Over the course of my 24 years with the Chiefs, I have seen many variations of the team’s offense, generally instituted upon the arrival of a new coach. There was “Marty-Ball,” which begat “Yardage in Chunks,” which disappeared on the arrival of Gunther Cunningham’s “Run it and Play Defense” which led to Dick Vermeil’s iteration of a Bill Walsh offense that was known inside coaching circles as “the extended handoff.”
While the defense has largely determined the outcome of Chiefs seasons if you look closely at statistical studies, it is almost always the offense that receives the public’s attention.
But of all the offensive fireworks – or lack thereof – none can compare to Marv Levy’s revival of the “Wing-T.” Adopted more out of necessity than design, the Wing-T was what Levy – the franchise’s third head coach in four years – believed he must do to cover up what was a dreadful defense. Levy had come from Canada where passing was very much the preferred route to the endzone and yet in Kansas City he found that he must run the football in order to keep his defense off the field. “I had to find some way to protect our defense,” Levy admitted in confidence to a reporter.
And on that realization, the “Wing-T,” an antiquated college offense thrust upon the pro football world of the 1970s, began its short second-life in America’s midsection. “Grueling” and “consistent” were words Levy used to describe an attack that featured three running backs: Tony Reed, Mark Bailey and Ted McKnight, and one wide receiver: Henry Marshall. In a normal pro set, which the Chiefs went to in long-yardage or obvious passing downs, there were two backs and one wide receiver.
Ball-handling was crucial here especially with the dimension of a third back, and what caused confusion for the defense was the number of flows and split flows and miss-directions the offense ran.
Levy had used the Wing-T some at the University of New Mexico but never in Montreal and the CFL. “The more you throw the more you have to throw,” he said in defense of his critics. “The minute you get second and 10 all the advantage goes to the defense,” something you might have heard from Herm Edwards decades later.
Christened in 1978 in a pre-season game against Green Bay, the Wing-T gave the Packers defense fits as Kansas City ran to a 17-14 victory. The Chiefs ran only five basic plays in the game, according to Levy, and gained 201 yards on 40 carries, even going so far to include a quarterback option play. A week later against Minnesota, the Chiefs offense gained 235 yards on 49 carries and a 17-13 victory.
The regular season opener gave proof that the Wing-T was here to stay – at least for the immediate future – as the Chiefs went on the road to Cincinnati and upset the Bengals, 24-23, setting a club rushing mark in the process on a whopping 69 carries netting 267 yards. By the end of the season the Chiefs would have averaged over 213 in net rushing per game.
Its novelty forced opponents to rethink and retool their defenses as they faced complex offensive formations featuring several players going in motion and resetting themselves before the ball was snapped. But what it did as much as anything is let Levy’s young defense composed of rookies and future Chiefs Hall of Famers Art Still and Gary Spani begin slowly to improve. But as the season progressed, opponents began to figure it out and the team sustained an early six-game losing streak which spelled a quick ending to any optimism the offense had generated among the fan base during the pre-season.
Levy used all the right coaching buzz words to explain his preference for the Wing-T: unselfish, tough, physical - you’ve all heard the script before. But again, those words cloaked the real reason, a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL and would give up an average of more than 24 points in games lost in 1978 (a slight improvement from the previous year when it averaged giving up 27 points in losses.)
In the end, the Wing-T went the way of the dinosaurs and the Chiefs finished Levy’s first year in Kansas City at 4-12.