View Full Version : Merrill: It doesn't get much bigger than this

12-04-2005, 02:20 AM

Not many games are this huge


The Kansas City Star

The Real World” is on the televisions above the lockers, and a gaggle of defensive linemen laugh at the Generation Y angst. Hip-hop music thumps softly across the room. A running back fiddles with his text-messaging. It’s the Friday before Denver, biggest game of the year, and a message is scribbled on the greaseboard.

“Weigh in prior to your first A.M. meeting.”

In the NFL, the veterans say, all games are big. So today’s 3:15 meeting with the Broncos is nothing more than week 12, chapter 46, just another game on the Chiefs’ road to a possible playoff berth.

Yeah, right.

In Kansas City, it doesn’t get much bigger than this — a packed stadium, a division-leading AFC rival, a meaningful December game. For two months, the Chiefs have been staring at the Broncos’ backside, trying to keep pace after an embarrassing Monday night blowout. A win today puts them back in the AFC hunt. A loss all but ruins their playoff hopes.

Just another big one? There haven’t been many of those at Arrowhead Stadium in the Dick Vermeil era. One would have to go back to Oct. 5, 2003, to find the last regular-season game that really meant something in Kansas City. That game went down to the final minute in a 24-23 victory over the Broncos.

Seven years removed from his last trip to Arrowhead Stadium, Hall of Famer John Elway plans to watch the game somewhere today. Chiefs-Broncos, Elway says, is always a big game.

“I don’t know if you say you can’t wait to play that game because this is going to be a blast,” Elway says. “When you went to Kansas City, it was an absolute physical, lay-it-on-the-line game. When you got done, you were going to be totally exhausted and beat up.

“The one thing I remember the most is that it was loud. As a quarterback, that’s your worst enemy. And that I heard every little thing in the book that could be said about my mother.”

The love continues. By midweek, Kansas Citians were tearing into Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and his mustache on sports radio. Fans exchanged heated trash talk on Internet boards. A cluster of diehards waited outside Arrowhead on Friday in 20-degree wind chills for autographs.

Rookie linebacker Derrick Johnson, always restless before big games, planned to pop in Beyonce’s “Stand Up for Love” or some mellow R&B before he hit the pillow Saturday night.

“You can tell it’s big,” Johnson says, “just by the urgency on the practice field. Everybody’s moving around fast.”

The big game, at least in some form, dates back more than 2,000 years. Neighboring villages formed rivalries, men subsequently fought, then celebrated victory over a fistful of grog.

When you’re waving a club — or scrambling out of the pocket — you can’t afford to come out flat. The modern-day elite athlete, Omaha-based sports psychologist Jack Stark says, operates at a level between 90 percent and 100 percent. With a 16-game season, plus five months of practice, it’s tough to stay amped and mentally focused for every game.

Enter the big game. It gives athletes something to prepare for, something to break the monotony.

“What really creates that 100 percent,” Stark says, “is all the people around you. Chiefs-Broncos is a bitter rivalry with a tremendous amount of hype and national media. The fans are hyped about it. Everywhere you go, people say it’s going to be a big one.

“All those things can kind of motivate you. Sometimes that can be the little extra difference between wining and losing. Coaches try to tell you they take everything one game at a time, but believe me, even the coaches get a little more juiced up for the big games.”

Stark, the team psychologist for Nebraska during the football team’s three national championships in the 1990s, says Tom Osborne approached the big game differently. He was actually tougher and more serious when the Cornhuskers were playing Pacific or Utah State.

When Oklahoma week rolled around, the normally stoic Osborne would try to crack a joke or stick a blooper in the pregame motivational tape.

“He’d try to loosen up because he knew all the pressure the state was putting on them,” Stark says. “He was more worried about losing to people they weren’t supposed to. Then people are just going nuts. It’s expectations and perceptions. If they would’ve lost to Kansas State, people would’ve hung him.”

Vermeil heard from his share of critics last month when the Chiefs went to 3-5 Buffalo and were hammered in a 14-3 loss. After that game, Vermeil told his 5-4 team to approach the rest of the season as if were the playoffs. The Chiefs have won two straight, but now every game falls under the category of big, if not monumental.

Their last five opponents are either division leaders or wild-card favorites. Kansas City probably has to win four games to make the playoffs. Vermeil, in the last year of his contract, is undefeated at Arrowhead in December. But he’s rarely felt this much late-season heat.

In 2003, his only playoff year in Kansas City, the Chiefs started 9-0 and coasted into the postseason. Last year’s team got off to an 0-3 start and was out of the playoff hunt by November.

“Whenever a team finds itself still in contention this time of year,” Vermeil says, “there’s a little sense of urgency that develops within each player. A sense of excitement and an awareness of an opportunity. I think I felt it all week long.”

Of the Chiefs’ 22 starters, 18 have been to the playoffs, three have played in conference championship games, and one has watched from the sidelines as his team won a Super Bowl championship.

Trent Green was out because of a knee injury in 1999 when the Rams and Vermeil won the Super Bowl, and the closest he’s come since was 2003 when the Chiefs lost a shootout with Indianapolis in an AFC playoff game.

At 35 with 75 straight starts at quarterback, Green is considered the leader of this team, the stubble-faced veteran who says the things that don’t need to be scribbled on greaseboards. Last Sunday, Green threw for 323 yards against in a must-win game against the Patriots. He showered, then casually said every game through the end of the year is big.

On Thursday, just before practice, he added this: “Yeah, this is a really big week for us.”

It was Green who suggested the team practice outdoors Friday in 20-degree wind chills. Other than that, he didn’t do anything differently last week.

He studied the same down and distances and blitz packages on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. Saturdays at home are always the same. He leaves the stadium in the afternoon, then tries to catch his boys’ little league games. Routine has been important for Green since his days in Washington as the No. 3 quarterback for Norv Turner.

“He really put a lot of pressure on me in terms of my preparation and being able to filter the stuff that was coming to me,” Green says. “Even though I was the third quarterback, I really had to approach it more as a coach.

“I’ve had a routine for years, and I try to stick with it.”

On Friday, former Denver Post columnist Woody Paige blasted Green on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza.” Paige called Green a “loser” who can’t win the big game.

But Vermeil calls his quarterback a warrior, a veteran who has dealt with a torn artery in his leg and the sudden death of his father in the span of four months.

At Friday’s practice, Green sheds his bulky red coat Friday and fires a pass to Tony Gonzalez. It sails out of bounds. He warms his hands and goes back to the huddle.

“I’ve said earlier that this team handles different things well,” Vermeil says. “The schedule is tough, and I’d like to believe they’ve given the schedule to the right group. Oh yeah, there’s more pressure. But pressure does a lot of different things to different people.”

The pressure, apparently, has blown somewhere off the practice field with the frozen winds. Linebacker Shawn Barber, who has played in an NFC championship game, is clowning around after practice, trying to explain how his little-league championship game 20 years ago was more stressful than Denver or the Patriots.

When Barber heads home, he won’t listen to the radio, turn on ESPN hype, or click on the Internet threads that say, “BRING IT ON, DONKS!”

“When I leave these confines, I transform myself from Shawn Barber the football player to Shawn Barber the father,” Barber said. “And neither of my sons gives two cents about Denver.

“As long as you’re trying to get to the playoffs, every game in December is big.”

But Chiefs-Broncos, in December, always seems to be a little bigger. Elway knows it. He won two Super Bowls but can quickly rattle off the details of a chilly late-winter day in Kansas City when the Broncos stole a 14-10 playoff victory in Marcus Allen’s last game.

“We had a rivalry that goes way back,” Elway says. “They’re in our division, we were vying for the same prize, and that made it that much more special.”

If all games in the NFL were just as big, why didn’t the Chiefs do a victory lap after their 45-17 win over the Texans? Why does Johnson have trouble sleeping and backup quarterback Damon Huard, who’s been on a Super Bowl team, get goosebumps when he enters the tunnel Sunday?

“This stadium is unbelievable,” Huard says. “I mean, it’s really cool. When this place gets rocking, it’s pretty neat.”

It’s December, the Broncos are in town, the playoffs are still in sight. In Kansas City, it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

Hammock Parties
12-04-2005, 02:57 AM
Fans exchanged heated trash talk on Internet boards.

click on the Internet threads that say, “BRING IT ON, DONKS!”

What is this all about?

12-04-2005, 03:18 AM
Man I am ready for this.

Spicy McHaggis
12-04-2005, 03:43 AM

12-04-2005, 03:51 AM
Typical stuff: Chiefs playoff game, blah, blah, blah.

the Talking Can
12-04-2005, 05:24 AM
The big game, at least in some form, dates back more than 2,000 years. Neighboring villages formed rivalries, men subsequently fought, then celebrated victory over a fistful of grog.

that's Warpaint Premium quality insight...wtf?

4th and Long
12-04-2005, 06:03 AM
The big game, at least in some form, dates back more than 2,000 years. Neighboring villages formed rivalries, men subsequently fought, then celebrated victory over a fistful of grog.
That would be mugful of grog, not fistful. I'm glad these villagers never invited me over for grog. I'd be really pissed off if they poured it directly into my hand.

12-04-2005, 06:11 AM
We're going to win this game.

12-04-2005, 07:18 AM
One of Merrill's better articles (which isn't saying much).

12-04-2005, 07:49 AM
twas a fun read.

12-04-2005, 08:11 AM