Is the Culture of the Chiefs Changing?


Growing up in Kansas City, but no longer living there, I have frequent and strong urges for barbecue. The last two times I’ve been able to attend a Chiefs game in person, I’ve been at Arthur Bryant’s front door at 8:50am waiting for the restaurant to open, and by 10:15am, I’m firmly planted next to the hood of my rental car in the great backyard of Arrowhead Stadium, with a steaming plate of brisket and pork ribs, an extra bottle of sauce, several ice cold beers and a whole hell of a lot of french fries fighting to get in my mouth.

You will simply not find a bigger Bryant’s fan than me. Like you perhaps, I “save up” for Bryant’s (or Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack’s Stack or Gates) by eating a bit healthier and a bit less the week before, in a vain attempt to justify a truly gluttonous experience. My approach to Bryant’s is similar to how most Americans diet. We have every good intention about eating healthier but find it near impossible to resist cravings for those foods we think may not be so good for us, and in quantities that we know aren’t good for us. In order to lose those 10 pounds and eat healthier all the time so we can keep the weight off, It’s simply not enough to just provide new information about nutrition, or tell people that it’s better to snack on almonds instead of potato chips. Judith Warner wrote a great article about what it means to change eating habits:

"Eating too much, indiscriminately, anywhere, at any time, in response to any and all stimuli, is as central to our freewheeling, mavericky way of being as car cupholders and drive-throughs. You can’t change specific eating behavior without addressing that way of life — without changing our culture of food. You need to present healthful eating as a new, desirable, freely chosen expression of the American way.…There has, however, been no concerted parallel attempt to create more pointed and sophisticated approaches to changing how Americans think and feel about food. So we ended up with a wealth of knowledge about best nutritional practices but no cultural change to back it up.And cultural change is what offers the best hope for transforming how and what Americans eat."

Warner nails it. The only way to change what you eat is to change what you want to eat, and that means changing our entire culture of food – the way we think about, purchase, taste, value and organize our lives around food. This happened once before – when we went from a cook-at-home culture through the 1970’s to the fast-food and sugar boom in which we are now living.

The Chiefs have a similar challenge, and Ladner nails it in his post yesterday. In my close-to-forty years of being an Addict, the Chiefs haven’t yet even come close to being mentioned as a “team of the decade” or a “dynasty.” Yet several other teams have, with similar payrolls, talent levels and front office smarts. The organizational culture of the Chiefs, in my experience, has been like my diet efforts: long on good intentions but short on focus. Under Carl Peterson, we saw great success in the 1990‘s– the Chiefs won the most games of any NFL team that decade– but only made it to the AFC Championship game once. We had four great head coaches during Peterson’s 19 seasons, but it is more telling that three Chiefs’ assistant coaches during that time went on to become coaches of dynasty teams after leaving the Chiefs: Bill Cowher with the Steelers, Tony Dungy with the Colts, and Mike McCarthy with the Packers. The Chiefs had the raw materials– great coaches and great players– so why did they never break into the dynasty conversations?

Perhaps it was an organizational culture that wasn’t quite as all-consumingly focused on winning, that razor-thin line between a good team like the Chiefs and a dynasty team. To be clear, all teams want to win. But which teams can block out all distractions and actually implement a winning plan? Whatever line of work you are in, I think you will appreciate that the margin that separates the very very best from the very very good is quite small. And usually, that margin is less about talent and more about precision and discipline.

Can we change the culture of the Chiefs so that the acute focus on winning shoves out all other factors, and we can truly enter the top echelon of teams that can be considered “dynasties”? I suspect there is a concerted effort to make that culture change right now, under Pioli and Clark. We’ve seen some of the cues pop up in the past three years. We all remember how Haley began to change the culture of the off-season in 2009, when he required Chiefs players to complete a series of sprints with specific time benchmarks by position. That training camp, Chiefs players lost over 700 pounds and Dwayne Bowe and Derrick Johnson went from being leading members of Haley’s doghouse in 2009 to the best performers in training camp in 2010. We have seen Tamba Hali take football to new heights with year-round martial arts training from Grandmaster Joseph Kim, whom Haley brought in in 2010 to work with the Chiefs’ pass rushers. We saw it in 2011 as Matt Cassel led forty Chiefs through voluntary workouts during the lockout. And we are seeing a glimpse of it right now from tweets from Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry as they work overtime to recover from their ACL issues. If you want more examples, go back to Ladner’s post yesterday, which is chock-full of culture change nuggets.

Do the Chiefs have a qualitatively different focus on winning now? I argued last week that not pursing Peyton aggressively actually fit into that culture change. And as much as I hated not signing Brandon Carr, we were able to pick up Routt, Hillis, Boss and Winston, partly because we let Carr go. Seen from that perspective, letting Carr go may have been a winning, albeit painful and unpopular, move. The aggressive pursuit and subsequent signing of Eric Winston last week absolutely fit this new culture of a laser-like focus on winning.

I believe that we actually do have the beginnings of a cultural change within the Chiefs. The next assessment will be what we do with the draft next month.

Addicts, do you think Chiefs are making a culture change towards an all-out focus on winning, or are we just riding high from last week’s free agency pickups?