by Alex Langer
The mythology of the Super Bowl era and the American Football League-National Football League merger goes a little something like this: The NFL was the older, more successful league that lost a small number of stars to the AFL in the 1960s. When the two leagues decided to play a championship game, the NFL juggernaut Green Bay Packers, led by Vince Lombardi, won the first two against overmatched AFL opponents. In Super Bowl III, the underdog New York Jets went against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. Famously, “Broadway” Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the Colts, and his Jets delivered. After that, proving that the AFL could play with the NFL, the two leagues merged, and the rest is history. What that history leaves out is the victor of Super Bowl IV, the Kansas City Chiefs.
When the casual fan thinks of the great teams of the 60s and 70s, the Chiefs rarely get a place in the conversation. Sandwiched between the Green Bay and Baltimore teams of the 60s and the Dallas Cowboys and later Pittsburgh Steelers of the mid-to-late 70s, the Chiefs get lost in the mix. It’s a shame, however. The Chiefs won three AFL titles in the 1960s, and appeared in and won their lone Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings in 1970, prior to the merger of the two leagues. That they are mostly forgotten is a sad testament to our focus on the post-merger Super Bowl era and on dynasties above important one-championship wonders.
The Kansas City Chiefs began as the first AFL team, established in Dallas as the Dallas Texans by Lamar Hunt, their owner and the founder of the AFL. His team won its first championship, against the Houston Oilers, in 1962. After the older and more popular NFL awarded an expansion team to Dallas (a little-known team called the Cowboys), Hunt moved his team to Kansas City and renamed them the Chiefs. Despite the fact that the Texans had a better record than the woeful Cowboys in the three years that they shared the Cotton Bowl, Hunt was worried that Dallas could not support two teams, and knew that the reputation of the NFL gave the Cowboys an inherent advantage.
The Chiefs were the winningest team in the AFL’s ten seasons, amassing 87 wins, an average of almost 9 wins a season (in a 14-game schedule). They earned their second AFL championship in 1966, beating the Buffalo Bills 31-7. Their dominance was such that Lamar Hunt became the chief AFL figure negotiating with Pete Rozelle about a merger.
Led by the only coach they had ever had, Hank Stram, the Chiefs became the first team to represent the AFL in the first annual AFL-NFL Championship, held at the LA Coliseum against the Green Bay Packers in 1967. Though his defense held strong in the first half-with Kansas City only down 14-10-an interception in the second half keyed Bart Starr and the vaunted Green Bay offense to 21 unanswered points and a 35-10 victory for the Packers and the NFL. This win only reinforced the view that no AFL team could compete with the NFL.
The Packers won the next Super Bowl as well, then Joe Namath and the Jets defeated an injured and old Colts team, one that barely featured the best quarterback of his time, Johnny Unitas. Despite the victory for the AFL, for many sports writers and fans, the win felt like a fluke. The Chiefs, an 11-3 team, opened up the 1970 Super Bowl as 12.5 point underdogs against the 12-2 Minnesota Vikings. The Chiefs won 23-7, however, winning the first and only Super Bowl for the franchise, and proving that the AFL was every measure the equal of the NFL.
Hank Stram’s defense came to play, and took advantage of a quirk between the two leagues to disrupt the Minnesota rushing attack. Much of their ground game depended on their center getting up and blocking linebackers. So, Stram (who was the Chiefs’ offensive and defensive coordinator, in addition to being their head coach) put a defensive tackle right on top of the Center, forcing him to block a defensive lineman. At the time, the NFL used so-called “greyhound” centers, who were fifty or more pounds lighter than the other lineman. The goal was to allow the center, who often had no one to block in a rushing attack, to get out and block linebackers. Against defensive tackles in the AFL used to big centers, the Vikings’ impressive rushing attack ground to a halt.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings boasted a pair of pass-rushers in Carl Eller and Jim Marshall who made it impossible to throw deep passes, and who loved to knock down short throws. To counter Eller and Marshall, Stram focused on double-teaming both with running backs and tight ends, and introduced a new wrinkle in quarterback play: the moving pocket. He got Len Dawson moving right or left, eliminating one of the powerful DE’s from the play and giving the quarterback easy throws. The Chiefs put up three field goals to start the game, then went up 16-0 on a five-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. While the Vikings answered with a touchdown, Kansas City scored on a 46-yard catch-and-run in the middle of the third quarter that broke the Vikings’ spirit and handed the AFL its second consecutive Super Bowl trophy.
It was the last Super Bowl before the merger, although the merger had already been agreed upon. Lamar Hunt’s team proved that the AFL was equal to the task of playing with the NFL, and the Chiefs, with four AFL championships in a decade, seemed poised to continue their rivalry with the Oakland Raiders and make it back to multiple Super Bowls. Instead, the Miami Dolphins crashed the party. In 1971, the Chiefs and Dolphins met in the AFC Championship, and Miami won with a last-second field goal. The Chiefs made the playoffs each of the next two years, but the ’72 Dolphins went undefeated and the ’73 Dolphins won their second Super Bowl. In 1974 the Chiefs missed the playoffs and Hank Stram was fired. Kansas City’s championship window was thus closed; the Chiefs would not make the playoffs again until 1986.
Although their moment in the spotlight lasted only a few years, the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory was just as instrumental in convincing fans and sports writers of the skill and talent of the AFL as the Jets’ victory. Unfortunately, the Chiefs’ AFC rivals, the Dolphins, and their former cross-city rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, took up the spotlight for the rest of their championship window. 1970 was the last time the Kansas City Chiefs made a championship game. Their history is a sobering reminder that championship windows end in a flash. In the forty-six years since their victory, the Chiefs have not played in the Super Bowl, and have won their division only six times in that span. For even some founding teams, the cruelty of fate, lack of talent, or bad luck can swallow up their chances at victory.