Fifty years ago, in the final days of a rebel league, there existed a defense — a great defense, arguably one of the greatest in football history — that challenged and changed the NFL.
All but forgotten now, that defense delivered one last shattering blow to the older, established NFL’s claim of dominance over what was then still the upstart American Football League, as the underdog Kansas City Chiefs dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in the 1970 Super Bowl — the last one before the two leagues merged.
With the Chiefs returning to the Super Bowl Sunday for the first time since, it’s the perfect time to revisit the defense that was the final roar of the AFL. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs‘ offense may be the talk of Super Bowl LIV, but in 1970, it was the Kansas City defense that stunned the football world.
“Our defense was unbelievable,” linebacker Bobby Bell said. “We were all like coaches on the field.”
Not just coaches — Hall of Famers. That 1969 AFL championship Chiefs squad had six future inductees on the defense. Besides Bell and fellow linebacker Willie Lanier, there were defensive backs Emmitt Thomas and Johnny Robinson and defensive linemen Curley Culp and Buck Buchanan.
Bell, now 79, was a nine-time Pro Bowler and six-time first team All-Pro. He may have been the greatest defensive player to ever step on the field.
The squad was led by Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram.
The only other defense in NFL history with six Hall of Famers? Those Green Bay Packers championship squads of the 1960s — defensive backs Herb Adderly and Willie Wood, linebackers Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson and defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan.
The great Pittsburgh Steelers defenses of the 1970s? Four Hall of Famers. The Chicago Bears defense of the 1980s? Three members have been enshrined.
That defense became the fourth in football history to lead its league in fewest rushing yards, fewest passing yards and fewest total yards. In 2007 ESPN ranked them as the seventh best of all time — a ranking that, upon further examination, seems woefully low. They gave up less than two touchdowns a game during the 1969 regular season while their offensive firepower was limited, with future Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson missing seven games due to injury.
“Our defense said all we need is someone to kick a couple of field goals (Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud), because we didn’t think too many people could score seven points on us,” Bell said. “The whole year we did not lose one defensive player. Every defensive player who started that year played in all the games. We said, ‘Hey guys, I don’t think teams can score on us.’ We had that much confidence.’”
The 11-3 Chiefs were the wild-card team that year, losing the West to the 12-1-1 Oakland Raiders. The Chiefs traveled to New York to face the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets and Joe Namath, holding them to just six points in a 13-6 win that included a memorable goal line.
“Namath is moving the ball down the field,” Bell said. “Lanier is calling the defenses. He said there is no way they are going to score on us. No way. Joe hit the line twice, then came out for a rollout, and if I had taken the fake from Joe, they would have scored. I didn’t and hit Joe — boom. Joe said, ‘Damn it Bell, What are you doing? You’re not supposed to do that.’ We stopped them right there. I said, ‘It’s over Joe.’”
Then Bell and the Chiefs went to Oakland and held a Raiders team that had demolished the Houston Oilers 56-7 a week earlier to seven points in a 17-7 victory.
“The Raiders thought they had us in their pockets, man,” Bell said. “(Owner) Al Davis told his players to bring their stuff with them for the Super Bowl because they were going to leave the game and go straight to the Super Bowl,” Bell said. Coach Stram had us sit on the bus to watch the Oakland players leave their locker room with their suitcases.”
Despite the Jets’ dramatic 16-7 upset of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III a year earlier, many still refused to acknowledge the credibility of the younger league. Oddsmakers installed the NFL’s champs, the Vikings, as 13-point favorites.
“We felt that was embarrassing,” Bell said. “They called us the Mickey Mouse League … We can’t play? OK, let’s go.”
Minnesota managed just two rushing first downs and Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp was intercepted three times in the fourth quarter.
“Physically we thought we were stronger than them,” Bell said. “I visited with Joe Kapp nine months later and he said he couldn’t believe how physical we were. Every time Joe went back to pass he had someone around his neck. And when they tried to run the ball, we stuffed them.”
“Pat Mahomes is the real deal,” he said. “He is unbelievable. He loves the game. He makes the game so exciting. Coach (Andy) Reid has turned him loose. It is the most exciting thing that has happened in Kansas City for a long time. He has opened the game up wide.”
A half century ago, a Kansas City defense shut the game down to win their only Super Bowl title.
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