The 1971 Kansas City Chiefs season saw the club bounce back from a 7–5–2 campaign in 1970 to record a 10–3–1 mark and win the AFC West division championship, the Chiefs' first division title since 1966. The Chiefs tied with the Miami Dolphins for the best record in the AFC and were tied for the third-best record overall in the NFL, trailing only the 11–3 marks of the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings.
Most of the pieces of the team which won Super Bowl IV two years earlier were still in place. Left defensive end Jerry Mays retired after the 1970 season, with Marvin Upshaw taking his spot, but the other 10 defensive starters were the same as they were two years prior. Middle linebacker Willie Lanier was a unanimous All-Pro selection following the season, and would likely have been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year had not Viking defensive tackle Alan Page become the second defensive player to win the league's Most Valuable Player award. Outside linebacker Bobby Bell, defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, and cornerback Emmitt Thomas joined Lanier on the AFC Pro Bowl squad following the season. Bell, Buchanan, Culp, Lanier and Thomas are all members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On offense, Robert Holmes was traded to the San Diego Chargers midway through the season, leaving Wendell Hayes to assume the fullback duties next to third-year pro Ed Podolak, who had become the starting halfback when Mike Garrett was traded to San Diego in 1970. Morris Stroud, the tallest player in NFL history at 6-foot-10, and Willie Frazier, acquired from San Diego, alternated at tight end for the retired Fred Arbanas, but the rest of the offensive line, save for center Jack Rudnay, remained the same from the Super Bowl winning team. Rudnay assumed the starting center spot in 1970 over veteran E. J. Holub. At wide receiver, rookie Elmo Wright, the Chiefs' first-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft from the University of Houston, assumed the slot opposite all-pro Otis Taylor, as Frank Pitts had moved on to the Cleveland Browns. Taylor earned selection to the Pro Bowl, along with guard Ed Budde, quarterback Len Dawson, and tackle Jim Tyrer.
Kansas City's special teams remained among the league's elite units, thanks to the combination of kicker Jan Stenerud and punter Jerrel Wilson, both of whom were named to the Pro Bowl. Podolak and Warren McVea handled the bulk of the return duties.
The season was the last for the Chiefs in Municipal Stadium, as owner Lamar Hunt and general manager Jack Steadman were overseeing the construction of Arrowhead Stadium, located at the junction of Interstate 70 and Interstate 435 in Jackson County, Missouri, at the eastern edge of the Kansas City city limits. Arrowhead, along with Royals Stadium, being constructed for the Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball, would form the Truman Sports Complex, bucking the trend of multi-purpose stadiums in vogue at the time.
The season ended in heartbreak, as the Miami Dolphins won the longest game in National Football League history on Christmas Day, defeating the Chiefs 27–24 in double-overtime on a 37-yard field goal by Garo Yepremian in the last football game in Municipal Stadium, as well as the last game for safety Johnny Robinson, who was an original member of the Dallas Texans in 1960. Coach Hank Stram often called the 1971 Chiefs the franchise's best-ever squad, and this loss haunted Stram for the rest of his life, even after his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Stram died July 4, 2005 at age 82. Others who are in the Hall of Fame from this squad are owner Hunt (who died December 13, 2006 at age 74), quarterback Dawson, and kicker Stenerud.
The loss to Miami began a nosedive in the Chiefs' fortunes. Kansas City backslid to 8–6 and 7–5–2 in 1972 and 1973, before falling to 5–9 and a tie for last in the AFC West in 1974, leading to the Stram's firing following the season. Kansas City would not reach the playoffs again until 1986, did not host (or win) another playoff game until 1991, and did not win the AFC West division title again until 1993.
This is a list of the 1971 Kansas City Chiefs' regular starters.
In an interesting coincidence, the Chiefs opened the 1971 season in the same location where they closed 1970, in San Diego Stadium against the division rival San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs were seeking revenge for a 31–13 loss in the 1970 finale, but John Hadl twice burned Kansas City's secondary, considered to be among the league's elite units, for two long touchdowns as the Chargers claimed a 21–14 victory.
Kansas City won its next two games to wrap up a three-game road trip to open the season, but were unimpressive in defeating the Houston Oilers, 20–16, and the Denver Broncos, 16–3, two teams which combined to finish the year 8–18–2. The Chiefs began to pick up steam upon returning to Municipal Stadium, routing the Chargers in the rematch, 31–10, and defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, 38–16.
Week six brought the undefeated Washington Redskins, under the leadership of first-year coach George Allen. Willie Lanier recovered a fumble by Redskin running back Larry Brown on the second play of the game deep in Washington territory, but the drive went for naught when Mike Bass intercepted an underthrown pass by Len Dawson at the 4-yard line. Dawson was interecepted again on the Chiefs' second drive, this time by Pat Fischer, who took the ball deep into Kansas City territory, setting up a touchdown pass from Billy Kilmer to Charley Taylor. Two field goals by Stenerud cut the deficit to 7–6, but late in the second quarter, Washington added a field goal, and another touchdown pass from Kilmer to Taylor. But on the play, Taylor broke his ankle on a tackle by Emmitt Thomas, leaving the Redskin offense short-handed for the rest of the game, and the season. Trailing 17–6 at halftime, Dawson engineered a touchdown drive to start the third quarter by hitting Otis Taylor on a post pattern to cut the deficit to 17–13. Washington added a field goal early in the fourth quarter, but a 50-yard pass from Dawson to rookie Elmo Wright put the Chiefs in position to tie the game on a scoring strike from Dawson to the team's first-round draft pick out of the University of Houston. On Kansas City's next drive, Taylor made an incredible leaping catch of a Dawson pass in front of Fischer with 3:46 remaining, giving the Chiefs their final margin, 27–20.
The Chiefs could not sustain the momentum from the emotional victory, playing to a 20–20 tie against the hated Oakland Raiders before dropping a shocking 13–10 decision to a New York Jets squad forced to play third-string quarterback Bob Davis. Kansas City bounced back to defeat the Cleveland Browns and Broncos at home, but on Thanksgiving Day, the Detroit Lions' passing combination of Greg Landry to Charlie Sanders proved to be too much to handle, and Kansas City fell, 32–21.
Kansas City returned to the Bay Area, but this trip was more successful, as the Chiefs ousted the NFC West leading San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, 26–17, setting up a showdown at home against the Raiders. Dawson and Taylor got the home team going with a touchdown pass on the opening drive, but it would be the only time Kansas City reached the end zone. The Chiefs led 13–7 early in the fourth quarter before Marv Hubbard's 1-yard touchdown run in the final period gave Oakland a 14–13 lead. Kansas City drove from deep in its own territory to what would be the game-winning field goal, helped by a tripping penalty against Oakland cornerback Jimmy Warren. The Raiders' final gasp came when George Blanda's pass was intercepted by Jim Kearney. With the AFC West title secured, the Chiefs rested many of their starters in a 22–9 victory against the woeful Buffalo Bills to close the season.
Note: Tie games were not officially counted in the standings until 1972.