My friend Don Van Natta on Sunday Tweeted out that the Kansas City Chiefs are the worst 7-0 team in NFL history:
The #Chiefs are the worst 7-0 team in NFL history, The teams they have beaten are a combined 14-33.
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) October 20, 2013
It’s a very interesting question — how good are these undefeated Chiefs anyway? — and as you might imagine, like Don, I have a few thoughts on this. But first let’s do a little math correction. Technically, yes, the Chiefs opponents are 14-33, but that includes the seven victories the Chiefs have over them. So, the more correct way to say it, I think, is that the teams Kansas City has beaten area a combined 14-26.
Also, that record includes the winless Giants and Jaguars. Nobody questions their awfulness (though when Kansas City played the Giants, nobody knew New York stunk yet) but that’s only two teams. The other five combined are 14-16, which isn’t as terrible.
But let’s assume that the Kansas City opponents are terrible. Let’s assume they’ve simply taken advantage of a historically lucky run of opponents. Does that necessarily make the Chiefs terrible? After all, they’ve won all seven of the games – and won all but two of them convincingly. Their plus-88 point differential is the second highest in the NFL behind only Denver. They’ve won their three road games by 25, 10 and 9 points.
Since the start of the Super Bowl, there have been 31 teams that have started the season 7-0. For your enjoyment, I went and looked back and how each team has done:
1969 Rams — Went 11-3, lost to Vikings in first playoff game.
1972 Dolphins — Went perfect 14-0, won Super Bowl.
1973 Vikings — Went 12-2, lost to Dolphins in Super Bowl.
1974 St. Louis Cardinals — Went 10-4, lost to Vikings in first playoff game.
1975 Vikings — Went 12-2, lost to Cowboys in first round of playoffs.
1977 Cowboys — Went 12-2, won Super Bowl.
1978 Steelers — Went 14-2, won Super Bowl.
1978 Rams — Went 12-4, crushed by Cowboys in conference championship.
1983 Cowboys — Went 12-4, lost to Rams in first playoff game.
1984 Dolphins — Marino’s year, went 14-2, lost to 49ers in Super Bowl.
1985 Los Angeles Rams — Went 11-5, crushed by Bears in conference championship
1985 Bears — Went 15-1, won Super Bowl.
1990 San Francisco 49ers — Went 14-2, lost to Giants in conference championship.
1990 Giants — Went 13-3, won Super Bowl.
1991 Washington Hogs — Went 14-2, won Super Bowl.
1991 New Orleans Saints — Went 11-5, lost to Falcons in first playoff game.
1998 Vikings — Went 15-1, lost to Falcons in conference championship.
1998 Broncos — Went 14-2, won Super Bowl.
2000 Vikings — Went 11-5, demolished by Giants in conference championship.
2003 Chiefs — Went 13-3, lost to Colts in first playoff game. Remember ‘em well.
2004 Eagles — Went 13-3, lost Super Bowl to Patriots.
2005 Colts — Went 14-2, lost to Steelers in first playoff game.
2006 Bears — Went 13-3, lost to Colts in Super Bowl.
2006 Colts — Went 12-4, won Super Bowl.
2007 Colts — Went 13-3, lost to Chargers in first playoff game.
2007 Patriots — Went 16-0, first ever team to do so, lost Super Bowl to Giants.
2008 Titans — Went 13-3, lost to Ravens in first round of playoffs.
2009 Colts — Went 14-2, lost to Saints in Super Bowl.
2009 Saints — Went 13-3, won Super Bowl.
2011 Packers — Went 15-1, lost to Giants in first playoff game.
2012 Falcons — Went 13-3, lost to 49ers in conference championship.
OK, so let’s break it down further.
– Nine of the 31 won the Super Bowl — they are bolded above. The group includes, of course, the 1972 Dolphins, the 1978 Steelers and the 1985 Bears, three teams everyone acknowledges as among the best ever.
Six more teams lost in the Super Bowl — the 1973 Vikings, the 1984 Dolphins, the 2004 Eagles, the 2006 Bears, the 2007 Patriots and the 2009 Colts. Of course that Patriots teams went through the season 16-0. That 1984 Dolphins team was the great Dan Marino team.
That still leaves 16 teams. Let’s eliminate a few from the “worst team ever to start 7-0” conversation.
Take the 1998 Vikings out — that was one of the greatest offenses in NFL history.
Take the 2005 and 2007 Colts out — that was still Peyton Manning. Think about this: No other team in the Super Bowl era has ever started back-to-back seasons 7-0. The Colts did it THREE YEARS IN A ROW.
Take the 1975 Vikings out. That was a great team sandwiched between two Super Bowl teams.
Take the 1983 Cowboys out. Those Tom Landry teams were great almost every year from 1966 to 1985.
The 1990 49ers were clearly a great team. The 2011 Packers were coming off a Super Bowl. The 1978 and 1985 Rams, the 2001 Vikings and 2012 Falcons might not have been great teams but all reached their conference championship.
So we’re down to five teams — the five teams I think have a case as worst to start 7-0. Let’s look at them one by one:
— The 1969 Rams actually started 11-0 … but they too built up their early success on fairly poor teams. Their opponents records the first seven games was a combined 15-26-1 (not counting the seven losses the Rams hung on them), so that’s not so different from the Chiefs 14-26.
But the Rams, unlike the Chiefs, had already established themselves as an excellent team. In 1967, they lost just once entering the playoffs — that year Roman Gabriel was first team All-Pro and the Rams led the NFL both in points scored and fewest points allowed. They lost to the Packers in the playoffs. They were good again in 1968, and in 1969 Gabriel was league MVP and the defense was still formidable.
In some ways, you can see the Chiefs comparing with these Rams. The Rams had been known for their famed Fearsome Foursome, anchored by defensive linemen Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy. That was beginning to fade by 1969, it was Lundy’s last season and Jones was aging too. But it was still good and intimidating.
The Chiefs seem to have a something of a Fearsome Foursome themselves. It’s a modern kind of Fearsome Foursome because only one of the four technically would be listed as a defensive lineman — but NFL defenses these days just aren’t as structured as they used to be.
Anyway, right now, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are utterly unblockable. Those are the two pillars of the Chiefsome Foursome. Houston has 10 sacks, Hali has nine, and in the last quarter against the Texans on Sunday they just took over the game. The third in the group is nose tackle Dontari Poe, who is really a remarkable player. If you happen to be watching the Chiefs play, just watch him for a few plays. He doesn’t only take on two blockers, he consistently pushes them backward. I would say the fourth defense is inside linebacker Derrick Johnson just finds little openings in the offensive lines and commands games with his speed.
Those Rams teams, inevitably, have to be viewed as a disappointment. They never reached a Super Bowl, even though they were an excellent team for George Allen.
— On the surface, the 1974 Cardinals are probably the best comparison to this Chiefs team. Like the Chiefs, they stunk, going 4-9-1 the previous three seasons. Like the Chiefs, few bought into their surprising success. In 1975, their opponents records through seven weeks was 21-21, again, not counting the seven losses.
But that’s really where the comparisons end. That 1974 Cardinals team nothing like this Chiefs team. They were coached by a 50-year-old offensive genius named Don Coryell who brought in a high-flying offense built around a 30-year-old quarterback, Jim Hart, and a phenomenal all-around talent, Terry Metcalf. Hart threw more passes than any quarterback int he NFL, Metcalf had more than 2,000 all-purpose yards. The Cardinals defense, led by Hall of Famer Roger Wehrli, played bend-but-don’t-break well enough and the Cardinals made the playoffs in both 1974 and 1975.
— The 1991 Saints were a good team and had been for several years — this was the Jim Mora period when the Saints made the playoffs four out of six years. The amazing thing about that Saints team was that somehow they scored points. Their quarterback was Steve Walsh and Bobby Hebert. Their leading rusher, Fred McAfee, gained 494 yards all season. They did not have a 1,000 yard receiver either. So how did they score? Well, they had a defense that forced 44 turnovers — 29 of them interceptions — and gave up just 18 touchdowns all year.
I don’t think there’s much of a comparison to make here.
— I can speak with some authority on the 2003 Chiefs — I was columnist for the Kansas City Star that year. That Chiefs team had one of the greatest offenses and special teams in NFL history. That was the year Priest Holmes set the NFL record (soon to be broken) for touchdowns in a season He scored 27. Holmes ran for 1,420 yards, caught 74 passes, scored those 27 touchdowns and fumbled once all season. In my mind, he unquestionably should have been the NFL MVP. He was not (Peyton Manning, Steve McNair and 2,000 yard rusher Jamal Lewis all won the award in various places). Then again, Holmes was even better in 2002 — he was as good as anyone ever in 2002 — and did not win any MVP awards that year either.
Trent Green had a good year at quarterback that season, Tony Gonzalez caught 71 passes, and Dante Hall returned four kicks for touchdowns — two punts and two kickoffs. The Chiefs scored 484 points — 37 more than any other team in the NFL.
But that defense — wow was that Chiefs defense bad. They were able to cover it up for a while, but in the last two months of the season it was obvious that the Chiefs could not stop, slow down or even irritate a good offense. In their last six games, they gave up 45 at Denver, then gave up 45 at Minnesota and then, in their home playoff game against Indianapolis, they did not force the Colts to punt even one time. The Colts did not force the Chiefs to punt either so the game went back and forth, and in the end it came down to an untimely Priest Holmes fumble and a bit of Peyton Manning brilliance when on a rare third down he raced to the line and got the ball snapped before the Chiefs could get their 12th man off the field.
I have a feeling this 2013 Chiefs team is actually better than that one. This team is just much better rounded. As mentioned, they have displayed a potentially great defense — 35 sacks in seven games, on pace for an NFL record – and they have a decent offense with a very good running game.
— The 2008 Titans were a good team. They also beat up on an easy early schedule, but they would beat Indianapolis, Green Bay and Chicago in back-to-back-to-back weeks to go 9-0. They beat Jacksonville the week after that to go 10-0.
In many ways, that Titans team is a very good comparison for this Chiefs team. Tennessee had a fantastic defense, coached by Jim Schwartz and anchored by tackle Albert Haynesworth and cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Chris Johnson was the dominant running back for Tennessee — he averaged 4.9 yards per carry all season — and Kerry Collins was charged with executing a fairly conservative offense.
That’s a lot like this Chiefs team. They play great defense, they give the ball to Jamaal Charles a lot, Alex Smith is proving to be an excellent leader and offense manager. One thing about Alex Smith that is easy to miss is that he can really run. He has rushed for more than 200 yards — only Terrell Pryor among quarterbacks has run for more in the AFC. Smith scored the winning touchdown Sunday on a fantastic-looking broken play, where Smith held out the ball like he was going to hand it off. Unfortunately, Jamaal Charles ran the other way. That left Smith handing the ball off to nobody. So he just tucked it in and ran for the score.
“Yeah, we made that play up,” Charles told reporters after the game.
Of course this season is not even half over and nobody knows for sure how Kansas City will end up. I know there are a lot of people who think the Chiefs will collapse once they start playing good teams, and that’s a reasonable guess. But I think they are wrong for two reasons. One, this Chiefs formula — defense first, control the ball, don’t make mistakes, win the turnover battle, make a few special teams plays — is pretty tried and true. It might not be the most exciting kind of football. But it tends to work.
And two — the Chiefs don’t play that many good teams. Nobody does. The Chiefs do play the Broncos twice, so that will obviously be a challenge. And then? They play the Colts — are the Colts good? They looked good Sunday. They did not look too good the week before at San Diego. Kansas City plays the Chargers twice — are the Chargers good? they looked good against the Colts last week. They didn’t look good getting beat up by the Raiders, though. The Chiefs have the Raiders again in Oakland. They have the Cleveland Browns. They have Washington. That’s their whole season.
I think the way it works in the NFL is this: If you beat the teams you play, you’re pretty good. There are a million variables. Sometimes, you play good teams that have a lot of injuries. Sometimes you play bad teams that get hot. Sometimes, you give games away with turnovers. Sometimes you steal games with fluke plays. Sometimes you play teams that should be good but are not, or teams that should be terrible but somehow keep winning. The Chiefs are 7-0. Are they a good team? Of course they’re a good team — you don’t go 7-0 if you are not. The question from here is only: How good?
And I think the answer is probably: Better than you think.