Inside Skinny: Media Circus Recap

It was a press conference befitting a king. Or, at the very least, the coronation of a new head football coach as opposed to the hiring of a mere coordinator.

Two Kansas City radio stations broadcast it live. A KC TV station pulled back at the last minute. Chiefs safety Jerome Woods flew in from his Memphis home just for the occasion. Four members of the Chiefs offense even turned up for the show.

They all wanted to see Gunny come marching home.

Gunther Cunningham didn't make his triumphant return to Kansas City on a white horse, though he joked that it felt like it. Nor was he riding in an ox cart like the French made prisoners do on their way to the guillotine. That, in essence, is what happened the last time Cunningham walked into Arrowhead and got his head handed to him after a 7-9 season dropped his two-year record to 16-16.

In what Cunningham called "the most unusual turn of events I've been part of in my professional career," the former Chiefs head coach from 1999-2000 returned three years later to the team that fired him to again serve as defensive coordinator, the same position he held in Kansas City from 1995-98 when the Chiefs had a truly respected defense.

"In the '90s the Chiefs were feared on defense," recalled Cunningham, who coached Tennessee's run-stuffing linebackers for the past three seasons. "I hope that fear comes back with me."

Talk about a contrast.

In his four seasons as KC's defensive coordinator, Cunningham's blitzing, physically imposing defenses gave up only 1,050 offensive points. They led the league in scoring defense in 1995 and '97, years when the Chiefs finished an AFC-best 13-3.

But in only three years under recently resigned coordinator Greg Robinson, a Chiefs defense that relied more on outsmarting opponents than in pounding them gave up 1,075 points and finished 32nd and 29th in yards allowed over the past two seasons.

Unable to stop the run for much of the season, then completely unable to stop Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on their first six meaningful possessions in a 38-31 playoff loss at Arrowhead, Robinson fell on his sword and re-signed rather than make Dick Vermeil take heat over whether to fire him.

When the search started for a replacement, Chiefs president Carl Peterson -- the man who fired Cunningham in January of 2001 only after his coach learned from news reports that Peterson already had talked Vermeil into coming out of retirement -- handed Vermeil a list of his recommendations. At the top of that list was Cunningham's name.

"What he did for us as the defensive coordinator was exceptional," Peterson explained. "He was a great part of the defensive legacy the Chiefs had here. This team will again play with an attitude, a swagger and a commitment that will (reflect) the personality of Gunther Cunningham."

Exceptional, too, was Cunningham's willingness to return to the place that short-circuited his long-awaited dream of moving from career assistant to head coach. But Cunningham said any bitter feelings he initially experienced after his firing vanished quickly.

"Nobody was in the room when Carl and I said goodbye," he said. "I hugged him and said, 'Thanks for the shot, but stay close, because I'm going to need you down the line.'

"I just didn't know it would be here in Kansas City. The chances of that happening seemed slim to none. I don't know if it's ever happened before."

Yet a couple days after his firing and before he got a job coaching the Titans linebackers, a conversation with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt opened Cunningham's eyes to some seemingly far-fetched possibilities.

"The last time I talked to Lamar before I left town he said, 'Gun, you'll be back in two years,'" Cunningham remembered. "He missed it by only a year."

After hearing from Hunt again last week, Cunningham hosted Vermeil in his Nashville home. Five hours and one bottle of wine later, the road for Cunningham's return was cleared.

"I didn't think we had a lot of time left to sell a new approach and I didn't want to start over," Vermeil explained. "With Gunther, everybody knows his approach.

"He's the best coach I could hire that would fit in our situation and help us continue to grow and work with the coaches I have on my defensive staff. He's worked with three or four guys on this staff already. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, and they know his. They can work together more efficiently and a little quicker."

Kansas City's hope now is that Cunningham's return, together with some offseason upgrades in defensive personnel, can give the Chiefs high-scoring offense a bare minimum level of support. Remember, Kansas City lost four games in 2002 when they scored 30 or more points, then added a critical playoff game to that count in '03.


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