The 1998 Kansas City Chiefs were the least disciplined pro football team I have ever seen. They were probably the least disciplined team I’ve ever seen on any level — NFL, Canadian, Arena, college, high school, Pee-Wee, Electronic — but I don’t want to exaggerate things. I have seen some pretty undisciplined Electronic Football teams — those players go wherever they want.
Those Chiefs, looking back, came by their lack of discipline in a most human way. You have to understand: The 1990s Chiefs were excellent football teams. They made the playoffs every year but one from 1990 to 1997, and they would have made it even that one year, 1996, if Morten Andersen could have made, like, a seven-yard field goal.*
*It was actually a 30-yard field goal.
The Chiefs were probably never a GREAT team in that stretch. But they were close to great at times. They were certainly very, very good. They reached the AFC Championship game in January, 1994, the last playoff game won by the Chiefs. They had the best record in the NFL in 1995. They had the best record in the AFC in 1997. They allowed the fewest points in the league in 1995 and ’97. They also had insanely passionate fans and as big a homefield advantage as any team in the league.
Chiefs’ home records during playoff run:
That’s 44-12 at home over seven years, which is a key part of this story because in 1995 and 1997 the Chiefs — the No. 1 seed in the division — lost their playoff games at home. The 1995 game was disastrous — a 10-7 loss to a Jim Harbaugh led Colts team that included three missed field goals by Chiefs kicker Lin Elliott (though Chiefs fans often forget that Colts kicker Cary Blanchard missed two field goals himself).
But, in many ways, the 1997 loss was more heartbreaking. The Chiefs lost that game to hated rival Denver 14-10, and even though those Broncos were truly a great team — they would win the next two Super Bowls — this was clearly a breaking point for Chiefs fans (who still talk about a phantom holding call and Tony Gonzalez touchdown called out of bounds) and, even more, a breaking point for Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer.
He sat with us that week to talk over the season. I will never forget it — we were all sitting around a table, and Schottenheimer answered some questions. He was a broken man. When the question and answer session ended, he asked us to turn off the recorders. And he asked us, in essence, “What am I doing wrong?” When a coach has reached that desperation point where he is asking sportswriters what to do, things will likely not go well.
And it seems to me on that day, Marty Schottenheimer — a great coach in my opinion, a disciplinarian, a man who had understood the way to build a team — completely lost his way. The Chiefs already had a team with a bunch of shaky characters. Then, during the off-season, they picked up a few more. They had a quarterback controversy. They lost Marcus Allen, who had been a leader and a spokesman for the team. Schottenheimer, who had always been a conservative coach, suddenly talked about the need to pick up “chunks of yards.”
Those Chiefs started the year 4-1 and everything seemed OK, I guess. That was a difficult team to cover — hardly anyone ever talked to the press — and so when it seemed like a few things were kind of out whack, well, you just thought, “Hey, they’re winning … Marty must know what he’s doing.”
He didn’t. They want to New England and got absolutely humiliated 40-10. And everything fell apart. Everything. Finger pointing. Terrible penalties. Squabbles. What I remember most about that team was the way that players would celebrate every time they made an individual play, which isn’t intrinsically a terrible thing except that they would do that even if that individual play had actually led to an opponent’s first down, or the Chiefs were losing by three touchdowns, or even when they had not really MADE the play. I mean these guys would strut if a receiver dropped the ball or if the running back tripped over his offensive tackle. It was pretty hard to watch.
The crescendo was a 30-7 annihilation in Denver on Monday Night when the Chiefs committed 13 penalties for 137 yards — this included FIVE personal foul penalties on one drive, three of them by the late Derrick Thomas. After the game, Lamar Hunt called his team “disgraced.” In Kansas City, they still call it the Monday Night Meltdown.
All that year, when we asked Schottenheimer what the heck was going on, he seemed unable even to answer. He had lost his equilibrium. He had lost the team. He quit at the end of the year. That whole team — and there is so much more that went on behind the scenes — was one of the great underachievers, and one of the saddest collections, I’ve ever seen in pro football.
I bring this up now because the 2011 Oakland Raiders have done what I did not think was possible — they have surpassed the 1998 Chiefs as the most penalized team in NFL history. The Raiders finished with 163 penalties for 1,358 yards. The Chiefs held both those records. Now, they hold neither.
To put it in simple terms, the Raiders AVERAGED 10 penalties for 85 yards. Not bad.
The Raiders, of course, have a grand history of penalties. They showed a Top 10 list of the most penalized teams ever during the Raiders-Chargers game Sunday and I believe six or seven of the Top 10 were Raiders. I can’t find that list, but I can find the Top 5:
1. 2011 Raiders: 163
2. 1998 Chiefs: 158
3. 1994 Raiders 156
(tie) 1996 Raiders 156
5. 1989 Oilers 149
So that’s three of the top five. The Raiders have now led the league (AFL or NFL) in most penalties 13 times*. But the point for many of those years is that the Raiders WANTED to lead the league in penalties or at least be near the top. This was Al Davis’ way. He wanted his Raiders to play on the edge. To him, penalties were like speeding tickets — the price you had to pay to get someplace fast.
*This is actually NOT the record. Papa Halas’ Chicago Bears led the NFL in penalties FIFTEEN times, including six years in a row.
Well, of course, Al Davis died this past year, and so you might look at this NFL record as an homage to him. But I’m not sure that’s really true. I’m not sure that these penalties were really in the spirit of Al Davis and playing on the edge … I think they were more in the spirit of, “Huh?” I have broken down the Raiders penalties for posterity — my own homage to Al Davis.
The Raiders committed:
— 29 offensive holding penalties
— 26 defensive offsides or neutral zone infractions
— 23 personal fouls of various kinds
— 21 false starts of various kinds including one on a free kick
— 12 defensive holds
— 12 pass interferences
— 10 delay of game penalties
— 7 illegal contacts
— 4 facemasks
— 3 illegal blocks of various kinds
— 3 illegal formations of various kinds
— 2 ineligible passes
— 2 special teams out of bounds penalties
— 2 12 men on the field penalties*
— 1 intentional grounding
— 1 offensive pass interference
— 1 illegal use of hands
— 1 illegal substitution
— 1 running into the kicker
— 1 roughing the kicker
— 1 clipping
I mention the fact they had just one clipping on the bottom because whoever is the clipping coach in Oakland deserves a raise.
*The Raiders actually had FIVE 12 men on the field penalties, but three were declined meaning the Raiders were really bad with 12 men on the field.
It looks like the Raiders had three touchdowns taken away by penalties, though one seems to have been overturned anyway by replay. An opponent took one field goal off the board because of a Raiders penalty and proceeded to score a touchdown. Considering the quantity of penalties, that actually doesn’t seem so bad to me.
The Raiders committed 18 penalties that were declined or offset. The offensive line held every game but three. The defensive line jumped offside every game but two. The most personal fouls in a game was four, against the Vikings and they had a face mask in that game too. They did not commit a have an illegal formation in their first 13 games and then had two in the same series. They saved their best for Kansas City — that really is the most underrated nasty rivalry in the NFL — committing 14 and 15 penalties in those two games.
I watched the Raiders quite a few times this year, and to be honest I didn’t often get the impression that they were out of control the way those 1998 Chiefs were. I thought the offensive line just held a lot, and the defensive line jumped into the neutral zone a lot. Raiders fans could probably offer a more complete analysis though.
One other thing — the Raiders didn’t really lose a lot of close games this year. They won a few — close ones over Houston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago and Kansas City. Of the losses, though, they probably should have won at Buffalo, but they were beaten pretty soundly by New England, crushed by KC, bludgeoned the second time they played the Broncos and destroyed at Miami and Green Bay. The one-point loss to the Lions in Week 15 was crushing and penalties played a role in that one. But all in all, I would say that their amazing number of penalties really didn’t make a huge difference. When the 1998 Chiefs set the penalties record, there were lessons and stories behind it — lessons about abandoning your standards, stories about how frustration can tear you down and so on.
The 2011 Raiders I think were just a mediocre team, and like many mediocre teams they finished 8-8. They just happened to have a lot of penalties called on them.