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?

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… 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. 

Next Chiefs Game View full schedule »
Sunday, Sep 77 Sep12:00Tennessee TitansBuy Tickets
Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: Scott Pioli

  • Trevor Gooding

    NOT A GOOD GM, and nothing but a CLUSTER

  • Nick Wherritt

    As is expected from Big Matt, great article. Write more of them

    • Patrick Allen

      I keep telling him how much people want him to keep writing.

      Maybe if ya’ll started buying him cases of PBR?

      • Matt Finucane

        I’m not qualified to write about the new regime, unfortunately. Not following closely enough.

        Plus things are lookin good right now. Best for me to just lay low in good times. You only need me when things go South.

  • Bosco Cletus

    I always thought it was Haley and a tough love approach to coaching that made Charles a healthy scratch one week after fumbling a kickoff, kept Dwayne Bowe and Derrick Johnson buried on the depth chart which eventually turned all three of them into Pro Bowlers. I also thought it was the new coaches kicking the old regime players like Jared Allen, Brian Waters, and Tony Gonzalez to the curb.

    Now looking back, I’m positive Pioli had way more to do with that Haley did, just look at the way Breaston was handled last year under Romeo. Pioli was the one with his thumb on the button.

    I remember how excited I was when they hired him, now I just hope someone makes his big feeling ass clean up a candy wrapper or two.

  • ladner morse

    Excellent analysis Big Matt! “When the time came for the 2009 class (free agent and draft) to be relied upon, they were nowhere to be found.” That about sums it up!

  • ArrowFan

    Lets add the revolving door of OC’s to the list as well. However in 2009 He actually started that part off right, he just was able the screw up his one good decision by chasing, away the one good coach we had on the staff.

  • kmon

    You obviously don’t know what you are talking about. pioli is by far the greatest gm ever. Haley is by faaaar the greatest coach ever, Tyson “the bison” Jackson is the greatest draft pick ever and trading tony g was by faaaaaaaaaaar the most rewarding trade in the history of sports! know what you’re talking about dude. lmao lol

  • Calchiefsfan

    Awesome article Matt. Write more! The insight into Pioli is spot on. Defining his control freakishness as a glaring weakness in his character really exposes what was going on. It explains the decisions he made. I’ve seen it so often before, insecurities leading to bad decisions for all the wrong reasons.
    I want to hear more insight into this regime from you Big Matt.

    • Matt Finucane

      I’m flattered, but I have very little to offer about the current regime. Haven’t been following closely enough. Just gonna watch the games like a casual fan, and give them a chance to win me back.

  • Stacy D. Smith

    I think the undoing of that administration was giving Cassel that contract. They wed themselves to that guy unnecessarily and that was the single biggest issue with the team.

  • BoiseChiefPotato

    My biggest gripe with Pioli Ravioli, was the disconnect with the fan base. Blocking fans from Facebook and twitter for bad mouthing his decisions. Seems like a serious insecurity. Worst PR team ever assembled for a professional football team. Even Josh Looney-tunes left. (And yes everyone gets a nickname. Sign up below if you want in…)

    • Matt Finucane

      their PR was ungodly bad. I mean just crazy, crazy bad. Weirdly bad, almost.

      • Caleb Matt

        Yeah, when I had a facebook still, I was blocked because I called Cassel a noodle armed goober. I’m glad their gone!

  • dominicscarlatti

    Nice article, Matt. I personally sounded the alarm bells over on KC Star website when Brian Waters flew into KC to meet with Pioli/Haley on his own dime and time and was blown off. I was slaughtered for this there, but I noticed that Whitlock and Teicher saw the same thing, too, and they were mercilessly attacked by the KC Kool-Aid drinkers. The know-it-all but still have a chip on the shoulder mentalities of Pioli and Haley were red flags, but everyone was too obsessed with Carl and Herm to pay any attention. Pioli’s totalitarian approach to management ruined his relationship with Haley in time, and sowed antipathy among the fan base. It also earned the Chiefs a class-action age discrimination lawsuit, a most unwelcome distraction and PR.

    In terms of personnel decisions, the trade for Cassel and ridiculous contract, along with the “I’m smarter than the rest of the world” drafting of Tyson Jackson at #3 overall clearly indicated that Pioli was more interested in addressing his own personal insecurities than making proper personnel evaluations.

  • Bill

    Never realized how bad it was till reading this article pointing out the mistakes. I still think the biggest one was getting rid of Haley. He still got those players to play well despite the slow start in 2011, by the end of the year those players were playing at good at they could.

    • toperspective

      Haley really blew it after the strike when he thought he was smarter than every other coach and decided not to play the regulars in exhibition games. It was clear when the real games started the players weren’t ready and then the injuries came and the season was over before it began.

  • Danny W

    After 2009 I had already had serious doubts about Pioli. Well after draft day anyway. Number three overall and he takes a guy that is projected to go in the very bottom of the first day draft class. I just couldn’t believe it. Then the offseason would hit and some guys were out there at nose that could have filled in, and a few decent guys at wideout that he wouldn’t pull the trigger on. Then his last year he goes out and actually makes some offseason moves but still no quarterback. Case closed the guy couldn’t get out of his own way. I have to admit I thought Quinn would be better. I like my crow in fajitas please.

    • toperspective

      That was the Pioli way. Choking and choosing his guy early instead of trading back and getting his guy and other assets. Jackson was early, Poe was way early and and Baldwin was way early.

      • Danny W

        He loved to reach, and once you reach you usually get to do it again.

  • jimfromkcj

    As I said many times, Pioli was obsessed with his own press clippings and was out to prove they were right and the drafting of Brady had nothing to do with luck and all about his genius. I also said at the time that getting Cassel and Vrabel was nothing more than a big favor for his ex boss. He got rid of two big cap hits that Bill would probably have to release for nothing if it hadn’t been for Pioli. His drafts were miserable in every year. He could have had Raji, Crabtree, Maclin and Oher instead of Jackson in 2009. He could have had Okung, Hayden or Lupati instead of Berry in 2010. He could have had Taylor, Dalton or Kaepernick instead of Baldwin in 2011. And he could have had Cox, Weeden, DeCastro, Reiff and Zeitler instead of Poe in 2012. That is some pretty damning evidence of incompetence if I ever saw one.

  • sidibeke

    Good to see you back, Big Matt.

    And his need to act slowly reflects his obsession with control. I hypothesize that because he had a shortened offseason (i.e., hired late in the game and didn’t get a HC until after the SB), he didn’t feel he could assess people enough, probably didn’t trust his staff enough and thus chose to not make decisions.

    The need for control is reflected in everything: surrounding a HC he didn’t trust with HIS guys (although Weiss appears to be motor behind the 2010 team), signing his guys (former NE guys or players who one of his coaches knew…Hillis, Quinn, Breaston…), promoting his guy when he finally got rid of the HC he couldn’t control. Ah yes, the trend is all to clear.

    The canary for me: what to the veterans do. Rats off of a sinking ship (Tong G and Waters, who wanted to leave when Pioli came on board) or wanting to stick around (Bowe could’ve gotten paid elsewhere; Colquitt, too. And with the exception of Canty, we seem to be a reasonably desirable landing spot for FAs and not scaring off the likes of P Manning or coaches like Fisher.

    OCD: not good for you, not good for me.

  • Michael R Howard

    And that’s why Pioli works for a network…not a team.

    • Michael R Howard

      Oh wait, and Herm.

    • toperspective

      And he’s not qualified for that job either. I like how the networks hire the biggest failure to analyze what others are doing. Cases in point – Pioli and Matt Millen.

  • Michael R Howard

    What can we do about center? The O-line is a little jumbled up. If Lilja really comes back, can he compete?

  • Tom Sparks

    Very good stuff Big Matt. The foundation, as Pioli preached, started with the 2009 Draft, in which he totally laid a foundation of sand instead of granite, much less concrete!
    Your observations are very accurate, also, when it comes to the new GM/HC Hunt hurrily hired, before any other team even had a chance to wine @ dine them!
    I have thought that these hires were crucial for the immediate future of our Chiefs and you hit the nail on the head, with both of your points!
    Great job!

  • toperspective

    Pioli was a con man. He just sharpened pencils for Belichick. Completely unqualified for the position and his ego and lack of intelligence didn’t allow him to grow into the position.

  • Scott Mahurin

    Is that chest thumping or just the ongoing sound of beating a dead horse? SOC won. Pioli is gone. Nothing to see here. Move along.

    • toperspective

      After the death and destruction left in the wake of his tenure, beating the dead horse is therapeutic.