Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return is that all life repeats itself in some similar form near constantly. Milan Kundera’s concept of the unbearable lightness of being is that each life lived is a discrete point and cannot be relived or even remembered in earnest. I like Kundera, but my hope is that Nietzsche has it right.
Twenty years ago, after two losing seasons and stunning displays of incompetency from a coach who should have never been made a coach, a new GM, coach, and coaching staff were brought in to do damage control. The dramatic shift in the team’s success distorts our perception of how much Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer really changed the shape of the team (this supports Kundera’s premise). The reality is that they kept a lot of the starters from Frank Gansz’s staff. 1990′s 11-4-1 playoff team boasted 13 common starters with Gansz’s 1988 4-11-1 abomination, including QB Steve DeBerg, RB Christian Okoye, WR Stephone Paige, DL Neil Smith and Bill Maas, LB Dino Hackett, and all four DBs: Albert Lewis, Kevin Ross, Kevin Porter, and Deron Cherry. What Carl and Marty did was flush the LB corps (minus Pro Bowler Hackett), flush the right side of the OL, and switch starting tailbacks.
Twenty years later, my hope is that Scott Pioli and Todd Haley will flush the LB corps (possibly minus Derrick Johnson), flush the right side of the OL, and switch starting tailbacks.
Aside from gameday philosophy, the biggest change between 1988 and 1990 was defensive production. In Gansz’s final year the Chiefs were 15th (of 28, as there were no Panthers, Jaguars, Texans, or new Cleveland Browns at that time) in scoring defense and 26th in sacks. By 1990 they were 5th and 1st, respectively. It wasn’t Percy Snow or the Rocky Boiman-esque Chris Martin that acted as the catalyst for that change. No, it was two consecutive top five draft picks from ’88 and ’89 that started to pan out at about the same time–Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas.
Detroit has served as evidence to the football world of late as to how poor consecutive top five picks can sink a team for the better part of a decade. In the ’90s the Kansas City Chiefs showed how genius (or lucky, depending on your perspective) consecutive top five picks can do the exact opposite. Smith and especially Thomas kept a team mired in braindead mediocrity at the QB position above water, leading them into the postseason more often than not and keeping asses in the seats at Arrowhead to cheer on a team that had tremendous difficulty mustering even 20 points a game.
Flash forward to the present. Scott Pioli and Todd Haley have in their hands a top five draft pick. This is only the second time in team history the Chiefs have had consecutive top five picks, and we know what happened the first time. Neil Smith was an unexpected gift from the outgoing regime–a defensive lineman who underperformed his first year but seldom disappointed afterward. It would be nice if Glenn Dorsey developed a similar career trajectory. Better yet would be if this year’s top five pick turned out as good as the top five pick 20 years ago.
But I’m not holding my breath.
In this year’s draft there are three linebackers that by consensus are considered worthy of a top five pick: Ray Maualuga, James Laurinaitis, and Aaron Curry. I hope we take one of them. We have no need greater than linebacker, and, given last year’s performance, that says a lot. I think any of the three could and probably would be a cornerstone of our defense for a decade to come. Do I think any of them are on the same level as Derrick Thomas? Not a chance in hell. Thomas posted 27 sacks in his senior year. Maualuga, Laurinaitis, and Curry have 31. Cumulative. In four years. There simply isn’t a pass rusher of Thomas’s caliber in this year’s class, at linebacker or defensive end.
In fact, I’m not sure there’s a player at any position of Thomas’s caliber in this year’s class. I may be biased though. A piece of my heart broke nine years ago and it will never be unbroken. I will never shake that sinking feeling in my chest when I learned of his death. I, like many Chiefs fans, placed unrealistic expectations on Derrick Johnson on little more than a common position and a common first name. Derrick Johnson was our rebound girlfriend. He looked, sounded, and sometimes even moved like Thomas, and that was the cause of our infatuation as well as the source of our disappointment when he didn’t turn out to be as good.
Hopefully we’ll cut the new kid a little more slack.