The Kansas City Chiefs had a regular season record of 47-33 over the last 5 seasons, tied with the San Diego Chargers for the most wins by a team that did not make at least one conference championship game appearance over that time. Many of the key pieces that contributed to those wins are no longer in place heading into next season. Trent Green was recently traded to Miami. Future Hall of Famer Will Shields retired in the offseason, one year after future Hall of Famer Willie Roaf retired. Priest Holmes has faded away without officially retiring as of yet, replaced by Larry Johnson. The Chiefs have transitioned from Dick Vermeil to Herm Edwards, and it appears as though the previous era has come to a close.
I am going to look at the prospects for franchises who had similar periods of some decent regular season success, but did not advance far into the playoffs over the entire period. These are teams, like Kansas City, that were on a plateau of perpetual promise. I searched each franchise starting in 1966 and moving forward in time, and set the following parameters to identify similar "plateau" teams from the past:
- The team won at least 50% of its games over a five-year period;
- The team never had a record worse than 6-10 (or its equivalent) in any single season, and never had a record worse than 14-18 (or its equivalent) in any two consecutive years within the five-year period;
- The team did not advance to a conference championship game in any of the five years in question; and
- The team did not win two-thirds or more of its games in the final year (year 5). (This is to avoid catching emerging teams, such as 1996 Denver).
I moved forward chronologically until a five-year period for a franchise met all the criteria. Some franchises continued to meet the criteria for a plateau team in additional seasons. I did not include those unless they involved a completely independent five-year period. For example, New Orleans 1986-1990 and New Orleans 1991-1995 are both included; New Orleans 1988-1992 is not.
Kansas City 2001-2005 met all the criteria, along with 38 other teams since 1966. Some of these plateau teams were directly on the heels of a more successful period--13 of these "plateau" periods immediately followed a season where the franchise had been to a championship game or beyond. Others emerged from losing seasons to show promise, but then stall. Still others, like New Orleans of the early 1990's, Philadelphia of the mid-1990's, and Miami from the start of this decade, were seemless continuations of previous plateau periods.
Here is the list of the "plateau of perpetual promise" teams, listed in chronological order, with the five year record for the team also listed.
team years record
sdg 1966-1970 38-27-5
ram 1967-1971 49-16-5
det 1969-1973 40-26-4
cin 1973-1977 46-24
was 1973-1977 47-23
crd 1974-1978 44-28
mia 1975-1979 47-27
nwe 1976-1980 50-26
chi 1976-1980 40-36
atl 1977-1981 41-37
min 1978-1982 36-36-1
buf 1979-1983 40-33
gnb 1981-1985 37-35-1
cin 1982-1986 39-34
dal 1983-1987 45-34
nyj 1983-1987 41-38
sea 1984-1988 48-31
nor 1986-1990 46-33
phi 1987-1991 48-31
mia 1987-1991 42-37
oti 1988-1992 49-31
pit 1989-1993 45-35
min 1989-1993 44-36
rai 1991-1995 43-37
nor 1991-1995 45-35
phi 1992-1996 46-34
mia 1993-1997 45-35
buf 1994-1998 43-37
kan 1994-1998 51-29
sea 1995-1999 40-40
was 1996-2000 41-38-1
mia 1998-2002 50-30
den 1999-2003 44-36
nyj 1999-2003 42-38
gnb 1999-2003 51-29
nor 2000-2004 42-38
bal 2001-2005 42-38
kan 2001-2005 44-36
ram 2002-2006 41-39
Let's start with the bad news. Here are the next three seasons post-plateau period. "Bad" stands for the percentage of teams that won one-third or fewer of their games in a season (5-11 in a 16-game schedule). "Good" stands for the percentage of teams that won at least two-thirds of their games in a season (11-5 or better). "Play" is for playoff appearances, "Champ" is for Championship Game Appearances, "SB" is for Super Bowl Appearances, and "WIN" is for Super Bowl Wins.
YR NO. BAD GOOD PLAY CHAMP SB WIN
1 38 .237 .184 .368 .053 .000 .000
2 36 .389 .167 .250 .111 .056 .000
3 35 .200 .086 .200 .057 .029 .000
For comparison, taking into account when these teams were playing, and the various playoff structures and league sizes, a randomly selected "average" team should make the playoffs about 38% of the time, reach a championship game 14% of the time, and go to a Super Bowl in 7% of the seasons.
Now, for the good news, for those with patience to endure short term set backs. Here are Years 4-8 post-plateau period:
YR NO. BAD GOOD PLAY CHAMP SB WIN
4 32 .094 .219 .469 .125 .031 .000
5 31 .097 .387 .548 .355 .161 .097
6 31 .194 .290 .419 .161 .097 .032
7 30 .200 .300 .400 .233 .100 .000
8 29 .241 .207 .345 .207 .138 .034
Year 5 post-plateau was a particular good year, and several teams that were emerging by years 4 and 5 continued to be dominant forces for several years. This includes the 1991-1995 Dallas Cowboys, the 1982-1985 Washington Redskins, the 1984-1988 Chicago Bears, the 1988-1992 Buffalo Bills, and the 2001-2004 Philadelphia Eagles. The teams that were re-emerging four to five years later were generally doing so with different stars. In fact, Kenny Anderson of the 1977 and 1981 Bengals was the only quarterback who was the team's leading passer at the end of a plateau period, and again when the team advanced to a championship game four to five years later. Walter Payton (1980 and 1984-1985), was the only running back who was leading rusher at the end of a plateau and again when the team reached a championship game. Only two receivers accomplished the feat--Stanley Morgan of the Patriots (1980 and 1985), and Tim Brown (1995 and 2000).
When we sort these plateau teams by what they did in the first two years after the plateau period, something very interesting emerges. Kicking out the teams that concluded their plateau period since 2002, I sorted the 31 remaining teams into three roughly equal groups. The bottom group I will call the "Two Steps Back" group, consisting of teams that won 11 or fewer games in the two years following the plateau period. The middle group is "Mired in Mediocrity", and were teams that won between 12 and 17 the next two years. Finally, the upper group is the "Reloaded" group, all with 18 or more wins. The numbers below are the combined numbers for years 4-8 post-plateau for each group.
GROUP NO./Seasons BAD GOOD PLAY CHAMP SB WIN
TwoSteps 11/52 .096 .462 .615 .365 .192 .077
Mediocrity 10/47 .298 .085 .234 .043 .043 .000
Reloaded 10/50 .120 .300 .480 .240 .080 .020
The Teams that went "two steps back" in the short term really did make the best long-term choice. Most of these teams that stepped back made adept choices with their early draft picks, and laid the foundation for future success. Cincinnati added Anthony Munoz in 1980. Between 1980 and 1983, the Bears drafted LB Otis Wilson, OT Keith Van Horne, QB Jim McMahon, OT Jimbo Covert, and WR Willie Gault in the first round. The Bills added DE Bruce Smith, QB Jim Kelly, OT Will Wolford and RB Thurman Thomas during their "two steps back" (for the Bills, it was actually three years of 8 total wins). The Cowboys drafted Aikman, Irvin and Smith. The Eagles, now famously, selected Donovan McNabb rather than crowd choice Ricky Williams. Seven of the eleven teams who took "two steps back" reached a Super Bowl by Year 8 post-plateau. Almost half of the seasons from years 4-8 were "good" seasons, as defined above.
The "Reloaded" teams that brought in new key offensive personnel while continuing to win also fared pretty well, continuing to post a nice "good" season to "bad" season ratio, and making (and advancing) in the playoffs at an above average rate. 1982 Washington was the only team to win a Super Bowl. Several other "reloaded" teams reached championship games and Super Bowls, including the Rams teams' of the mid-1970's that lost 4 championship games before making the 1979 Super Bowl, the early Marino-led Dolphins teams, and the Steelers after Cowher took over in the early 1990's. Of the more recent plateau teams, Denver (10-6 in 2004 followed by 13-3 and champ game appearance in 2005, the Broncos transitioned to Cutler at QB and WR Javon Walker, and still posted a winning record last year) and Baltimore (13-3 last year) would fall in the "reloaded" category.
The "Mired in Mediocrity" teams, on the other hand, died a slow death. These teams did not maintain the same level of play as during the plateau period, but they did not completely collapse over the course of the next two seasons either. The two "mediocrity" teams that actually reached a championship game and beyond are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Seattle 2000-2001 won 15 games. They did so by going 6-10 in 2000 with Kitna, Watters, and Dawkins as leading passer, rusher, and reciever, and then turning things around to 9-7 in 2001, led by new pieces that would be around for the Super Bowl appearance, in Hasselbeck, Alexander, and Jackson. Thus, they did turn over key offensive personnel and get younger, but the record was better in year one than most teams that adopted that strategy.
The Houston Oilers 1993-1994, soon to be the Tennessee Oilers and then the Tennessee Titans, were the other "mediocrity" team to reach a championship game. They did so with 14 total wins in the next two years. In year 1, they went 12-4, had a first round bye, and lost to Kansas City at home. The Oilers then blew things up, and fell all the way to 2-14 the next year. But that giant step backward allowed them to get into the top of the draft and select Steve McNair, the franchise quarterback who would be leading them to the Super Bowl in 1999.
Four teams that finished their plateau period since 2002 qualify as "mired in mediocrity" teams based upon their win totals in the two years that followed. Those teams are 1998-2002 Miami, 1999-2003 New York Jets, 1999-2003 Green Bay, and 2000-2004 New Orleans. Personally, I think New Orleans is most likely to prove to be an exception, despite the fact that the last two years gives them 13 wins, technically placing them at the lower end of the "mired in mediocrity" group. It is rare that a team lands a pro bowl quarterback in his prime, while also finding the running back and receiver of the future in the same season. New Orleans more fits the profile of a "two steps back" team, but one who did not have to go through the growing pains of developing a franchise quarterback in year 2.
The Jets and Green Bay could go either way, though both still have the same quarterbacks in place, and I am doubtful that Favre will still be the QB when the Packers are ready to legitimately contend for the Super Bowl again. Miami is following the pattern of most previous mediocrity teams, unwilling to endure a longer term rebuilding project that could result in a better product in 3-4 years. Thus, entering year 5, the Dolphins have still not found the QB that will lead them to upper level playoff contention, choosing to go with Culpepper last year, and now an aging Trent Green this season.
Turning back to Kansas City, GM Carl Peterson has, until now, been unwilling to embark on a rebuilding project. His last opportunity was following the 1998 season, when Kansas City rebuilt the Vermeil era Chiefs offense through veteran free agents (Holmes, Kennison) and trades (Trent Green, Willie Roaf). There are signs that the Chiefs may be altering their approach this time around, but the signs are mixed. If the Chiefs study their history, the decision should be easy. This Chiefs team has only one guaranteed starter on offense (Larry Johnson) and one guaranteed starter on defense (Derrick Johnson) who were first day selections in the draft between 2001-2005. Thus, it is hard to imagine an immediate "reload" with so little production coming from those drafts that should be forming the core of the roster at this point.
Two decisions will demonstrate the Chiefs' choice. Starting quarterback is the first one. Huard is the safer choice if you want 7-9 wins, but he is not the long term answer. Croyle may or may not be the long term answer, but the Chiefs need to find out, at the possible expense of wins, so they know whether they will need to draft a quarterback the following season. The handling of Larry Johnson's contract demands is the other. Larry Johnson makes the Chiefs a better team in the short term. However, he is not likely to be productive when/if the Chiefs are ready to legitimately compete for championships.
If the Chiefs want to avoid going the way of the Falcons of the mid-1980's, the Jets and Seahawks of the early 1990's, and the Redskins since 2000, they need to make decisions that put them at risk of losing games in the short term, to find out what they have in place for the long term, and what they will need to add over the next two drafts. Of course, you still have to draft the right players if you are selecting early--something prior plateau teams have shown very capable of doing right after the plateau ends.