On March 31, 1988 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded QB Steve DeBerg to Kansas City for safety Mark Robinson and two draft choices that were fourth and eighth-round selections in the pending NFL draft.
The 34-year-old DeBerg was considered to be intelligent and a hard worker, but also athletically limited. He was drafted out of San Jose State by the Dallas Cowboys in the tenth round in 1977 and was cut, catching on with the San Francisco 49ers for ’78. He became the starting quarterback for a poor team that went 2-14, and DeBerg completed just 45.4 percent of his passes while giving up 22 interceptions as opposed to 8 touchdowns. The arrival of Bill Walsh as head coach in 1979 didn’t bring an immediate improvement in record, but DeBerg had a much better season in Walsh’s controlled passing offense, setting then-NFL records for pass attempts (578) and completions (347) while gaining 3652 yards through the air and 17 TD passes against 21 interceptions.
DeBerg lost the starting job to the up-and-coming Joe Montana during the 1980 season and was dealt to the Denver Broncos for ’81, with Coach Walsh pronouncing the verdict that he was “just good enough to get you beat”. He backed up Craig Morton for a year, saw most of the action behind center during the strike-shortened 1982 season, and then split time with first draft choice John Elway in ’83. Tampa Bay obtained DeBerg from Denver in 1984 for two draft picks. He had a good first year with the 6-10 Bucs, setting a franchise record by completing 60.5 percent of his passes, for 3554 yards and 19 touchdowns. But the return was less in 1985 and Steve Young, a refugee from the USFL, started the last five games. Young was gone by 1987, but another overall top draft choice, Vinny Testaverde, joined the club and took over for the last four games after DeBerg started the first seven in the strike-interrupted campaign.
With the team committing to Testaverde, Head Coach Ray Perkins decided that dealing DeBerg for draft choices would be more beneficial to improving the club. Thus far in his career, DeBerg had passed for 19,582 yards and 116 touchdowns while giving up 139 interceptions, although in ’87 he led the NFC with the lowest percentage of interceptions thrown (2.5). He started 33 games for the Bucs, but they won only eight of them.
As for the other players involved in the trade, four-year veteran Mark Robinson was drafted in the fourth round out of Penn State in 1984 and had backed up star safeties Deron Cherry and Lloyd Burruss. He came highly recommended by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Doug Graber, who had previously coached the KC defensive backs. Safety was viewed as a significant area of need, and he became the starting strong safety and intercepted 12 passes in three seasons, with a high of six in 1989. The fourth-round draft pick received for DeBerg (86th overall) was used to take Tennessee G John Bruhin, who lasted four years with Tampa Bay and started 21 games. Eighth-round draft choice RB Anthony Simpson from East Carolina failed to make the team.
DeBerg signed a three-year contract with the Chiefs and Head Coach Frank Gansz indicated that he would back up injury-prone starting QB Bill Kenney. He ended up seeing most of the action behind center, throwing for 2935 yards and 16 touchdowns, as well as 16 interceptions, for a team that went 4-11-1. DeBerg started the games that KC won and Kenney was released in the offseason. Under a new head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, DeBerg began and ended 1989 as the starting quarterback, but in between was benched in favor of two other veterans, Ron Jaworski and Steve Pelluer. Overall, the Chiefs led the AFC with a 59.5 completion percentage, and DeBerg’s was 60.5, but none of the quarterbacks were especially effective.
DeBerg finally put it all together in 1990, starting every game and passing for 3444 yards and 23 touchdowns while giving up only four interceptions. Along the way, he had a streak of 233 consecutive passes without an interception, which ranked second in NFL history at the time. The Chiefs ran the ball well with Christian Okoye and Barry Word, and that set up opportunities to utilize play-action, which worked to DeBerg’s advantage due to his excellent ball-handling skills. Kansas City finished with an 11-5 record, its best since 1971, and a Wild Card spot in the playoffs for the first time in four years.
The Chiefs qualified for the postseason again in 1991, compiling a 10-6 tally, and this time won a playoff game before falling to Buffalo in the Divisional round. DeBerg had a lesser statistical season, however, passing for 2965 yards while having fewer TDs (17) and more interceptions (14). He missed one game due to injury during the regular season and went down again in the playoff loss to the Bills. At age 37, the Chiefs determined that it was time for a change and DeBerg was allowed to depart as a free agent in the offseason, with Seattle’s Dave Krieg brought in as his replacement.
DeBerg returned to Tampa Bay in a strictly backup role in 1992, and split time with the Buccaneers and Dolphins in ‘93, with Miami putting him in the lineup after Dan Marino was lost due to injury. He then retired, but came back with Atlanta in 1998 at age 44 to provide depth when QB Chris Chandler was injured and started one game.
Despite his limitations, Steve DeBerg lasted for 17 NFL seasons in all. He completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 34,241 yards and 196 touchdowns while giving up 204 interceptions. Of that, 11,873 yards and 67 TDs came with the Chiefs, and in terms of team performance, he enjoyed his greatest success in Kansas City, which went 31-20-1 in games he started (he didn’t reach double figures in wins with any of the other five teams he suited up for).