Thursday, August 15, 2013

If You Had a Choice of Colors, Which One Would You Choose, My Brothers?

With apologies to Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, and the Impressions, today's subtext is, "Scarlet and Gold, or Crimson and White?"

And one answer to our musical question is, "Both"-- at least in the cases of Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, and now Alex Smith.

Over the past quarter-century or so, the quarterback position for the Kansas City Chiefs has, about half the time,  served as a landing strip for former 49er QBs, whether in mid-career or nearing career terminus. Indeed, over a 13-year stretch from 1988 through 2000, every year but one the position was manned by a quarterback who left a good part of his game, if not his heart, in San Francisco.

It all began in 1988, when Steve DeBerg won the quarterback job from veteran starter Bill Kenney.  It wasn't enough to save coach Frank Gansz's job, but when the great Marty Schottenheimer took over as head coach in 1989, he established good ol' Steve as his starter and initiated the process of quarterback importation that would carry the Chiefs over the next decade-plus.

49er fans of a certain age fondly remember Steve as the good soldier who did his best for Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor in the nightmare season of 1978, and then was transformed from zero to hero via the simple expedient of playing for Bill Walsh in 1979 and 1980.  His career as "Chair-Warmer to the Greats" began in earnest when Joe Montana took over the job in 1980, and Steve began his colorful odyssey, first to Denver (where he preceded John Elway), and then to Tampa Bay (ditto, future 49er Steve Young).

Anyway, DeBerg quarterbacked the Chiefs for four years, during which they improved from 4 to 11 wins per season and began their 1990s run as playoff perennials.  In 1992 Schottenheimer had the opportunity to employ one of the club's long-time nemeses, Dave Krieg, as his starting QB, and he took it. That lasted only one year, and of course 1993 saw the legendary, mega-controversial trade of Joe Montana to the Chiefs--  and the parade of former 49er quarterbacks to Kansas City began in earnest.

Joe played two years at Arrowhead, leading KC to the AFC Championship Game his first year and winning a September 1994 showdown with his 49er replacement, Young, his second year. After Joe retired, the Chiefs' braintrust went right back to the well and hauled in the Niners' other backup, Steve Bono, who had shown his capabilities in 1991 and 1992 when Young was briefly injured.

49er fans who had clamored for Bono instead of Young during those years may have felt vindicated when the former UCLA star led the Chiefs to football's best record in 1995. Not since the 1960s had a Kansas City team been so close to the Super Bowl, but a stunning upset loss at home to the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts, during which Bono threw three interceptions and kicker Lin Elliott missed three field goals, dashed those hopes. (The quarterback of those pesky underdog Colts? Guy named Jim Harbaugh.)

Both quarterback and team sagged the following season; Bono threw more interceptions than TDs, and KC missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Meanwhile, back at Candlestick, a guy named Elvis Grbac was serving as Steve Young's latest backup, and doing pretty darn well for all that.  He started nine games over two years while Young battled concussions, and the team won six of those games despite carping comments about Grbac from such worthies as City Mayor Willie Brown. Thus the Chiefs, needing once again to make a change, needed look no further. After Young pronounced himself fit and healthy for the 1997 season, Grbac, tired of being the local Rodney Dangerfield, pronounced himself a wealthy new Chief.

While Young played on with rookies Jim Druckenmiller and Jeff Brohm standing behind him on the sidelines, Elvis, like Bono, led the Chiefs to football's best record and, like Montana, got revenge on his former team (a 44-9 thrashing before the Arrowhead faithful). But once more, "Martyball" wasn't enough to reach the 'Bowl, regardless of the quarterback: their season again ended in the semifinal round, though it could be argued both Elvis and his teammates mostly outplayed John Elway and the victorious Broncos that day.

Grbac continued with the Chiefs for three more years as the club's fortunes gradually declined. When Dick Vermeil took over the head-coaching job in 2001, he brought his favorite quarterback, Trent Green, with him, and at long last the open road from San Francisco to Kansas City was closed.

Until now. Tonight, Alex Smith lines up opposite Colin Kaepernick at Arrowhead Stadium. Sure, it's only preseason, but it's an irresistible story nonetheless. We'll allow our personal bias to surface as we confess that for over 40 years the Chiefs have been our favorite AFC team and second-favorite overall. Ever since Hank Stram's legendary 1969 club won the Super Bowl over Minnesota, we've wished the Chiefs well (except on certain afternoons that occur every four years or so).  The much-anticipated Super Bowl matchup that could have occurred in 1993 or 1995 or 1997 never did, despite our best hopes, and it's unlikely this exhibition match will provide much competitive juice past the second quarter.  But Alex Smith, who carried himself so well in near-impossible circumstances during those chaotic early years, and who was gloriously rewarded with a great season in 2011, is a class act. We wish him nothing but success working with the great Andy Reid in Kansas City, at least up through the AFC Championship Game, should it come about.

And we wish him well tonight, come what may.  Here's to you, Alex. Nobody deserves success more than you, and here's hoping your tenure in Arrowhead resembles Joe's more than Elvis'. Six sigma, and all that.

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