They're not in Kansas anymore, but then again, they never were.
Since 1972, the Kansas City Chiefs have made Arrowhead Stadium their home, and before that Municipal Stadium, and both structures are or were located in Kansas City, Missouri. Much like the young heroine who initially uttered that phrase, though, the Chiefs do find themselves in unfamiliar, more lofty and luminous surroundings after having survived a tempest.
Eight weeks into the NFL season, it is the Chiefs and, despite the ubiquity of Peyton Manning on your television (and, if you have DirecTV, your phone), not the Denver Broncos who find themselves as the sole remaining team in the AFC West - nay, the entire National Football League - without a defeat. Kansas City is 7-0 for the first time since 2003 and only the second time in its 51-year history. And now that the Broncos and their peerless passer have finally exited the ranks of the unbeaten (a 39-33 loss at Indianapolis last Sunday night), someone beyond the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers may hear about them.
"I love what this team is doing," wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, who has spent his entire eight-year career with the Chiefs, told The Kansas City Star after K.C. beat the Houston Texans last Sunday. "Love my coaches, my players, the staff, everybody in the organization. We're just feeding off that energy, and we're gonna ride it until the train falls off."
You know what Bowe means.
The train fell off hard last year, as the Chiefs finished tied for both the worst record in the NFL (2-14) as well as the worst in franchise history. A miserable season was punctuated by the death of linebacker Jovan Belcher, who on the morning of Saturday, December 1, fatally shot himself in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli after having murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, earlier that day.
The Kansas City Chiefs, the franchise whose rich professional football legacy includes championship seasons in both the defunct American Football League and the NFL as well as a spot in Super Bowl I (which, at the time, was not flagged with the pretentious roman numeral - actually it wasn't even known as the Super Bowl; it was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game), was at its nadir. Or, considering its geographical location within the contiguous states, a crossroads.
Whereas Dorothy joined forces with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man (face it - the Cowardly Lion was always more of an interloper), the Chiefs were the ideal haven for a coach and a quarterback who had themselves become pigskin pariahs. Andy Reid, who once led the Philadelphia Eagles to four consecutive NFC Championship Games, was fired last New Year's Eve. At the time he was the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL. Five days later, on the day Pioli was released, the Chiefs hired Reid.
Meanwhile the San Francisco 49ers were marching to a berth in the Super Bowl while the quarterback who had begun the season as their starter, Alex Smith, wore a baseball cap on the sidelines. After leading the team to a 6-2 start and compiling the league's top completion percentage (70 percent), Smith was knocked out of the ninth game with a concussion; second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick stepped in and never relinquished the job, as the 49ers came within a play of winning Super Bowl XLVII.
Smith, an eight-year veteran, did not play a single down the rest of the season. He was expendable, and just as the Tin Man needed a heart, Smith needed a home. Three weeks after the Super Bowl, San Francisco traded him to the Chiefs.
Reid and Smith (who, to be honest, is having a mediocre season, statistically) are the marquee names behind the Chiefs' resurrection. The credit, however, belongs to a defense that leads the NFL by a large margin in both sacks (35; the next closest team, the Baltimore Ravens, has 25) and takeaways (19). The Chiefs also pace the NFL in fewest points allowed per game, 11.6.
First-year defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who had spent the previous 13 seasons with the New York Jets, has taught this defense the art of orchestrated havoc: Linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali rank second and fourth in the NFL in sacks, with 10 and nine, respectively; and the pair are first and second, respectively, in the league in quarterback hurries, with 40 and 28. These are linebackers, not linemen, getting to the quarterback, which tells you that Sutton is not the type who feels obligated to follow the Yellow Brick Road to achieve his goal.
If Sutton is the unheralded coaching newcomer in Kansas City, then running back Jamaal Charles is the unheralded offensive stud. While Smith's name is more often mentioned on Sunday morning pregame telecasts, Charles leads the Chiefs by a sizeable margin in both rushing yards and receptions. As a recent chart in The New York Times illustrated, the six-year veteran is responsible for a league-high 38.8 percent of his team's offensive yardage. The next-highest is 32.2 percent by the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the league's Most Valuable Player.
Right now Kansas City's fans, among the NFL's most ardent and most deafening (recently setting a Guinness World Record for loudest outdoor sports stadium in terms of decibel level at 137.5), are giddy about their team. It has been 20 years, after all, since the Chiefs last won a playoff game. But it has only been 10 months since they were the worst team in the NFL.
Forget about home, Toto. There's no place like first.