Dec 2, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli (right) talks to Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt (left) before the game against the Carolina Panthers at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Pioli: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

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The grass is greener now. Or there is grass, anyway. Fewer brown patches. Scott Pioli is no longer this lawn’s gardener, and everyone is a lot happier for it.

There are some of you, I’m sure, who don’t want to re-hash Pioli’s tenure. You needn’t worry, I won’t be holding up any mirrors today. This isn’t about the people Pioli fooled, it’s about the mistakes he made. Those mistakes can be constructive. More so for us than for the new leadership, even. We were here to see it; it means more to us.

As strange as the candy wrapper/curtains/color copies stories are, they’re not what caused Pioli’s downfall. An unhealthy office environment doesn’t translate to a total meltdown on the field. I just took those stories as useful insight into our GM’s personality.

The office stuff is easier for us to interpret than the football dealings. Many of us have worked in offices, and seen people handle that kind of power poorly. Seeing Pioli do the same…..it humanizes him, in a weird way. He obviously wasn’t ready for leadership. He probably never will be. You could almost feel sorry for office-Pioli, in the same way you kinda feel sorry for the boss you dislike, because his annoying qualities reveal his deep insecurities.

In terms of moves made before the disastrous 2012 season, Pioli definitely deserves some blame. Peyton Hillis was an obviously bad signing, and letting Brandon Carr go in favor of Stanford Routt could not have worked out worse. He again didn’t bring in a legit QB, and he let a tired old man stay on as head coach. The draft class drew criticism, although obviously we can’t judge them fully yet.*

*You need to wait 12-15 years before you can even THINK about passing judgement on a draft class. Every smart fan knows that. I’m just now ready to render my verdict on the Trezelle Jenkins pick. And that verdict is……inconclusive. Need more time. 

Still, taking all that into account, was this an offseason that caused a 2-14 finish? That wasn’t the consensus opinion at the time. Although his efforts look worse in hindsight, I still don’t think the 2012 offseason was the main cause of this team’s downfall.

The root of Pioli’s problem lies all the way back in 2009. And no, this isn’t me setting up Tin Man cheap shots. The fault, I think, was with Pioli’s entire approach. The fact that he felt comfortable picking a role player at #3 overall is just one piece of evidence.

Let’s take a look at the moves:

  • Hires Todd Haley as head coach

  • Trades high second-round pick for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel

  • Signs Cassel to $63 million deal

  • Drafts Tyson Jackson #3 overall

  • Drafts Alex Magee, Donnie Wash, Colin “The Prototype” Brown, Quinten “Core” Lawrence, Javarris Williams and Jake O’Connell before finally hitting on a pick with Ryan Succop in the seventh round.

  • Cuts Bernard Pollard, replaces with Mike Brown

  • Signs Mike Goff and Eric Ghiaciuc to shore up the offensive line

  • Gives the receiving corps a hilarious facelift, bringing in Bobby Engram, Amani Toomer, Bobby Wade, Terry Copper and Ashley Lelie

  • Linebacking corps gets an equally effective facelift, adding Zach Thomas, Corey Mays and Monty Beisel to the aforementioned Vrabel

  • Trades Tony Gonzalez for 2010 second-round pick (Javier Arenas)

I could probably go on. Maybe it would be more telling to try to think of some good moves.

The spin after the season was that they knew 2009 would be bad, and they just wanted to “get through it.” Pioli and Haley were both quoted as saying that, so it can be taken as company line, rather than slip-of-tongue. As soon as Pioli was signed, he began cautioning patience. These guys clearly did not expect to be good right away.

They probably shouldn’t have; not realistically. Herm was an idiot, and he left a mess behind him. Pioli’s reaction to that mess is what sealed his fate, though we didn’t know it at the time.

What does it mean, really, to “lay the foundation” of a football team? Some would say that means making good draft picks. It was obvious from the start that Pioli didn’t do that in 2009, and yet, it was still considered a “lay the foundations” year. What that meant to him was installing his way of doing things. Changing the culture was at the front of his mind. The roster, clearly, was not. He thought that could wait.

I’ve clowned on the term “rebuilding” for years now, because often I think it’s another word for inactivity. Herm Edwards stressed the draft, but at the expense of everything else. Rebuilding, for him, meant not participating in free agency. For Pioli, that first year especially, it amounted to the same thing. Only with him, it was worse, because he also had a historically bad draft.

Here’s the lesson: you have got to hit the ground running. Other teams aren’t going to wait for you to lay your foundations. They’re going to be focused on getting the best players. If you’re not focused on that, even for one year, it’s already too late. 

The table was set perfectly for Pioli. High draft picks, tons of cap space, and a fan base that wasn’t expecting playoffs, and was desperate to find the positive in every move he made. He was in prime position to come out swinging, and he did the opposite. The effects weren’t felt in the short-term. We were bad that year, sure, but we’d already been bad. It’s not like we regressed. And since nobody was expecting to contend that year anyway, nobody really made a stink. Bad offseason? Who cares! 2009 was a mulligan.

Fast forward three years, to when the 2009 draft class should’ve been coming into its own. A league-average kicker and an overpaid block eater were all that remained.

Every team is a collection of acquisitions from previous offseasons, both free agent and draft. People often say a draft class affects a team most three or four years down the road. The same can be said of free agents, to a slightly lesser extent. A good free agent signing will be with a team for several years, they aren’t all reckless quick-fixes like some misled Herm/Pioli apologists would have us believe.

Priest Holmes broke the NFL touchdown record in his third year as a Chief. James Hasty made the Pro Bowl in his third and fifth years as a Chief. Brian Waters made the Pro Bowl in his fifth and sixth years as a Chief. Shoot, Sweet Ron Edwards was our starting nose tackle is his fifth year. Free agents affect your future nearly as much as draft picks. Take a year off from the free agent market, and that will be felt in the long-term, almost as much as the short-term.

Pioli took a year off from bringing in good players, period. When the time came for the 2009 class (free agent and draft) to be relied upon, they were nowhere to be found.

Even those who defended Pioli’s roster construction admitted quarterback was a glaring hole. In fact, that was used as an excuse of sorts. The roster was great…..except quarterback. Even for fans of this perspective, that one crucial flaw dates back to a decision made in the 2009 offseason. A mistake that came back to sink this team three years later.

I don’t think you can blame Pioli’s historic failure entirely on one offseason. Still, what is a GM’s tenure, but a collection of offseasons? Of Pioli’s four, 2009 was by far the worst. That year, more than any of the others, doomed his tenure. His decision to take things slow was fatal.

Thankfully, John Dorsey and Andy Reid have not made this same mistake. They’ve come out swinging, or “trying” as it’s known in some circles. Scott Pioli’s time in Kansas City, if nothing else, proved that is a must. 

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