Insiders

Franchise Turning Points: AFC West

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The Talking Heads posed the question “Well, how did I get here?” in the 1980 song “Once In A Lifetime.”
It’s applicable to anyone, of course, with football fans and their respective favorite teams being no exception. Football Insiders is taking a division-by-division look at the turning point in each franchise’s recent history that can answer that very question.

Our tour of the AFC concludes with the West, which happens to be the only NFL division that has not produced a Super Bowl champion in the 21st century.

Denver Broncos
Turning Point: Acquiring Peyton Manning

The Broncos were a playoff team with Tim Tebow at quarterback. What could they be with arguably the best passer of his generation in the mix instead?

Team president John Elway decided it was worth finding out, taking a low-risk gamble by signing Peyton Manning after the latter missed a season for the first time in his career due to neck surgery.

The move has paid off. Denver has won the division title all three years of Manning’s tenure and will be favorites to capture a fourth in 2015. But the stakes will be higher than ever this year. Manning wasn’t brought to Denver to win division titles – he was brought there to win a Super Bowl. With this likely being his last season in the league, it’s all-or-nothing for the Broncos. But that’s a considerably better spot to be in than any of their rivals.

Oakland Raiders
Turning Point: Trading Jon Gruden

You don’t often see head coaches getting traded. And you only need to look at the Oakland Raiders to know why.

Following the 2001 season, Al Davis made the move that fatally wounded his franchise by trading his coach, Jon Gruden, to Tampa Bay. Initially, it appeared to work for both teams as they reached the Super Bowl the next year. But by the end of Tampa’s 48-21 blowout win, it was pretty clear who got the better end of the deal.

The worst part for Raiders fans? They haven’t reached a single playoff game since, recycling through eight coaches – they are now on their ninth in Jack Del Rio – since trading Chucky.

The organization that was once the envy of football – just win, baby – is now far and away its biggest running joke. (OK, maybe it is neck-and-neck with the Browns).

Kansas City Chiefs
Turning Point: Firing Marty Schottenheimer

“Martyball” isn’t always exciting, but it is usually pretty good – especially in the regular season.

The ultra-conservative play caller had Kansas City running the AFC West in the ‘90s, with the Chiefs reaching the playoffs seven times from 1990-97. Despite that consistency, the best Kansas City could muster was an AFC Championship Game loss in 1993.

So when the Chiefs had their first losing season under Schottenheimer in 1998 – the same year that arch-rival Denver won its second straight Super Bowl – the organization decided it was time to cut cord.

Whoops.

The Chiefs have had a grand total of four playoff appearances since showing Schottenheimer the door, and haven’t won any of them.

Andy Reid has the team headed in the right direction with back-to-back winning seasons, but there’s still a long way to go before Kansas City is again one of the league’s elite teams.

San Diego Chargers
Turning Point: Firing Marty Schottenheimer

The San Diego Chargers win the AFC West superlative for “Team Least Likely to Pay Attention To Mistakes Made By Division Rivals.”

For a brief, glimmering moment in the mid-2000s, the Bolts looked like the franchise best equipped to challenge New England for AFC dominance. With LaDanian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers in tow, Schottenheimer led San Diego to a 14-2 record in 2006. But he was bitten by a familiar bugaboo – the playoffs – as the Chargers fell to the Patriots, squandering a 21-13 lead in the final 8 minutes of a heartbreaking 24-21 divisional playoff loss.

Ownership made the rash decision the part ways with Schottenheimer and replace him with… Norv Turner. Who had been fired by the Raiders after two failed seasons in Oakland.

The Chargers were never actually bad under Turner. There was only one losing season, his last in 2012, and even then San Diego was a respectable 7-9. But there was always a sense that the Chargers were underachieving as they habitually discovered new, unthinkable ways to lose games.

Would that have been any different under Schottenheimer, the very inventor of the heartbreaking playoff loss? It’s hard to say. But San Diego hasn’t quite seemed the same since deciding to run him off.


About Alex Hickey

Alex Hickey

Alex Hickey can vividly recall most significant NFL events going back to Walter Payton's final game in 1987, including the ones that didn't make him cry. Since 2008, his full-time job has been covering college football, specifically McNeese State, for the Lake Charles (La.) American Press. Free time is spent informing, amusing or annoying you for Football Insiders.