The Chiefs Arrested Development

 

Development.

A key concept in the K.C. Chiefs organization, especially since Scott Pioli and Todd Haley took over the team in 2009. The question is: where are the Chiefs at with the development of the organization and specifically, positional player development?

I normally put a positive spin on what’s going on with the Chiefs but, their less-than-stellar start to the season begs the question: what is meant by development? As I looked into it, I haven’t really liked what I found.

In 2009, Coach Todd Haley came out of the chutes all gang busters and trimmed hundreds of pounds from the Chiefs bellies but, since they don’t hand out trophies for losing weight in the NFL I’m sure that’s not all they intend to achieve when they speak of “development” in terms of the team.

Coach Haley has often said he expects his drafted players to come in and contribute right away and that they don’t have the luxury of waiting for years for them come along. This can give many young players a chance to learn on the fly as the team did with Eric Berry last season and in his case it has paid big dividends. However, not every new player is an Eric Berry and the standard approach to bringing players along would probably look more like the Chiefs approach with John Asamoah than Eric Berry. Asamoah got a year to get his feet wet and it also gave the Chiefs a chance to see what he could do before they jettisoned veteran Brain Waters and entrusted a guard position to him.

Most teams would be happy with this kind of timetable for “developing” players: one year learning and then taking over a starting position. Timetables aside this still doesn’t answer what is meant by “development.”

The Chiefs’ offseason… plus the first five games… raises more questions about the team’s development “program” than it does answer them.

Any local sports fan who has followed the Royals can tell you they’re not interested in a “developmental” program that essentially breeds players to go and succeed in another market. If ownership’s attitude is one that routinely takes the financial self-survival route then the Chiefs could end up becoming the NFL Royals who have to ship players like Tamba Hali and Eric Berry out, just to maintain fiscal survival.

We wouldn’t do that you say? Have you forgotten about Jared Allen and Tony G? Jared Allen, the premiere defensive end in the NFL and Tony Gonzales, the best tight end in the history of the game were both sent packing. You think we didn’t do that for financial reasons? Well, do you really believe we got “developmentally” better as a result of those trades?

I’m not saying that those players were moved for financial reasons alone but, if the K.C.Chiefs are going to develop top tier players and then send them away, is the organization ever going to be able to reach its developmental potential? That’s the point. Are we going to keep players and utilize them throughout their developmental potential?

I know we received good solid players in  return  through the draft but, this is not about that, this is about the development policy of the Chiefs current  organization heads. The question is, are they going to continue an old standard… or is there really a new one. After all, the Hunts still run the Chiefs.

Re-signing Derrick Johnson, Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali in the past year are positive signs that the Chiefs intend to keep the value that those players hold, in house. But, that doesn’t guarantee that they won’t be trading them at some point. Scott Pioli and the New England Patriots have had no qualms about moving veterans out. The difference there was that they always felt it benefited them the most and have always made max potential trades.

Beyond the decisions that management makes about whether or not to be a “developmental” organization like the Royals or a team that develops their own players to win championships like New England, we need to see the signs that the team is building, advancing and maturing the players on their roster as well as the depth on the roster.

Developing Depth
Depth has been a key issue during the first 2 out of 5 quarters of this season… if you count the preseason as a quarter too. Depth can be developed in different ways. The Chiefs had no depth at wide receiver last year. While we have yet to see Jon Baldwin flash his skills it looks like the Chiefs have more talent their than they did last season. However, that kind of depth can be deceiving because the kind of depth the Chiefs are in need of is the kind that steps up the moment the starter goes down. So, it would be more accurate to say the Chiefs had no talent, beside Bowe, at wide receiver last year which was first and foremost, not an issue of depth. You have to have solid core players before you can address depth.

Core Talent Level
The Chiefs appear to have solid talent level at many positions. By definition: the most talented players are the Chiefs core players. Instead of listing those positions, let’s take a look at areas of need. For instance, the Chiefs current free safety is Kendrick Lewis but, most would recognize he’s not at the talent level of Eric Berry. Also, many people were hoping the Chiefs would draft a FS or sign one in Free Agency. You can call Lewis a developing player but, he happens to also be a starter right now because your core talent level at that position is low. In other words, Kendrick Lewis should probably be a developing back-up player who could hope to step in some day. Instead the Chiefs’ GM Scott Pioli has chosen to play it risky and hope Lewis can fill in admirably… until what? Until he finds another low round choice who CAN play at a high level?

The Chiefs allowed this same scenario to play out at the corner back position opposite Brandon Flowers and it has worked out well. Brandon Carr has turned into a solid core player… and it looks like the Chiefs have long-term plans for him and we’ll know that better when, and  if, they offer him a deal sometime in the next year.

So, Brandon Carr is a player the Chiefs have developed and should now be considered a core player. We should also recognize they didn’t develop him behind a solid starter and promote him up the ranks. He was pretty much thrown to the wolves and survived then flourished. I’m not sure Carr will ever be a Pro Bowl level performer but, he’s proven he’s strong enough to take over the #1 spot when Flowers goes down.

There are not a lot of stories like Brandon Carr’s on our roster. Glenn Dorsey would not qualify. Neither would Tyson Jackson. When players are drafted high in the first round they are expected to step in and perform at a high level right away. If it takes longer than a couple of years then their time on the roster is likely coming to an end. Alex Magee and Ryan Sims are examples.

A questionable signing is S Sabby Piscitelli. It’s hard to see his signing another way. With other veteran level safeties available, Piscitelli has consistently rated among the lowest performers at his position league-wide. And that’s not new for him. Is it that Pioli is wanting to take a player who is physically imposing (6-3, 224) and see if Haley can develop him or is it that the GM wants to play it cheap? Or is there another element at play? In any event, Piscitelli on the roster as a developmental player is hard to justify as a GM… and harder yet to understand as a fan. After completely restaffing the scouting department a year and a half ago it’s hard to believe that Sabby is the best they can do. There certainly must be UDFAs out there with better upside than Sabby, who would have better financial implications. You can see why the Piscitelli signing is so perplexing.

In some ways it’s like saying… we’re not interested in player development.

The Andy Studebaker situation is another one that leaves me head scratching. Mike Vrabel had the clout to hold the job for the past two years, I get that. But, Studebaker not stepping up and attacking his opportunity the way so many expected him to is sad. Justin Houston has been a nice surprise but, the topic of discussion here is development and developing players. Andy was brought along with the idea of not only starting and being a solid starter but, excelling and passing his experience along to the newcomer Justin Houston. Has Justin looked so good you couldn’t keep him off the field? I’d say no. It has more to do with Studebaker not performing at a high level.

So, where does the development process break down at the OLB position? I have to place the responsibility on the shoulders of Scott Pioli and Todd Haley for keeping Studebaker in the developing role at that position when it should have been evident to them that he wasn’t going to be able to step up and be the man. Otherwise, why have a guy in that role for the past two years? Just to fill a spot on the roster with a cheap contract? So, they go out and draft an OLB (Houston) in the 3rd round, hoping he is a 1st round talent and if he turns out to be that we’re supposed to trust that as a solid piece of talent evaluation while keeping Studebaker as the OLB back-up for the past two years was not solid talent evaluation? Is player development just a crap shoot?

Loyalty and Development
Is there a place for loyalty in the development process? If the Chiefs draft the best player available and he happens to be an OLB when they already believe they have their next starting OLB on the roster, where does loyalty come in? Like all other budget cuts across this country, loyalty has come to only exist when it is financially convenient. So, long-time Chiefs players like Tony Gonzales and Brian Waters can now be seen in other uniforms playing vital roles for other teams because it’s financially convenient to do so and we can do it in the name of development.

Models and Development
One way to determine if an organization has progressed is to look at whether or not they are doing what they said they would do. If a team says we’re going to be a “smash mouth” team then you have to see what moves they’ve made to become that kind of team.

The Chiefs have stated many times before that they want to get:

Bigger, stronger, faster and tougher.

Are those words just words that all GMs say to placate the masses? In the case of Scott Pioli and Todd Haley I’d say no. Why? Because they have talked about that over and over again and have gone as far as to say they have said the same to each other on multiple occasions.

So, are the Chiefs… bigger, stronger, faster and tougher… than they were two and a half years ago? Maybe but, my overall impression is… not very much.

One model we have all expected Scott Pioli to establish is the Patriot way. He brought Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel with him to help establish this model. Have we developed into a team that reminds you at all of the Patriots? Once again, my overall impression is… not very much.

The point is… I can’t finger many examples that are very good that will show… the Chiefs have been developing. When I heard that Pioli and Haley were wanting to dump Jamaal Charles before Larry Johnson was released… I was not impressed with their talent evaluation.

Is there a connection between talent evaluation and development? There better be. If you develop a player but, can’t tell that he is good… and then you end up letting him go… and he does great elsewhere… that’s a problem.

Now, I know some will take issue with me when I say I can’t finger many examples, that are very good, that will show the Chiefs have been developing. I’m not saying the Chiefs haven’t made some good top round draft choices. However, a team can’t live on top round draft choices alone because there are never enough of those guys to go around. Thus, a team has to find other players they believe in and… develop them!

The great solution to all of this is winning. Winning shows progress. Winning shows development… the development we’re looking for. Therein lies the problem. We haven’t seen a lot of winning going on, this season.

Hopefully, our two-game winning streak turns into three and then four and we will clearly be able to see the development in player personnel we’ve all been waiting for.

If not, there may be some developments of another kind… that don’t have to do with player personnel… that may be coming down the pike.

What is most perplexing to me… and the reason for this post… is that I’m unable to pinpoint what Scott Pioli and Todd Haley’s development program is… or the evidence of such a program. The reason I couldn’t use a grading system to write this post is that it’s hard to grade something when you don’t know what the standards are.

I hear Pioli and Haley saying they want to develop players. I just don’t know who, or what, they’re talking about. After 2 1/2 years, we should know who they’re talking about. Since Brandon Carr was a Carl Peterson choice, it’s very difficult to come up with the name of even one front line contributor that the Chiefs have developed in their reign. Aside from Asamoah, if you’re listing Jovan Belcher and Kendrick Lewis on your resume as “the” players you helped to develop… then you may have a problem finding another job as a GM… but, perhaps it could help you get a job as a fry cook on Venus.

It would appear that the Chiefs current development approach is like: throw it up against a wall and see if it sticks… and then call it development if it does. IOW… bring the player in for a short period and… hope for the best. I can find many more examples of this type of approach: Chris Chambers, Matt Gutierrez, Andy Alleman, Ikechuku Ndukwe, Bobby Wade, Sean Ryan, Dion Gales, Derek Lokey, David Herron, Bobby Sippio, Mike Brown and Kevin Curtis. Will Anthony Toribio be joining this list soon? The handling of these players raises questions about the length of the commitment the Chiefs are making to their “developmental” players. And it raises questions about their ability to evaluate them before they arrive as being players who have enough  upside to develop any further than they already have before they got here. And it raises questions about whether or not the Chiefs have the tools in place to actually develop players once they get here.

Can you tell me how many of the players who were on the Chiefs 2009 reserved list and practice squad combined… are now on the active roster? One. Jackie Battle. Also, can you name one current second team player who you’d be happy to take over for the starter if the starter went down? I can’t think of even one. If you could come up with better answers for these two questions then you could say the Chiefs were good at developing players.

Then there are players like Quinten Lawrence or Rudy Niswanger. How do players like these stay on the roster for as long as they do? How long should it take for a coaching staff to evaluate whether or not a player will ever help the team?

Most people don’t realize the negative impact of keeping a player for too long, who can’t ever help the team. That player is burning a roster spot that can be given to another player who CAN help. The time that player is on the roster can never be recovered. The wasted wages are also unrecoverable and so, the impact is not only seen on the field but, throughout the whole organizational framework. The team goes through regression instead of making progress. But, it’s worse than that because the team is then moving in a negative direction.

This is the hole I see the Chiefs creating now. Building a team is so much more than making good draft choices. The Chiefs must get better in the “development” department or the team will perpetuate suffering, instead of flourishing.

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