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KANSAS CITY — The inspirational narrative was there for the taking, as preconceived and convenient as a Disney movie plot, and all Brady Quinn had to do was play along.
Standing alone at his locker Sunday afternoon in the wake of perhaps his most impressive performance as a pro, the Kansas City Chiefs' emotionally drained quarterback understood the temptation to overstate the significance of his team's 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Given the game's tragic overtones, with Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher having killed his girlfriend and taken his own life the previous morning in the shadow of Arrowhead Stadium, many observers were eager to cast the home team's crisp, resilient effort as a stirring salve for a grieving community.
Quinn, however, felt anything but victorious — and made no effort to conceal his pain.
"It feels like a no-win situation, you know?" Quinn said softly. "We played well, but I'm not really thinking about that right now, to be honest with you. I was just trying to do the best I could … and trying to get through the day. We all were."
On a surreal afternoon steeped in conflicted emotion, the simple acts of propping up one another and punching the clock constituted a major collective triumph for the men in red and gold.
As so many outsiders focused on tangible matters, such as if and when the game would be played and what the final score would be, the Chiefs strove for some semblance of fleeting normalcy in an environment that, after Saturday, no longer felt safe or stable.
"I think all the guys kind of felt the same way: Let's do everything we can for the next few hours to just do this to the best of our ability," tackle Eric Winston said after the Chiefs (2-10) won for the first time since September, playing a nearly flawless game in the process. "We said, 'Let's not try to fix anything or move on or make some statement.'
"On some level, playing the game was therapeutic. But we're dealing with a tragedy, and it's not over, and won't be for a long time. Right now I'm feeling the gamut of emotions, from anger to sadness. We all are. And we will be when we wake up tomorrow."
If the Chiefs' ability to fight through their shock and sadness resonated with the fans who showed up at Arrowhead and a curious TV audience, the players' measured and layered postgame remarks demonstrated an even more impressive reaction to a traumatic situation.
While it's understandable that the outside world may view Belcher, a linebacker who'd been with the team since 2009, as a killer whose shameful behavior brought unspeakable misery to two families, Saturday morning's events provoked a nuanced response among the Chiefs' de facto family. For the players and coaches, there are so many emotions to process.
There's the mourning for Kasandra Perkins, who authorities say Belcher shot multiple times at a residence near the stadium on Saturday morning and the anger over her senseless death.
There's the stunned sorrow over the loss of Belcher, who Chiefs players described as a model teammate, and the guilt that no one was able to recognize and provide help for his inner demons.
There's the grief-stricken compassion for Zoey Belcher, the couple's nearly three-month-old daughter, who was left orphaned by the tragedy, and for whom Quinn and other players say they plan to provide financial support.
And, though the NFL's macho culture may not make it a popular topic of discussion, there's the haunting fear from the knowledge that Belcher's suicide occurred at the workplace in an Arrowhead parking lot as head coach Romeo Crennel, linebackers coach Gary Gibbs and general manager Scott Pioli looked on in horror.
Fighting through all of that and displaying commendable attention to detail while defeating the Panthers (3-9) was an admirable achievement, but the men responsible had no illusions about its lasting impact.
"I thought we had a focused group [Sunday], and it blows my mind that we did," center Ryan Lilja said. "I don't know if we did the right thing or the wrong thing [by playing], but we did it together."
To be specific, the Chiefs did it with the leadership of Crennel, the embattled coach who in the 30-plus hours after witnessing Belcher's death helped steel his players by demonstrating inner strength and a resilient temperament. He also coached a bold game that included three successful fourth-down conversions, including Quinn's one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Moeaki that gave Kansas City a 17-14 lead on the final play of the first half.
Afterward Crennel, whose nickname, RAC, is derived from his initials, was given a new handle by Lilja.
"I call him 'Rock,' " Lilja said. "He was our rock, so steady. What he went through, what he's going through — I mean, nobody in this building's hurting more than him. You measure a man by how he handles adversity. He was a steady presence for us. He showed what kind of man he is."
After breaking the news of Belcher's and Perkins' deaths to his players on Saturday morning, and presiding over a team meeting at a nearby hotel that night, Crennel showed up for work on Sunday determined to rid the locker room of excess dreariness, at least until the game was over. He told the Chiefs to remember the positive things about Belcher — how hard he played, how dedicated and passionate he was — and to try to honor those memories. The sight of Belcher's jersey hanging in his locker, which was still full of other equipment and belongings, underscored the point.
"Our coaching staff, and especially Romeo Crennel, did a great job keeping us in great spirits," cornerback Brandon Flowers said. "He came in here smiling and said, 'Just play for each other. Go out and get a win.' I couldn't even imagine going through what he went through. It says something about his character that he was able to fight through it and lead us [Sunday]. We rallied around our leader."
Said safety Eric Berry: "Man, he's a tough dude. I know he's been getting a lot of criticism about other stuff, but we know what kind of man he is, how much he cares about his players. He came out here with a smile on his face. He was here for us. He's a strong guy. Him and Scott [Pioli], they were here in the locker room revving us up, getting us ready to play. That just shows what kind of man he is, how strong he is. We look at RAC as our leader."
Fittingly, it was Quinn, a former Cleveland Browns first-round pick who spent his first two NFL seasons with Crennel as his head coach, who translated that leadership into a masterful, precise performance. In his fourth start of the season, Quinn (19-of-23, 201 yards) completed 82.6 percent of his passes and threw his first two touchdowns since 2009.
Quinn, who'd been unimpressive since being tabbed by Crennel to replace Matt Cassel in late October, brought his A-game on Sunday. He essentially made no mistakes — and neither did the Chiefs, who incurred only one penalty (delay of game call with 2:45 remaining), and did not turn the ball over. The end result was that Kansas City ended an eight-game losing streak and now has company (in the form of the 2-10 Jacksonville Jaguars) as the league's lowest achievers in 2012.
"He's just an amazing leader of men," Quinn said of Crennel. "That's really what this comes down to. That's one of the reasons I came here, my experience with him in Cleveland. I knew he was a great leader. He was someone I respected and loved as a coach. Guys loved him in Cleveland. Guys love him here.
"I think a lot of people, when he informed us [Saturday morning] of what had happened, could feel and could tell just from his eyes and his emotions, what he experienced and how hard it was for him to deal with. He did an amazing job of trying to hold back his own emotions and doing what he had to do to prepare us for a game and not think about witnessing a tragic event like that. I can't imagine being in his shoes. It's a testament to who he is as a man."
It was Crennel, after consulting with the Chiefs' captains, who expressed his desire to team owner Clark Hunt to play the game on Sunday, rather than postponing it a day or perhaps canceling it altogether. More than making a gung-ho statement about the team's resilience, some Chiefs indicated that they simply wanted to get back onto the field as a temporary coping mechanism. Afterward more than one player said "it didn't really matter" whether the game was played Sunday, Monday or even Thursday.
"To me, postponing it was just gonna keep the agony going," Winston said. "After every game, you get to turn a chapter to a new week. So, there's that. But realistically, that won't happen for us. You know that cloud's gonna be over us for the rest of the year, and will probably be hanging over this organization for an extended time."
That reality — and the team's collective comprehension of what confronts it in the coming weeks and months — provided a sobering edge to the Chiefs' postgame comments. Before they opened up the locker room to the media, they decompressed together in a manner that quarreled with the stereotype of the hardened, manly gridiron warrior.
"There were a lot of hugs, a lot of tears, a lot of guys saying I love you — and meaning it," Lilja said. "Guys are confused."
In this case, they have every right to be. For all the promise of Sunday's performance, which included the team's first opening-drive touchdown since December of 2010, they are collectively confronting a nightmare for which there are no quick fixes.
"How do you reconcile the things you feel about somebody that is with you every day with the events that happened [Saturday]?" Winston asked. "It's kind of impossible to me. I haven't figured out a way. I don't know if I ever will. Maybe some things, we're not supposed to understand."
To Crennel's credit, he understood that Sunday's mission was far less ambitious, and that the Chiefs' real work has only just begun.
"It's tough when circumstances happen that you can't undo, so you have to rely on each other, rely on your family, your friends and your faith," the coach said in his postgame news conference.
"That's what, as a team, we tried to do [Sunday] — try to work our way through the tragedy, knowing that it's not over today, it will still go on the next day and the next day. But life is going to go on as well, so we have to work through it."
Said Flowers: "We depended on each other to get through this. Some people probably felt more in the tank than others. No matter how hard it was to get through, we had to go out and do our job."
That Crennel was able to do his so valiantly after such a horrifying experience seemed to bring out the best in his players, even as they grappled with mysteries far beyond the playing field.
"Coaches think of their players as kids," Winston said quietly as he prepared to leave the locker room. "Losing someone, let alone seeing someone take a life — it's devastating. Listen, there are a lot of people here who are going to need some help. They're going to need to talk to people, to be free to grieve, to let these emotions out.
"It's just so sad. I can't stop thinking about that little girl. I haven't figured out a way to move on. I just hope the families involved can find some peace."
On Sunday, during a commendable three-hour stretch, the Chiefs fought through their anguish and found a way to focus. For now, perhaps, that's the best any of us can expect.
1. Bad news, Jim Harbaugh: St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who came up with some creative defensive wrinkles to confuse newly installed Niners starter Colin Kaepernick in a 16-13 overtime victory Sunday, is just starting to reshape the talent-deficient roster he inherited. "This is a carryover from three weeks ago," Fisher said Sunday evening, referencing last month's tie between the two teams. "We joked about taking three weeks off and getting right back after the 49ers — we didn't know it would take another five quarters. This young team believes we can go in and play with anybody." If the Rams (5-6-1) win out, they'll likely be playing in the postseason. Yes, coaching matters.
2. When Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll talked Sunday about the "exquisite poise" of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, he wasn't lying. Wilson, who has nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past four games, led Seattle (7-5) on a 97-yard touchdown drive late in regulation and an 80-yard encore in overtime, securing the 'Hawks' 23-17 road upset of the Chicago Bears (8-4) on a 13-yard scoring pass to Sidney Rice. As I've been telling you all season, Seattle is for real. So is the kid running the offense.
3. As for the rookie passer selected first overall in the 2012 draft: It's Andrew Luck's world, and the rest of us are just lucky to watch him work his magic (as he did in leading Indy to a 35-33 comeback victory at Detroit on a touchdown pass with no time remaining).
4. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh may have been peeved at Steelers counterpart Mike Tomlin following Pittsburgh's 23-20 road upset of the Ravens, but he should really be mad at Todd Haley. The offensive coordinator's smart game plan helped bring out the best in 37-year-old third-stringer Charlie Batch (25-for-36, 276 yards, one touchdown, one interception) and kept the Steelers (7-5) from falling out of contention in the AFC North.
5. Rex Ryan finally benched Mark Sanchez in the third quarter of the Jets' 7-6 victory over the Cardinals, and with Tim Tebow (ribs) inactive, it was (third-stringer Greg) McElroy Time. One scoring drive, and he's the apple of the Big Apple's eye. I'm not sure how halfback Shonn Greene and the other Jets are processing this as they prepare for next Sunday's game in Jacksonville (aka Tebowland), but this columnist is officially throwing up his hands.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That, while spending three hours at a Denver airport hotel early Sunday morning (as part of a hastily arranged journey from San Diego to Kansas City), I nonetheless spent 20 minutes watching obligatory cheesy-hotel-room-television — in this case, the immortal "What's Your Number?"
2. How Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has the gall to order his defensive players to blow up a pair of game-closing kneel-down plays when the man under center is Peyton Manning. When Schiano pulled the same stunt early in the season on Manning's kid brother, it provoked a sharp rebuke from an NFL community that was already predisposed to view the first-year Tampa Bay coach with skepticism. Messing with Eli Manning is one thing; Peyton is the NFL's fine china. Watching the 36-year-old hop back from the fray as the Bucs challenged a pair of victory-formation snaps in the Broncos' 31-23 victory over Tampa Bay was disconcerting.
Yes, I'm aware that Schiano has the right to behave this way. That's fine — but he has to own it and be at peace with the inevitable backlash. This time, I don't want to hear any whining out of Tampa in his defense. Schiano is lucky that Manning didn't a) throw a ball at one of the Bucs defenders' private parts, a la Paul Crewe of "The Longest Yard," or, even worse, b) get hurt. That would suck. Think about the big picture: Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, is coming back from four neck surgeries. Right now he's staring at a possible fifth MVP season and a potential Super Bowl run. Schiano's hard-headed arrogance could have undone all of that. Would that have been a good thing for football? Quick, let's take a poll: Voting yes, Greg Schiano and a few thousand blindly loyal Bucs fans. Voting no, everyone else on earth. The nays have it.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
When Raiders owner Mark Davis fired Hue Jackson last January after a single 8-8 season as Oakland's head coach, I let it be known that it was a horrible move. Oh, how Raider Nation protested. Silver-and-black loyalists told me that Jackson absolutely had to go, for reasons ranging from his bold statements in news conferences to his weekly manicure-pedicure routine (really) to the supposedly unassailable tenet that rookie general manager Reggie McKenzie absolutely had to bring in his "own guy." My rebuttal was always the same: The only relevant issue was whether the coach McKenzie hired (Dennis Allen) would be better than the one he fired. Jackson, in my opinion, possessed the creativity and chutzpah to coach his way out of the organization's latest rebuilding phase. Allen, I surmised, very well might not. Thirteen weeks into the season, after the Raiders (3-9) suffered a 20-17 home defeat to the lowly Cleveland Browns on Sunday, I'm officially declaring victory.
Allen, who unfortunately is taking a three-day leave of absence because his father reportedly has "serious health issues," may turn out to be a good NFL head coach, but right now the record says he's decidedly third-rate. So, evidently, does his owner, the man I nicknamed "Tommy Boy" after Jackson's firing: According to Bay Area News Group columnist Monte Poole, Davis told Allen he's "not good enough" in a pointed conversation on the flight home from last Sunday's 34-10 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati. That's the Bengals team for which Jackson is serving as a special teams and secondary assistant. It's not a very high-profile job, but that will change: I believe Jackson will be a head coach again someday, perhaps soon, because whatever his personality or grooming quirks, he's got the goods. Allen, meanwhile, is now guaranteed to finish with a worse record than his maligned predecessor had in his sole season. Logic dictates that Allen, unlike Jackson, will get a second chance. I'm starting to have my doubts. In the meantime, if you're one of those people who quarreled with my assessment back in January, go ahead and admit I wasn't wrong. I'm not mad at you. But you should be mad at Davis.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday night from Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
"This is not cool"
– Text Sunday night from Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose team lost its eighth consecutive game after opening the season 4-0.
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