RAND: Chiefs saw best and last of Moon

Feb 07, 2006, 5:21:14 AM by Jonathan Rand - FAQ

An ex-Chief was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend. It just wasn’t the ex-Chief, linebacker Derrick Thomas, whom most fans in Kansas City were focused on.

Warren Moon’s seasons as a Chief, 1999 and 2000, were just a post-script to his 23-year career in Canada and the NFL. He backed up quarterback Elvis Grbac, and Moon’s only start as a Chief, a 17-16 loss at San Diego, might’ve been the most forgettable game of his career.

It was against the Chiefs that Moon enjoyed the most memorable game of his career. And it’s heartening to see that his decision not to chase a record didn’t cost him the chance to make the Hall of Fame on his first try.

Moon led the Houston Oilers into Arrowhead Stadium on December 16, 1990 in a game between playoff-bound teams. The Oilers featured a run-and-shoot offense that helped Moon throw for 4,689 yards and 33 touchdowns that year. But the Chiefs had a tough defense, led by Thomas, the league’s sack leader that year.

Moon completed 27 of 45 passes for 527 yards in a 27-10 Houston victory. He was in easy range of Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record of 554 yards, but saw no point in trying to pad his numbers. Breaking that record would’ve certainly enhanced his Hall of Fame credentials.

Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer called Moon’s performance “the singularly finest I’ve ever seen by a quarterback.”

Schottenheimer tried to neutralize Moon with every ploy imaginable, even with a mind game before kickoff. Moon recalled that Schottenheimer bumped him in the back during warm-ups, then walked away without turning around.

“I thought it was a joke at first, I kept waiting for him to say something,” Moon said. “Then (offensive coordinator) Kevin Gilbride came over and said, ‘Did you see what he just did?’

“I said, ‘I’ll make him pay today,’ and basically that’s how we approached it. Just that itty-bitty bump gave me that extra emotion.

“We really were a little nervous coming in because they had a good defense and one of the better secondaries. It was a misty, rainy day and people said the offense didn’t work well in bad weather. But we came in and rose to the challenge.”

Moon made a career out of rising to challenges, especially off the field. He began his pro career when black quarterbacks were still rare in the NFL, and he often performed under a microscope of racial scrutiny — even when he declined to chase Van Brocklin’s record.

“I had hurt my arm in that ballgame and there was no use to keep throwing the ball,” Moon recalled. “I felt this was a team we might play in the playoffs, and I didn’t want to do anything to give them bulletin board material. I kind of knew how close I was to the record but I figured I’d get a chance to do that again.

“We have a few black newspapers in Houston. Some people called me ‘Uncle Tom’ for not going after the record, that it was something I should’ve done for black people.”

Now, Moon was getting stung by bigotry from both sides.He heard racial slurs in Houston, particularly during a Monday night home loss in 1991. The Moons’ young children, who were sitting with their mother, heard the slurs, too.

Threats were made on Moon’s life in some cities, though he dismissed them as attempts to intimidate him or throw him off his game. He also caught flak for his inability to lead the Oilers to a Super Bowl.

They had won 11 straight games in 1993 before facing the Chiefs in a divisional playoff game in Houston. Joe Montana led a 28-20 come-from-behind win, which is still the Chiefs’ biggest post-season victory since Super Bowl IV.

Among the NFL’s black quarterbacks, Moon wasn’t the first full-time starter nor the first Super Bowl winner. But he was, arguably, the most important myth breaker.

Though he was Pacific 8 Player of the Year and Rose Bowl MVP as a senior at Washington in 1978, Moon was stereotyped by NFL scouts as a scrambler who lacked a pro-quality arm. Told by NFL teams that he wouldn’t be drafted in an early round and might be asked to switch positions, he spent his first six pro seasons in Canada.

Moon was signed by Houston in 1984 and soon established himself as one of the NFL’s top passers before moving on to Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City. Moon made NFL teams realize that they no longer could afford to write off top black college quarterbacks just because they weren’t big, strapping, classic pocket passers.

Moon retired at age 44 and was among the NFL’s top five in every major career passing category. But it was his ability to pave the way for so many other black quarterbacks that explains why the league’s history can’t be written without him. That’s a lot more important than the place in history he chose not to occupy when it was right there for the taking.

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.

A former sportswriter and columnist in Kansas City and Miami, Rand has covered the NFL for three decades and seen 23 Super Bowl games. His column appears twice weekly in-season.

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