In recent years, professional football in the state of Missouri was in a state of misery.
From 2007 through the 2009 season, the Rams went 6-42, saw longtime owner Georgia Frontiere pass away, changed head coaches and revamped the front office, removing a longtime executive (Jay Zygmunt) in the process.
From 2007 through 2009, the Chiefs went 10-38, saw longtime owner Lamar Hunt pass away (at the end of the '06 season), changed head coaches and revamped the front office, removing a longtime executive (Carl Peterson) in the process.
It is rare for any organization in today's NFL to undergo such a complete overhaul in such a short period of time. Even rarer is that it happened twice in the Show-Me State during basically the same time period for franchises separated by only 250 miles of Interstate 70.
The hole was a little deeper in St. Louis, where the Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003 and haven't made the playoffs since '04. The Chiefs, by comparison, earned a wild-card berth in 2006 with a 9-7 record.
Nonetheless, both organizations were gridiron wastelands when the first decade of the new millennium ended. But no more. While it's much too early to tell whether either franchise has truly turned a corner, they meet Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome as division leaders fighting for playoff berths.
At 8-5, the Chiefs have a one-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West; at 6-7, the Rams are tied with Seattle for the NFC West lead but own the tiebreaker over the Seahawks. A victory here Sunday won't clinch a playoff berth for either team, but it will go a long way toward getting them there.
The teams have met only four times since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, but never with so much at stake. The Rams can only hope things go better Sunday than they have in the previous four encounters, all of which were just short of train wrecks for St. Louis. Actually, a couple of them were train wrecks.
A brief review
Chiefs 28, Rams 20 (Oct. 26, 1998 in St. Louis)
Headset problems for quarterback Tony Banks forced the Rams to burn several timeouts and take a couple of delay of game penalties. "We can take one of these things and talk to a guy on Mars, but a guy 30 yards away we can't talk to," a flustered coach Dick Vermeil said afterward. Banks may not have been able to hear the plays, but he quipped, "I could hear the booing." Four Rams turnovers didn't help, either.
Chiefs 54, Rams 34 (Oct. 22, 2000 in Kansas City)
The Chiefs rang up a franchise record point total for a home game. Adding injury to insult, reigning league MVP Kurt Warner suffered a broken pinky finger on his throwing hand while taking a snap from backup center Steve Everitt. To help the depth at quarterback after Warner's injury, a fellow named Marc Bulger was signed to the practice squad.
Chiefs 49, Rams 10 (Dec. 8, 2002 in Kansas City)
The lopsided loss eliminated the defending NFC champions from playoff consideration. Dante Hall scored on an 88-yard kickoff return and an 86-yard punt return for Kansas City. Strangely, coach Mike Martz chose to flame-broil K Jeff Wilkins after the 39-point loss for missing a 42-yard field goal. Wilkins told Martz he kicked the ground on the errant kick. Saying he had lost confidence in Wilkins, Martz sarcastically noted, "He's had a lot of those 'I've kicked the ground' routines."
Chiefs 31, Rams 17 (Nov. 5, 2006 at St. Louis)
Three lost fumbles by the Rams in the first half helped Kansas City take a 17-0 lead. The Rams rallied, but back-to-back false starts by — guess who? — Alex Barron stalled what might have been a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Larry Johnson rushed for 172 yards and later bragged that the Chiefs left about 200 yards on the field because KC's blockers were "just pushing them backwards."
Up from the ashes
Very few players on either side remain from even that 2006 meeting. After going 4-12 and 2-14 the following two seasons, Herm Edwards was replaced by Todd Haley as head coach. Scott Pioli replaced Peterson as general manager.
For the Rams, after a promising 8-8 record in '06 under rookie coach Scott Linehan, the team collapsed. After a 3-13 campaign in '07, Linehan was fired after an 0-4 start in '08, with interim coach Jim Haslett giving way to Steve Spagnuolo after that season.
There have been many similarities in how the teams have attempted to rebuild. Pioli and Spagnuolo both emphasized team over individual, and character over characters. With Spagnuolo it has been the "Four Pillars." Pioli has catch phrases like "I'm not looking for the best 53, I'm looking for the right 53."
Both teams have "greened" their rosters, going from having one of the league's oldest rosters to one of its youngest by emphasizing the draft. Neither team went nuts in free agency this past offseason. The Rams added two starters on defense in defensive tackle Fred Robbins and outside linebacker Na'il Diggs. The Chiefs added a pair of veterans on the offensive line in guard Ryan Lilja and center Casey Wiegmann. They also added veteran running back Thomas Jones to complement Jamaal Charles.
The combination of Charles and Jones has clicked better than anyone could have expected, with the Chiefs leading the league in rushing entering Sunday's game. But it's not as if the blueprint for success under Haley is to have a run-oriented team. After all, his claim to fame was getting pass-happy Arizona to the Super Bowl in 2008 as the Cardinals' offensive coordinator.
But with a still developing quarterback in Cassel, the Chiefs figured they'd try to protect him and take some of the pressure off with a strong running game. The Chiefs obviously weren't the same last week without Cassel in San Diego. He underwent an emergency appendectomy last week, and his status is uncertain for the Rams game.
One major difference between Haley in Year 2 at Kansas City and Spagnuolo in Year 2 in St. Louis is that the Chiefs changed their coordinators this past offseason. Pioli, the ex-New England Patriot, brought in a pair of ex-Patriots in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Weis is credited with getting Cassel's career back on track.
Clark Hunt, the son of Lamar, now runs the club from an ownership standpoint. He's not involved in day-to-day decisions. But the club's overall philosophy has changed. Under his direction and with Pioli handling the specifics, the Chiefs' roster is being built more for the long haul. Under Peterson, it was built more for each particular season.
With Stan Kroenke taking over full control of the Rams in late August, he has yet to put his stamp on the Rams' franchise. But the Rams' franchise quarterback, Sam Bradford, is beginning to put his on the team — last week's troubles in New Orleans notwithstanding.
All of which has conspired to make Kansas City at St. Louis surprisingly relevant, particularly for this time of the year.