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1986 Kansas City Chiefs: A Special Season

Publish Date: 09/22/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The 1986 Kansas City Chiefs stand out as an exceptional exception during a lengthy stretch of franchise futility. Since their Super Bowl title run under Hank Stram and Len Dawson ended in 1971 and their ascension under Marty Schottenheimer started in 1990, their fortunes had steadily declined ever since – this 1986 edition stood out as an exception with its surprise run into the playoffs, an exception amidst nearly two decades of dismal football play. They did it with special teams and that made this team special.

Video: 1986 Kansas City Chiefs video yearbook-Flight to Prominence

1986 Kansas City Chiefs video yearbook-Flight to Prominence

John Mackovic had taken over as head coach in 1983. He produced two seasons with a 6-10 record and one with an 8-8 mark, split among 25-year-old Todd Blackledge (one of the Class of 1983 quarterbacks who never made it as a Pro Bowler) and veteran Bill Kenney for quarterback duties.

Blackledge was atrocious, completing just 46% of his passes for just 5.7 yards per attempt in an age more favorable to defenses. Kenney fared slightly better, completing 52% and yielding an average yard-per-attempt rate.

Stephon Paige was an effective receiver, catching 52 balls for 829 yards. Henry Marshall made 46 catches for 652 yards, while Carlos Carson averaged 23.7 yards per catch and could make big plays when given the ball. Had there been anyone more capable of getting this trio the ball more quickly, they may have fared even better.

Running back Mike Pruitt led all rushes but failed to surpass 450 yards; Herman Head and Boyce Green provided no more than mediocre backfield play.

Video: CARLOS CARSON KANSAS CITY CHIEFS WR 1980-1989 (LSU)

CARLOS CARSON KANSAS CITY CHIEFS WR 1980-1989 (LSU)

Yet Kansas City managed to finish 12th in the NFL for points scored, thanks to improvements made on their offensive line with Irv Eatman and Mark Adickes from the defunct United Football League and using an aggressive defense and special teams strategy.

Bill Maas was the linchpin of Kansas City’s 3-4 defense, an elite Pro Bowl nose tackle who could tie up blockers. In addition, he earned seven sacks. Art Still and Pete Koch combined to sack the quarterback 10 1/2 times; Pete Koch registered 5 1/2 sacks – giving KC an extraordinary defense which relied more on its linemen than its linebackers for plays.

The pride and joy of the team were its secondary. Deron Cherry was an All-Pro free safety, while Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross were talented young corners who would soon earn Pro Bowl selection – though neither made the Pro Bowl team this season.

Kansas City and Cincinnati started the 1986 regular season off on an uneven note against each other at KC, in what seemed a relatively innocuous matchup against the bengals despite being four years removed from Forrest Gregg’s playoff runs). But for whatever reason, this game got moved to the 4 PM ET window somehow – perhaps someone knew something would emerge as potentially one of the most consequential regular season matches later that year?

At that point, however, that knowledge was still to come – at the moment, it was simply a victory for Kansas City. Cherry recovered a fumble in the end zone for their first points of the season while Pruitt, Jeff Smith and Heard shared in running back duties; all three contributed 180 in rush yards as Cincinnati fell 24-14 to Kansas City.

Kansas City’s road trip to Seattle seemed more in line with recent results; the running game was mainly muted, Blackledge tossed two interceptions, and they fell 23-17. But Kansas City’s defensive line turned things around against an underwhelming Houston Oilers team (today’s Tennessee Titans). Warren Moon was brought down seven times, resulting in seven sacks by Maas and Still for a 27-13 victory for Kansas City.

Blackledge enjoyed one of his greatest performances of 1986 in Buffalo when he completed 17/29 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns – out playing Jim Kelly, who had three picks! Although Buffalo were an inept team then, Blackledge led Kansas City to an eventual 20-17 win, keeping their 3-1 record intact.

Kansas City had high hopes against the Los Angeles Raiders, one of the league’s premier teams during the first half of the 1980s. Kansas City built up an early 17-0 lead, but Blackledge and Kenney became inconsistent while the running game collapsed and the offensive line allowed five sacks resulting in a 24-17 defeat.

The Chiefs were not much better in Cleveland, facing off against a team which would come within inches of reaching the Super Bowl. Blackledge was sacked four times, the running game only gained 43 yards, and they ultimately fell 20-7.

A game against the San Diego Chargers proved just what the offense needed: Blackledge found Paige up top for a 45-yard touchdown strike, and things started moving quickly. On defense, Lloyd Burress picked off two passes near midfield before returning both for touchdowns. Kansas City eventually led 42-34 before San Diego scored one final score, but in an era without two-point conversion, KC held on for a one-point win!

Kansas City hosted another terrible team at Arrowhead Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by quarterback Kenney, who completed 15 of 29 passes for 230 yards while connecting five times with Marshall for 91 yards. Kansas City should have been in control throughout, yet having to settle for field goals on several red zone trips kept things tight, forcing a 20-20 tie into fourth-quarter play. They escaped embarrassment when Smith ran in for a 32-yard touchdown run that secured victory and avoided embarrassment for Kansas City.

Kansas City’s road trip to San Diego started terribly as they snapped the ball out of their own end zone for a safety. Things worsened after consecutive Charger touchdowns made it 16-0 before everything turned around. Kenney completed 21/32 passes for 281 yards while hitting Marshall and Carson for touchdowns; Lewis picked off two passes, part of a four-pick day defensive effort as an entire unit; Kansas City managed to claw their way within 23-21 before Nick Lowery kicked a 37-yard field goal win and secured victory.

Kansas City kept their momentum rolling when Seattle made their second visit (they had previously been an AFC West team prior to 2002). Following an uneventful first quarter, Kenney started picking apart Seattle with 22/41 passes for 256 yards that spread among ten receivers for three touchdowns while also throwing three interceptions; nonetheless, the Chiefs still easily won 27-7 against an excellent team.

Denver was the superior team, leading the division race, and Kansas City performed disgracefully at Mile High Stadium. They lost three fumbles, allowed five sacsks, gave up two special teams touchdowns, and dug an enormous 31-0 hole as they fell to an embarrassing 38-17 defeat. Things weren’t much better the following week against the St Louis Cardinals as four turnovers and no running game contributed to an embarrassing 23-14 defeat; that season, the Cardinals would only win four games!

Kansas City had been at 7-5 and two games behind Denver in the AFC West. Within one game of clinching a wild-card spot, both the Raiders and Bengals (8-4) led in competition for one spot while the Seahawks and Dolphins (6-6) stood in its way also just a game back.

After their previous meeting with Buffalo–where the schedule formula before 2002 mandated two last-place teams from each conference playing each other twice–they faced off again against them at home; it proved disastrous. Kansas City were outrushed 164-73 while Kenney threw three interceptions. Although Paige caught nine balls for 119 yards in this matchup, their 17-14 home loss to an undefeated four-win team was deeply disappointing.

Kansas City had lost three in a row to poor teams. It appeared unlikely to make the playoffs, yet got an unexpected break when both the Raiders and Bengals lost ahead of them. At the same time, the Dolphins fell just behind them–allowing Kansas City to seize it and capitalize.

Kansas City made Denver pay in the rematch, erupting with five interceptions from five different players and four sacks from four players – Cherry being the sole interception/sack combination player – before Blackledge broke the tie with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Smith that set in motion a 37-10 win in the fourth period.

Cincinnati kept their playoff hopes alive with wins against Indianapolis and Cleveland while losing to the Raiders. When Kansas City arrived at Los Angeles Coliseum to help inflict further collapse, Cherry and Ross intercepted two passes each to build up a 17-zip lead before hanging on for a 20-17 victory with Cleveland winning against Cincinnati. Kansas City now held control over their playoff destiny!

Kansas City faced one final hurdle against an underperforming Pittsburgh Steelers squad on the road: outrun 175-38 while giving up over 350 yards passing. But their defense and special teams would come through once more in dramatic fashion to secure victory.

Cherry recovered a blocked punt in the end zone to give Kansas City an early 10-3 lead, followed by Green’s return of kickoff 97 yards back for another touchdown and make it 17-6. Pittsburgh then attempted a field goal attempt, which was blocked, and Burruss brought it 78 yards back home; that made it 24-6 and gave Kansas City enough of a buffer against an offense unable to move the ball, and they eventually pulled out a 24-19 win.

Kansas City had won Week 1 against Cincinnati to break a tie for playoff contention and reach their first postseason appearance since 1971.

The Chiefs traveled to New Jersey’s Meadowlands for their game against the New York Jets, who made quite an unlikely run back into the playoffs after starting 10-1 and dropping five consecutive games before holding onto their playoff spot due to a strong conference record.

Kansas City scored first on a one-yard touchdown run by Smith but failed to convert on an extra point and fell apart after that, getting outrushed 165-67 with no back gaining over 15 yards. Blackledge played poorly with 12/21 for 80 yards and two interceptions, while Kenney performed acceptable (8/16 for 97). Overall, the Chiefs lost 35-15.

Kansas City had enjoyed an enthralling playoff run yet was unable to build upon it. Mackovic was fired after players met with owner Lamar Hunt. However, as soon as their playoff run concluded, they experienced another sudden collapse before Marty-Ball arrived three years later and brought lasting football success back into Kansas City.

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