for the most part the Chiefs have had a succession of bus drivers taking the offensive snaps – Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel and Alex Smith.
The Chiefs claimed the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket under Schottenheimer with 13-3 records in 1993 and 1995 with, respectively, Bono and Grbac as their quarterbacks. That taught me another NFL truism – you don’t need a franchise quarterback to get to the playoffs … but you need one once you get there.
The Chiefs were eliminated from the post-season twice at the hands of Dan Marino, twice at the hands of Jim Kelly and twice at the hands of Peyton Manning. John Elway, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck also sent the Chiefs packing with post-season defeats.
During my time covering the Chiefs they did make the effort to solve their quarterbacking riddle. They traded up late in the first round in the 1978 draft to take Fuller and his wobbly knees. They also used the seventh overall pick of the great 1983 quarterbacking draft to select Blackledge. He was the second quarterback taken after Elway. The Chiefs left Kelly, Marino, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien on the board. Kelly and Marino are both in the Hall of Fame, Eason took a team to the Super Bowl and O’Brien went to a Pro Bowl.
“I’m not sure if John Elway was on the board we still wouldn’t have taken Blackledge,” the club’s personnel director told me that night after that draft. Blackledge started 29 games in his NFL career.
The Chiefs traded for Montana, Bono, Trent Green, Cassel and Smith and signed Grbac in free agency. All those quarterbacks, all that maneuvering and all the Chiefs have to show for it is a 4-12 playoff record since 1990.
But now there is hope. His name is Patrick Mahomes.
Even though Reid had a team coming off an AFC West title and a quarterback coming off a Pro Bowl season, he traded up into the Top 10 of the 2017 NFL draft to claim Mahomes and his rocket arm. Mahomes led the NCAA with his 5,024 passing yards at Texas Tech, tossing 41 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions.
Then Reid invited Mahomes to sit and watch Smith as a rookie. Smith did what he does best – protect the football – as the Chiefs won another AFC West title and he went to another Pro Bowl in 2017. Reid did give Mahomes a throwaway start in the season finale when the Chiefs were sitting their regulars in preparation for the playoffs. He passed for 284 yards, steering the Chiefs to 27-24 victory over the Broncos.
Reid then traded his Pro Bowl quarterback to the Washington Redskins in the offseason and turned the reins of his offense over to Mahomes…and the Chiefs can finally stop looking for the next Dawson. They have found him.
Mahomes has started six games in his NFL career and won them all. He went on the road in September and beat traditional powers Denver and Pittsburgh. He threw six touchdown passes against the Steelers, four more against the Chargers and then shredded the NFL’s best defense for 313 yards passing last weekend in a lopsided victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Mahomes led the Chiefs on a 60-yard drive in the closing minutes at Denver, featuring passes with both arms, for the winning touchdown against the Broncos. And Kansas City fans smiled because throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they watched Elway do the exact same thing to their team.
Forty-one years are a long time to play football without hope. Now, for the first time since Len Dawson, there is hope in Kansas City.