“The last time I saw Dave Boyle…. twenty-five years ago in the back of that car.”
That’s one of Sean Penn’s lines from the movie ‘Mystic River’. He’s describing to Kevin Bacon how their childhood friend never really acted like himself again after being abducted as a teenager. Penn’s remark was figurative–he had killed Dave Boyle two nights prior.
The last time I saw Gunther Cunningham…. New Year’s Day 2006 on the sidelines at Arrowhead. That was the day his defense–the one featuring surefire future Chiefs Ring of Honor players Eric Warfield, Kendrell Bell, Kawika Mitchell, and Ryan Sims–demoralized playoff-bound Cincinnati by holding them to three points. Gunther may have been shutting down the Bengals’ B-list that day, but he was most decidedly shutting them down. In a season marked by constant struggles against the pass, no doubt fueled to some degree by playing 13 games against Pro Bowl quarterbacks, Gun’s boys manned up and did what they did best: puttin’ on the blitz. One sack, two forced fumbles, eight passes defensed, and a grand total of 37 yards allowed on 22 carries later, the Chiefs defense bested an offense many believed could not be bested.
A few months later Gunther was asked to do the one thing no man wants to do: change. Per the requirements of new head coach Herm Edwards, Gun adopted what can only be described as a blitz-last scheme. The coach who prided himself on averaging 41 sacks per season was now working for a coach who barely averaged 30. The coach who fielded a top 10 rushing defense in 6 of the last 11 seasons now took orders from a coach who had cracked the top 16 only once.
In retrospect, it’s impressive what Gun did in such short order when he returned to Kansas City. He took the 30th ranked rushing defense from 2003 to 12th in 2004 and 7th in 2005. In his first year back he culled 41 sacks from a group whose front seven was rookie Jared Allen, Eric Hicks, Ryan Sims, Lional Dalton, Kawika Mitchell, Scott Fujita, and Monte Beisel.
When I look at the comparative 10 sacks that came from Tamba Hali, Glenn Dorsey, Tank Tyler, Jason Babin, Derrick Johnson, Demorrio Williams, and Rocky Boiman in 2008, something doesn’t compute. The same coach who got 21.5 out of Eric Hicks and Duane Clemons alone shouldn’t have gotten so little production from so talented a group.
Now flash back to the guy whose job Gunther took: Greg Robinson. Robinson took over the defense Gunther had built with the Schottenheimer brothers. I use the term “took over” loosely, because what he really did was tear it down. With Marvcus Patton’s star rapidly fading, G-Rob sent away the only other linebacker of merit: Donnie Edwards (at this point Mike Maslowski had not proven himself to be anything other than a bulldog on punt coverage). Safeties were converted to cornerbacks, cornerbacks were converted to benchwarmers, and benchwarmers were converted to starting linemen.
Unsurprisingly, this bizarre strategy didn’t pan out–by 2002 the team was 28th in points allowed, 24th in rushing yards allowed, and dead last in passing yards allowed. Every game became a track meet for the offense. Had there been any fewer than eight eventual Pro Bowlers on the other side of the ball, Kansas City fans would have seen final scores then that look more like the final scores we see now.
Now that both coordinators have left Kansas City, more than likely never to return, we’re being treated to something rather exceptionally entertaining–both men are running their mouths. Gun, you’re up first:
“I’ve gone through three years of playing zone defense because I was loyal to Herm Edwards. That’s what he wanted. People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback – always has been, always will be.”
“The emotions get involved, ‘Oh, we’ll play with all these young players.’ But what you don’t understand is, they have to be led by guys like Jared Allen. If you have a lot of young players that you’re going to draft, you have to make sure you work the whole process. I believe the mistake we made here is that they tried to add some UFA players like Demorrio Williams. Well, he doesn’t have enough experience and enough ability to lead a bunch of rookies.”
Chiefs fans are angry right now. Many of them are angry with Gunther. It doesn’t matter to him that he just said everything they’ve been thinking for 2+ years now. The hate is rationalized. ‘Gunther is shifting blame.’ ‘He was never successful without Derrick Thomas.’ ‘He wanted Kendrell Bell.’ This is temporary. In a five years Chiefs fans will have enough separation from these last 26 losses to view the circumstances rationally, and just as they’ll gain perspective on Carl Peterson and view him as a flawed but overall effective General Manager, they’ll gain perspective on Gunther Cunningham and view him as a flawed but overall effective defensive coordinator.
Greg Robinson, on the other hand, will never benefit from that perspective. He has acquired some momentarily elevated status in the eyes of some fans, who claim that he was only the 2nd worst defensive coordinator in franchise history. This won’t last either, but that’s not stopping him from jawing too. Greg, take it away:
“I feel vindicated because the Chiefs never improved much defensively after I was replaced.” (paraphrased)
You go girl. I guess it makes no difference that, prior to 2008, Gunther’s worst season in Kansas City was better than your best. It’s okay though. Remember how much Ohio residents loved you back on November 16, 2003? They’re about to love you even more.
The tragedy of Greg Robinson is this: if you look at his record in Denver, he was stellar. Not just good. Stellar. I guess it didn’t hurt that he had players like Bill Romanowski, Michael Dean Perry, Alfred Williams, Keith Traylor, Al Wilson, Neil Smith, Dale Carter, Trevor Pryce, John Mobley, Tyrone Braxton, and Steve Atwater. Fans like to point out that Gunther was never as successful without D.T. and James Hasty. Well…. Greg Robinson was never successful without at least five of those guys on his squad at the same time.
Maybe that’s why Gun is working in the NFL and Greg is not. Maybe Jim Schwartz sees something in Gunther that Chiefs fans are blind to right now. It could be that when Cunningham was his linebackers coach for three years, his team was 5th, 2nd, and then 1st against the run. In the three seasons after Gun’s departure and subsequent return to Arrowhead, Dave McGinnis could only get that rushing defense to 18th, 22nd, and 30th. Maybe the loss of Rocky Calmus was just really rough on them. Rocky Boiman just wasn’t up to the task of filling those big shoes.
I wish Gunther nothing but the best in Detroit. For that matter, I wish Greg nothing but the best at Ohio State, if for no other reason than that I’d like to know that Dick Vermeil is at least a little better at picking an assistant than, say, George McGovern. I wish Mike Priefer nothing but the best in Denver, but that’s only because I know what his best is, and I’ll rather enjoy watching my team exploit his best twice a year for however long it takes the Broncos’ brass to realize he’s not his father (sometimes nepotism is a real sonofabitch). I think Gunther will do great, if for no other reason than that he and Schwartz are on the same page.
Meanwhile, Herm Edwards is on his own page. His page has dismantled the careers of nearly every assistant and coordinator who ever worked for him. Gunther got lucky. He had a friend who got hot at the right time, and that friend had a job to offer him. As I’ve said before, Chan Gailey will be immune because he isn’t connected in most peoples’ minds to Herm, but rather to Bill Cowher and Jerry Jones. As for Mike Priefer, well…. that’s the gift that keeps on giving. If nothing else good comes from this current mess, at least take solace in knowing that twice a year we’ll start every drive at the 40-yard line.