Big Matt’s Time Machine: Remember the Falcon


photo by The Centaur, FJH

I, like most of you, have spent an inordinate amount of time in my life thinking about the KC Chiefs. I’ve been alive for three decades, and I think it would be accurate to say I’ve been closely following them for a full two. I may not have seen many playoff victories in that time, but the Chiefs have still provided me a rich history to draw from. So many memories. Endless memories, really.

Remember Benny Thompson acting like he was a dog peeing on a fire hydrant? Remember Marcus Allen as “Mufasa” and Greg Hill as “Simba”? Remember Chester McGlockton dumping a live ball behind his head as he trotted out of bounds? Remember Sean LaChappelle?

I could go on forever. We all could. So many players, so many laughs, so many tears. This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing this offseason, in which we revisit interesting moments and times from the Chiefs’ recent history.  I’ll be attempting to find current relevance in these glimpses of the past, although that will probably be a bit of a reach sometimes. This is mainly about remembering.

So come along, friends, and hop aboard (Ghost voice) Big Maaaaaaatt’s Tiiiiiiiiime machiiiiiiiine……….

The year was 1997.  Your boy Big Matt was a sophomore in high school, one year removed from my starring turn as backup linebacker on the freshman B football team. The sweet delights of alcohol were being abused regularly at Loose Park for the first time in my life. Got my first driver’s license, joined the debate team, read Dune for the first time. All while maintaining a solid C average. Heady times.

I was reading the sports page before school, as I ever did, when I read a bout anew position Gunther Cunningham was creating to fully utilize Derrick Thomas. He was calling it the Falcon. “Brilliant!” exclaimed your boy Big Matt. After all, Gunther was a defensive genius, right? Surely this was going to be a massive success.

People forget this about DT, but there was frequent talk of him playing out of position. He played as a down linemen in a 4-3 when the Chiefs were in that scheme, and it wasn’t a great fit for him. Or maybe everyone made too much of that, and he just wasn’t a 15-sack player any more.

His three years with the highest sack-total were 1990, ’92, and ’91, respectively.  He averaged 16 sacks per season those years, after getting 10 in 1989 as a rookie. In ’93-’99, he averaged just under 10 per year. Good numbers, but probably not what we wanted them to be after that amazing start. So we insisted he was out of position, the scheme didn’t fit him, etc., etc. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the……well you guys know the rest. I don’t need to finish it, I’m sure. It’s a very common saying, after all. Well OK, just in case: the last word is “same.”

So yes, this was going to be the year they finally unleashed the beast again. Thomas was sure to set a new career high in sacks. Only….he didn’t. In 1997, he picked up 34 tackles, 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 12 games. His per-game numbers stayed pretty much right where they’d been the previous year. The experiment wasn’t necessarily a failure, but it didn’t bring back “the old DT.” I would remember this lesson in the future, when scheme was blamed for nearly every disappointment in the front seven. It’s a convenient excuse, but when the best player in our team’s history had a defense designed specifically for him, it still didn’t change much. Sometimes who you see on the field is just who a player is.

As to the experiment itself, I’ll admit I’m still somewhat enthralled by the premise. And it’s not like DT had a bad year. Our team went 13-3, largely because of the defense. Had he made a few more starts, he surely would’ve hit double-digits in sacks.

Of course, knowing what we know now about Gunther, it’s unlikely he was ever meant to re-invent the wheel with a new defensive scheme. We should’ve been tipped off something was amiss when Pellom McDaniels was the backup Falcon. I remember that seeming odd, even at the time. But Gunther was awesome, remember? If it ain’t broke…

Back to the present day. Would an experiment like this work with the 2012 Chiefs?

The easiest comparison to DT on the current roster is Tamba Hali. People have called Hali one-dimensional, much as they did Thomas. In both cases, the accusations are bogus. Watch DT tackle a running back five yards behind the line of scrimmage and tell me he can’t play the run. Watch Hali work his ass off every play and tell me that skill set doesn’t work against the run.  Pshaw, says your boy Big Matt (then and now). These guys are/were specialists, but never liabilities.

Obvious pass-rushing similarities aside, Hali wouldn’t be my choice for modern-day Falcon. He’s made a seamless transition to outside linebacker. The guy I’d really like to see turned loose is Derrick Johnson. Not that DJ doesn’t fit well with the 3-4 himself. He does. But the essence of the Falcon, as I remember it, is there were three down linemen, three linebackers, and DT lining up wherever he saw a weakness. Risky? Oh hells yeah. It’s trusting the player to know better than the coach. But if you have a player who consistently displays incredible instincts, isn’t that a wise move?

When DJ was at his best last season, he seemed to miraculously know exactly where to be. You could almost see him reading the plays and getting ready to destroy them. It was the best non-DT linebacking I’ve ever seen. I’d like to see him given the freedom to do that whenever he wants.

That doesn’t quite gel with the standard 3-4, I’m sure. And if we turned DJ loose and went with only one ILB, it would have to be someone better than Belcher (Luke Kuechly anyone?). It’s all a moot point anyway, as Romeo Crennel would have to be insane to go searching for answers in the Gunther Cunningham playbook. Methinks Pioli would frown on tinkering with his precious 3-4 as well.

Still, I often remember the Falcon as I’m sitting in my study smoking my pipe. Then I nod my head sagely while considering Derrick Johnson.

Tags: Derrick Johnson Derrick Thomas Featured Popular Tamba Hali