The Kansas City Chiefs were coming off a disappointing 6-10 record in their first year under Head Coach Dick Vermeil as they opened the 2002 NFL season at Cleveland on September 8. QB Trent Green had been a disappointment in his first year with the club in ‘01, but RB Priest Holmes (pictured above), signed away from the Ravens, was outstanding and the team finished strong (5-4 after a 1-6 start).
The Browns were also led by a second-year coach in Butch Davis, formerly of the Univ. of Miami. After two lackluster seasons following the return of the reformed Browns as an expansion team in 1999, they had improved to 7-9 in 2001. QB Tim Couch had shown flashes of the form that was anticipated when he was taken as the first overall pick of the ’99 NFL draft, but due to injury would be sitting out the opening game against the Chiefs – backup QB Kelly Holcomb was filling in.
There was a crowd of 72,938 on hand at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Browns got a break on the third play from scrimmage when a pass from Trent Green was intercepted by DB Daylon McCutcheon and returned 24 yards to the Kansas City six yard line. Cleveland couldn’t get into the end zone in three plays but Phil Dawson kicked a 20-yard field goal for the early lead.
The Chiefs came right back and went 73 yards in eight plays. Green immediately threw to FB Tony Richardson for 23 yards and, on a second-and-18 play, he connected with WR Eddie Kennison for 19 yards. Green threw to star TE Tony Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown and, with Morten Andersen’s successful extra point, a 7-3 advantage.
Cleveland responded with a 10-play, 55-yard scoring drive that featured the running game and three short passes. Dawson booted another field goal, this time from 32 yards, and the score stood at 7-6 at the end of the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, the Browns took just two plays to go 80 yards. Kelly Holcomb threw to WR Kevin Johnson for 22 yards and then to WR Dennis Northcutt for a 43-yard TD. But the Chiefs put together another scoring series that featured Green completing a pass to Kennison for 64 yards to the Cleveland seven. Two plays later Priest Holmes ran five yards for a touchdown and Andersen’s extra point put KC back in front by 14-13.
In what was becoming a back-and-forth struggle, the Browns again drove to a score, going 71 yards in five plays. Holcomb connected on passes to TE Mark Campbell for 18 yards and Johnson for 12. A completion on an option pass from Johnson, a former college quarterback, to WR Quincy Morgan was good for a 33-yard TD and 20-14 halftime lead.
Cleveland started off the third quarter with a long drive of 14 plays covering 80 yards. The Browns converted two third downs along the way as Holcomb completed seven passes, the last to WR Andre’ Davis for a touchdown from four yards out. Dawson’s PAT made it a 13-point advantage for the home team.
The Chiefs narrowed the margin in their next possession. Green converted a third-and-seven situation with a completion to WR Johnnie Morton for 15 yards and, two plays later, found Gonzalez for a 30-yard gain to the Cleveland 11. Penalties backed the visitors back from there but they came away with a 33-yard Andersen field goal.
With the score at 27-17, the teams traded punts heading into the fourth quarter. The Browns put together another scoring drive early in the period as they went 50 yards in eight plays. Holcomb completed passes to Morgan for 23 yards, Johnson for 10, and three yards to WR Andre King. Dawson kicked a 34-yard field goal that made it 30-17.
Kansas City struck back quickly, spurred by a 46-yard kickoff return by WR Dante Hall. Green threw to Kennison for 15 yards and Gonzalez for 14 before Holmes ran 26 yards for a touchdown. Andersen’s extra point made it a six-point game, and on the next series the Chiefs recovered a fumble at the Cleveland 15. Holmes immediately ran for a TD from that distance and Andersen put Kansas City in front by 31-30.
With just over eight minutes left in the game, the Browns, whose lead had so quickly evaporated, got the ball back and took five plays to move 66 yards and go back on top. Four of those plays were Holcomb pass completions, the last to Morgan for a 44-yard touchdown.
The Chiefs came right back with another scoring drive of their own. Green threw to Kennison for 22 yards and Gonzalez for 10 and Holmes had a 23-yard run. It was Holmes running the last seven yards for his fourth touchdown (which tied the franchise record). With a one-point lead, Kansas City decided to go for two points but Green’s run came up short. Still, the Chiefs were again ahead by a point at 37-36 and the clock was down to 3:05.
Following the kickoff, the Browns took over at their 32 and Holcomb (pictured above) connected on three straight passes, the last to Johnson for 25 yards to the KC 31. Keeping the ball on the ground, and burning their timeouts, the Browns reached the 23 from where Dawson booted a 41-yard field goal. It was Dawson’s 19th consecutive successful field goal and Cleveland was yet again in front at 39-37 with only 29 seconds left to play. The Browns were penalized for taunting, which had them kicking off from their own 15.
After Hall’s 19-yard kickoff return, the Chiefs started at their 35. Green ran up the middle for 12 yards and then tossed an incomplete pass. On the next play, Kansas City’s receivers all headed for the end zone for a final “Hail Mary” desperation pass, but Green was flushed from the pocket. It seemed as though Green had been sacked with no time remaining – or so LB Dwayne Rudd thought. With his back to the play, he removed his helmet and tossed it some 15 yards down the field in celebration. However, Green had not been sacked and instead quickly lateraled to OT John Tait, who thundered 28 yards to the Cleveland 25 before being forced out of bounds.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed on the Browns and the ball was moved half the distance to the goal. With no time left on the clock, Andersen kicked a 30-yard field goal and, in bizarre fashion, the Chiefs came away with a 40-39 win.
Kansas City outgained the Browns (470 yards to 411) and the teams were even in first downs at 24 apiece. The Chiefs were much more effective running the ball (194 yards to 59) while Cleveland had the edge in net passing yards (352 to 276). There was only one sack (of Holcomb by Kansas City LB Duane Clemons) and each team suffered a single turnover. However, the Chiefs were penalized 9 times, at a cost of 87 yards, to four flags thrown on Cleveland for 38 yards – although it was the one penalty by the Browns at the end that made the difference.
Trent Green had a solid outing, completing 20 of 29 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Priest Holmes rushed for 122 yards and four TDs on 22 carries and also led the club with 6 catches, for 19 yards. Eddie Kennison gained 120 yards on his four pass receptions and Tony Gonzalez added 87 yards on 5 catches that included a TD.
For the Browns, Kelly Holcomb was successful on 27 of 39 throws for 326 yards and three touchdowns with none intercepted. Quincy Morgan was the top receiver with 9 catches for 151 yards and two scores while Kevin Johnson, in addition to throwing a TD pass, contributed 8 receptions for 96 yards. RB Jamel White was the leading ground gainer with just 42 yards on 12 attempts.
“I shouldn’t have taken it (his helmet) off,” said a dejected Dwayne Rudd (pictured at right) regarding the climactic penalty. “It’s against the rules. I thought we had won.“
“I’m sick,” added Coach Butch Davis. “To have something like that happen at the end is inexcusable.”
“This was just luck,” exulted Tony Gonzalez. “The coaches might call it preparation or whatever, but to me it’s luck and I’ll take it every time.”
The Chiefs lost their next two games but finished up at 8-8, although that still put them at the bottom of the AFC West. Cleveland recovered to finish the season strong, end up second in the AFC North, and reach the playoffs as a Wild Card team at 9-7. The lost a close game to division-rival Pittsburgh in the first round.
Trent Green had a solid season, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 3690 yards with 26 touchdown and was intercepted only 13 times. He also led the NFL in yards per attempt (7.9) and percentage of TDs (5.5) as his passer rating improved from 71.1 in 2001 to 92.6.
Priest Holmes continued to excel until he was knocked out of the last two games of the year with a hip injury. As it was, he ran for 1615 yards on 313 carries (5.2 avg.), caught 70 passes for 672 more yards, and scored league-leading totals of 24 touchdowns and 144 points. He was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press as well as receiving consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl honors.
While Tim Couch returned as starting quarterback for the Browns, he was looking over his shoulder at Kelly Holcomb for the remainder of the season. Couch continued to battle with inconsistency while Holcomb, in four games, passed for 790 yards and 8 touchdowns with four interceptions. Starting in the playoff game against the Steelers as the result of another injury to Couch, Holcomb passed for 429 yards in defeat. The career backup would ultimately prove to be a solid understudy who was not a viable long-term option as a starting quarterback.