While the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers prepare to face each other for the first Super Bowl of the new decade, the franchises are intrinsically linked throughout the past, perhaps in no way more than the 1985 NFL Draft.
Before setting the stage, let’s do one of those blind comparisons for a player’s career. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted one of these guys while the San Francisco 49ers grabbed the other.
- Player A: Tight end; 212 receptions; 2,360 receiving yards; 17 receiving touchdowns; 20 total touchdowns.
- Player B: Wide receiver; 1,549 receptions; 22,895 receiving yards; 197 receiving touchdowns; 207 total touchdowns.
Alright, now, to set the stage, in 1984, the Kansas City Chiefs finished 8-8, missing the playoffs for the 13th straight season, an ugly streak that would continue for another season. Infamously, the Chiefs went without a playoff victory from the time they won Super Bowl IV in the 1969 season to the 1991 Wild Card game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Back in 1984, the Chiefs were led by John Mackovic, who’d just completed his second season with the team and saw Kansas City’s win total jump by two, from 6-10 to 8-8. While the team missed the playoffs, that was still improvement. With a middle-of-the-pack record, the Chiefs ended up with a middle-of-the-pack draft pick, No. 15.
At the time, the Chiefs still didn’t have an answer at quarterback as Bill Kenney and Todd Blackledge, the organization’s 1983 first-round draft pick, each started eight games, each going 4-4. While Kenney, then in his fifth season with the Chiefs and coming off a Pro Bowl caliber year, had ugly numbers, Blackledge’s were worse.
Unlike the 1983 NFL Draft, which saw a whopping six quarterbacks selected in the first round, including three future Hall of Famers in John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino, the 1985 NFL Draft (like 1984’s) had zero quarterbacks selected in the first round. In fact, the first quarterback selected in 1985 was Randall Cunningham at pick No. 37.
So, yes, the Kansas City Chiefs still had a quarterback problem, but it was a problem without an answer, at least through the draft.
Really, the Chiefs had next to nothing as far as offensive skill players.
The team’s leading rusher, Herman Heard, didn’t break 700 yards on the ground and found the end zone only four times all season. 30-year-old Henry Marshall led the team in receptions with 62 while Carlos Carson at least broke 1,000 yards receiving. No player had more than four receiving touchdowns. The team’s top tight end was 25-year-old Willie Scott, a former first-round pick in 1981 who finished his career with 89 receptions.
On the other hand, you had the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had just won its second Super Bowl in four years after a dominant 15-1 regular season. Led by future Hall of Famer (and future Chief) Joe Montana at quarterback and future Hall of Fame head coach and visionary Bill Walsh, the team was all but unstoppable.
Thanks to the Chiefs’ drafting inabilities and a trade with the woeful New England Patriots, the 49ers dynasty became that much stronger in the 1985 NFL Draft.
Back to Player A and Player B.
You probably know that Player B is Jerry Rice, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who made 13 Pro Bowls in his career while being named All-Pro 10 times and who won three Super Bowls in a career mostly with the 49ers but also with the Raiders and (briefly) the Seahawks.
In 1985, the 49ers traded with the Patriots in order to move up from pick No. 28 (then the last pick of the first round) to pick No. 16, where they landed Rice out of Mississippi Valley State.
Player A from above? That’s who the Kansas City Chiefs selected one pick ahead of Rice. His name is Ethan Horton, and he played college ball at North Carolina. He played exactly one season with the Chiefs, his rookie year, when he caught 28 passes for 185 yards and one touchdown while rushing the ball 48 times for 146 yards and three touchdowns. He’d play most of the rest of his career with the Raiders, even making the Pro Bowl in 1991.
Have you heard of Horton? I hadn’t until we here at KC Kingdom ranked every first-round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs back in April. Of the 54, we ranked Horton 39th, which, in retrospect, may be too kind. Then again, it illustrates just how bad the Chiefs were at drafting.
This all begs the question: would Jerry Rice have put up the kind of numbers he head if he landed in Kansas City – a rudderless franchise with no good quarterback until Montana arrived on his last legs in 1993, and a team that cycled through coaches until Marty Schottenheimer arrived in 1989?
Rice was, after all, outstanding, even into his playing days with the Raiders. He’s not the best wide receiver to have ever played the game just because of his head coaches and teammates, but it surely helped to have all-time greats at hand.
My, how the history of the NFL would be different today had the Chiefs* picked Rice instead of Horton. Still, those 49ers teams were loaded. Maybe they would’ve won another two Super Bowls instead of three.
*I’ll note here that, in the 1985 NFL Draft, the Jets and Bengals took wide receivers ahead of the 49ers selecting Rice.
What would the Chiefs have been like with Rice? Mackovic was not a visionary coach, and Kenney and Blackledge were not Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Heck, those three probably shouldn’t have lasted as long in the NFL as they did, and they didn’t last very long as it is.
Still, maybe the Chiefs turn it around sooner. Maybe Marty doesn’t suffer heartbreak after heartbreak in the playoffs. Maybe the Chiefs land an answer at quarterback sooner than 1993. Maybe there’d be an argument about who the best wide receiver in the NFL’s history is instead of just a two-worded factual statement: Jerry Rice.
Maybe, on Sunday, the Chiefs aren’t playing in their first Super Bowl in 50 years.
Then again: maybe not.
In the end, the Chiefs picked Horton and the 49ers traded up to take Rice and won another three Super Bowls with him. None of that has any bearing whatsoever on Sunday in the matchup between Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan, between Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo, between Travis Kelce and George Kittle.
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But this much is certain: the Kansas City Chiefs aided the five-time Super Bowl winning dynasty of the San Francisco 49ers by taking a tight end out of North Carolina in the 1985 NFL Draft.