It was a painful Christmas weekend for the Chiefs and their fans. Hope was high when the day began and even later, the best outcome seemed highly possible: everything was falling into place—if only Kansas City could pull out a win at home. But a failed field-goal attempt at the end of regulation meant overtime and ultimately, one big play and a relatively short field goal—and the Chiefs were officially out of the playoffs.
Hard to believe it was 40 years ago.
Wait. What? Which game were you watching?
Yes, one day after the Raiders defeated the Chiefs in overtime, for their fifth straight win at Arrowhead*, I found myself masochistically sitting through another heartbreaking Chiefs loss in overtime. Double overtime.
*The last time that had happened at Arrowhead? It hadn’t.
I’ve written before about my joy in reliving past Chiefs glory that I was not living to enjoy in the first place. On Sunday, I almost too eagerly took the chance to experience some of the pain I wasn’t yet born* to appreciate, either: The NFL Network had cobbled together some never-before-rebroadcast archival footage for an hour-long special commemorating “The Longest Game Ever,” Kansas City’s 1971 division playoff against the Miami Dolphins, which was—spoiler alert!—the longest game ever, lasting well into its second overtime before—double spoiler alert—Kansas City succumbed 27-24 on a Garo Yepremian field goal.
*Though, as I indirectly explained to my daughter, the game plays a role in my being born:
[There is] a story I like to repeat, though I most definitely was not there: On December 25, 1971, [your grandmother] was watching the historic Chiefs-Dolphins divisional playoff, which I’m sure you know is still the longest game in NFL history (that’s why it’s historic!). When the game went into a second overtime, she had to choose whether or not to leave to go on a scheduled date with your grandfather. She went. This started a process—one that, I hope, your own mother will be the one to explain to you in several years—that eventually resulted in me.
In fact, when my father came to pick up my mom, it was the first time he had ever met his future in-laws, who were visiting—and at that moment glued to the TV. They would claim, jokingly—though we were never sure how much so—that they couldn’t remember meeting him that day.
Though it is part of my own family’s lore, I had never known all the little details and dramas of that day—an unseasonably 63-degree Christmas Day, which was seen as an ominous sign against a team from south Florida. The players were somewhat bummed to be playing on Christmas, an NFL first, though Len Dawson reminds viewers that many were just happy to be playing for an extra paycheck in an era when football salaries didn’t always make ends meet (Bobby Bell was working full time for General Motors—being an all-Pro linebacker for the Chiefs was merely his second job).
In the end, it would come down to the kickers. Miami’s Garo Yepremian, who looks not unlike Wallace Shawn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, was “the smallest man in professional football,” and had spent the previous two years selling his own line of neckties. Jan Stenerud, meanwhile, was “not just a kicker, but also an athlete”—no offense, kickers—who revolutionized the position as the first dominant soccer-style kicker,* and is still the only “pure kicker” voted into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. In fact, this game featured 15 future Hall-of-Famers (12 on the field, both head coaches, and one beloved owner). Statistically, though, the game belonged to the unlikely Ed Podolak, whose 350 all-purpose yards set an NFL playoff record that still stands.
*Have you seen the straight-ahead style kickers used to use? It’s amazing they ever made a field goal from more than 10 yards away.
However, the game would be most remembered for how the foremost kicker in the league turned into the Lin Elliot of his day, if only for one day. Stenerud missed two field goals, including a potential game-winner near the end of regulation, and had another attempt blocked in overtime. Yepremian also missed, but not twice. Eighty-two minutes and 40 seconds after the game began (according to the game clock), the short, bald former tie-maker unmade this tie with a 37-yard field goal, and the favored Chiefs were out. Inconceivable!
The game, as it turns out, also had “major, lasting implications” (of course). Instead of finding themselves on the verge of their third Super Bowl in five years and building the foundations of a dynasty, the Chiefs would not win another division title for more than two decades. The next season, they would christen their beautiful new home stadium* with a loss to these same Miami Dolphins, who would go on to win every game that year, which was, you know, kind of a big deal.
*Yes, the new Arrowhead, when it really was new.
Watching (40 years later, for the first time) the Longest Game Ever finally come to an end, the overwhelming theme of “what could have been” still hit home in 2011—not just what could have been for these next couple weeks, but the real optimism that had been brewing, suddenly derailed.
I wrote last week that beating Green Bay changed everything. Well, it did. And so does losing to the Raiders, at home, with the season on the line. In dismantling the otherwise unbeatable Packers, Romeo Crennel laid out a perfect game plan and inspired his team to execute it well enough to win. Kyle Orton seemed more than practiced—he seemed completely comfortable, putting together the best performance by a Chiefs quarterback against a quality opponent in years.
But now… Crennel’s game plan was questionable, and losing to the Raiders is a sin, regardless of the implications (if this were a college team—especially one that was well out of the championship picture—a losing streak to the most-hated rival, especially at home, would in itself be a fireable offense). Orton, meanwhile, showed the inconsistency that got him booted out of Denver.
No, this Saturday’s downer does not rise to the historical importance of 1971’s Tale of Two Overtimes, and not just because it took a good 20 minutes less game time. This 2011 team has seen some historical and semi-historical ups and downs, from the worst-ever season-opening loss to the longest win streak in seven years to the biggest upset at Arrowhead in a decade to the longest home losing streak to the Raiders ever. But, despite still having had the chance to repeat as AFC West Champs, it wasn’t really on the verge of anything. This team was, and is, if not in “rebuilding” mode—heaven forbid—still in the midst of some desperately needed renovations (and having a little trouble finding the perfect contractor).
What the Chiefs learned in 1971, what the Green Bay Packers learned last week in Kansas City, and what we learned again on Saturday is that there really are no easy games in the NFL, and no easy answers. And regardless of what happens on the first day of 2012 in Denver (I almost forgot the season is not, technically, over—there is a chance for one more small “up” to this up-and-down ride), this coming year will be one full of questions.
The Kansas City Chiefs are again at a real turning point. And if there were to be a special in 40 years—or even five—commemorating this game, and this season, what will be the epilogue?
Topics: AFC West, Arrowhead Addict, Arrowhead Stadium, Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Ed Podolak, Garo Yepremian, Green Bay Packers, Jan Stenerud, Kansas City Chiefs, Len Dawson, Miami Dolphins, NFL, Oakland Raiders