By SCOTT M. JOHNSON
KIRKLAND – No need to explain the definition of a bad start to Kansas City Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham. He knows all too well what it’s like, having lost his coaching debut to the Chicago Bears last season, and then seeing 2000 get off to an even worse beginning.
This year, the Chiefs lost their opener to Indianapolis, which led to some local reports that Cunningham would quit his job just one game into his second season. He claims he never intended to quit, and now Cunningham is duplicating another facet of his first year as head coach: a quick turnaround.
“There is too much made of the early losses,” Cunningham said this week, after his team posted back-to-back wins to pull its record to 2-2.
He would know. Now his Chiefs are back to .500 and on the verge of facing the Seattle Seahawks in a game that two weeks ago looked like the NFL equivalent of a 400-meter relay race between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Both AFC West teams have bounced back from 0-2 starts and suddenly find themselves in position to make some noise in the division.
“We can speak from first hand, 0-2 is not the end,” said Seahawks defensive tackle Riddick Parker, whose team travels to Kansas City for the Monday meeting. “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad team, it just means you’ve had a bad start.
” … You’ve got two teams who are up to speed and ready to play. We’ll see who’s really ready.”
Kansas City’s turnaround began all at once, as quarterback Elvis Grbac hit rookie Sylvester Morris on a 36-yard touchdown pass in Week 3 to get the Chiefs untracked after falling behind 10-0 to San Diego. Kansas City went on to win that game 42-10, then shocked the Denver Broncos with a 23-22 win at Mile High Stadium last Sunday.
With the wins comes a swagger that was nowhere to be found two short weeks ago.
“Whatever the situation is at whatever point in the game, we can go down and score some points – before the half, in two minutes or at the end of the game,” Grbac said. “We go 80 yards in Denver and go win the game, so we have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
Not long ago, confidence was the furthest thing from this team’s mind. After coming back from a slow start in 1999 to battle the Seahawks for the AFC West title right down to the wire, Cunningham entered this season with high expectations. A 27-14 loss to Indianapolis in the opener sent the entire team into an emotional funk – so much so that Cunningham was reported to have told his players that he was quitting.
“I was very tired after the game and I came in that morning to address the team, and the first guy that I saw was (cornerback James Hasty),” Cunningham said during Wednesday’s conference call with Seattle media members. “My soul almost left me when I looked at him. I thought he was pretty down and I said that I was almost as low as I could be after losing to the Colts, because we all felt that we could beat them.
“I said that there were thoughts in my mind that were really difficult to handle and, ‘If you all feel bad, don’t worry. I am 54 and taking this as bad as you are and we have to go on.’ That is what was said and the rest got blown out of proportion.”
The speculation about Cunningham’s future seemed to rally the Chiefs, who rebounded after losing to two of the AFC’s best teams to post back-to-back wins.
The Seahawks’ path to .500 was filled with slightly less emotion. Seattle also lost its first two games before turning things around against New Orleans and San Diego – two teams that now have a combined record of 1-7.
There was no talk of coach Mike Holmgren quitting after the 0-2 start, but there was frustration nonetheless.
“You’re 0-2. No one wants to be in that situation after two games,” Parker said this week. “From that perspective, we were all a little bit upset – but motivated. When you’re in that situation, knowing the type of players we have and knowing the kind of team we can be, we knew we just needed to do better in all aspects of the game and ultimately get a win.
“The last two weeks, we’ve done that.”
The turnarounds of both teams can be traced to quarterback play. Grbac had a 73.6 rating after two weeks, as compared to 100.9 in wins over San Diego and Denver. Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna started the season with a 43.9, but his rating in the past two weeks has been 94.5.
Also during the past two weeks, Seattle and Kansas City have held their opponents scoreless in the second half.
All of the sudden, the 0-2 also-rans seem to be back on track.
“It is always amusing to me if I hear a commentator or read something now when they write off teams,” Holmgren said. “Teams are 1-3, boom; 0-4, over. It’s not over, it’s not. … It’s still real early. And our division is a battling division. It’s going to go right down to the end, which makes it fun for all the cities involved.”