The Kansas City Chiefs have become so renowned for electric offense that it's easy to forget the foundation of this franchise's legacy was built on defense.
Curley Culp, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who died on Saturday, literally was at the center of that success. He wasn't just a talented member of an outstanding team that gave the Chiefs their first championship. He was a man who revolutionized his position and became the standard for interior defensive linemen for years to come.
Culp was 75 years old when his wife, Collette Bloom Culp, announced his passing on social media. It had been revealed in recent days that he had been battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and his death resulted in instant tributes from throughout the NFL community.
Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter was one of the first to react, saying in a statement that Culp "was a wonderful man of great integrity who respected the game of football and how it applied to everyday life. Curley's humility and grace were always apparent. He loved the Hall of Fame -- always proudly wearing his Gold Jacket as he visited Canton many times following his election in 2013."
It shouldn't be surprising that Culp was humble. He spent the bulk of his 14-year career doing what most interior linemen do, thriving in the shadows of more celebrated players. This was a man who started his career being asked to play guard for the Denver Broncos, the team that selected him in the second round of the 1968 draft. The Broncos ultimately traded him to Kansas City before the end of his rookie training camp, and Culp found himself amidst a defense stocked with future Hall of Famers like Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier.
Culp found his comfort zone with that bunch. He blossomed as a defensive tackle and made the first of his six Pro Bowl selections in his second year with the franchise. The Chiefs also introduced the idea of playing Culp at nose tackle in a three-man front when they beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV during the 1969 season. It was a ground-breaking move at the time, one that opened up all sorts of opportunities for Culp as his career progressed.
The 3-4 defense wasn't even a thing in the NFL before that point. It had been the brain child of legendary Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson, who introduced the scheme to college football back in the 1940's. Culp became such an intriguing force in the system that the Houston Oilers traded for him in 1975 and built their defense around his potential. By the end of that decade, the 3-4 was so popular that the Miami Dolphins won two championships with it (including their undefeated season in 1972) and it was the favored scheme of a blossoming coach named Bill Parcells, who would use the scheme to unleash New York Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the league in the 1980's.
Culp was perfect for the 3-4 defense because of his jaw-dropping strength. He was a standout wrestler during his high school days in Yuma, Ariz. When he attended Arizona State from 1964-67, he earned All-American honors as both a football player and wrestler. In fact, Culp was so gifted as a wrestler -- he was the 1967 heavyweight national championship -- that he could've qualified as an Olympian.
That strength made the 6-1, 265-pound Culp a bear for opposing linemen. He famously dominated Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff in that Super Bowl win and there weren't many players at that position who could contend with Culp without help. Culp played at a time when centers were typically much smaller -- Tingelhoff, for example, only weighed 237 pounds, and he was also a future Hall of Famer -- and he also had enough quickness to disrupt the passing game. Though the NFL didn't officially begin keeping sacks as a statistics until the 1982 season, some estimates claim Culp amassed 68.5 sacks throughout his career, which is an extraordinary number for a nose tackle.
Culp was so dominant that he won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award in his first season with the Oilers (with 11.5 unofficial sacks). He also was named first-team All-Pro during that 1975 campaign and second-team All-Pro on four other occasions. Just as importantly, Culp paved the way for other nose tackles to shine in the league, a list that included men such as Fred Smerlas, Vince Wilfork and Haloti Ngata. Just as Deion Sanders created the notion of a shutdown cornerback, Culp gave future defensive coordinators a vision for all that could be possible for a stout, intractable presence centered right in the middle of a front.
"Our team certainly lost a great one today!" Tennessee Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement. "Curley was a game changer for our defense when he came to us in the trade with the Chiefs and was pivotal to our success during the Luv Ya Blue days. He rightfully earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and I was fortunate to spend some quality time with Curley and his wife Collette when we hosted the Oilers reunion this past September. They also brought two of their young grandchildren for that weekend and Curley's love for those two was very obvious. He will forever be remembered as a ferocious nose tackle as a player and a Hall of Fame gentleman off the field."
The sad part is that Culp waited 32 years after his retirement in 1981 to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he played his last two seasons with the Detroit Lions). That slight probably had plenty to do with the rise of sack masters over those three decades. The more the NFL turned into a league built around franchise quarterbacks and prolific offensive attacks, the more it rewarded edge rushers for their ability to continually harass such players and schemes. An understated player as devastating as Culp was too easily lost in the wash.
Today is yet another day to celebrate the man he was and the impact he had on the league. He will long be remembered as the greatest nose tackle to ever play, a disruptive force that helped the Chiefs win a championship and the Oilers elevate themselves into perennial contenders in the late 1970's. There surely will be more glowing tributes to come from those who knew Culp best off the field. The hope here is that everyone can recognize what he meant to the game now that he's actually gone.