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In Pioli I Trust


I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, because I have long understood this sport’s watchword going back to the days I first started following it: building a football team is a smart man’s game which benefits from sober, dispassionate analysis, not an emotional kneejerk-a-thon where baseless loyalty and emotional ties trump all.

That hyperemotional, reactionary response to everything does not make a team better.  It doesn’t help build a roster, it doesn’t draw up plays, it doesn’t help figure out ways to maximize your team’s advantages and neutralize your team’s opponents.  It’s mob rule, and that kind of madness may fit in when you’re filing into Arrowhead on gameday, or with virtually any of the other sludge pits of homer-otica that populates the Internet. But the sport’s smartest and best fans, Kansas City Chiefs fans, have long exercised a patient, reasoned approach in their football analysis that yeilds benefits on sites like our very own Arrowhead Addict.  The Chiefs blogosphere offers the best range of opinion, and reason finds its way to the top of the crop year after year.

But with the past few years, ever since general manager Scott Pioli was hired, this reason has slowly eroded.  Many of us have grown as intolerant and reactionary as any homer, only instead of rallying behind the team, some of us have adopted a nihilistic, everything-sucks mentality. Normally I wouldn’t give two craps and I’d just allow the negatories to spin themselves into a self-destructive fantasy, but I’ve noticed that this indefatigable pessimism is very, very specific.

It’s concentrated to the nth degree on current GM Scott Pioli. Ever since he’s arrived, much of the Chiefs blogosphere has strayed so far from reality that it can’t bring itself to accept the amazing transformation this team has seen since 2009. A lot of people get credit for that turnaround; Herm Edwards drafted well, and the coaches we’ve had over the past couple of year (Haley, Crennel) have been good enough at developing talent that things have really accelerated past where this team really should be under normal circumstances.

But let’s start with the basics. Pioli’s first year was a disaster, with the team going 4-12. The next year against a soft schedule, we went 10-6 and won the division. This year, the team lost its starting QB, the best players on offense and defense, and played a harder schedule. And still finished 7-9, a game out of the division.

I understand the Pioli hate isn’t baseless. The 2009 disaster has been well-documented. Supposedly brought in because he was willing to perform a complete transformation of professionalism to Kansas City’s front office, Pioli got his pants pulled down all offseason. He missed out on countless free agents, and had what many people consider to be an awful draft, drafting just one offensive lineman with our turd-tastic offensive line and a strong OL draft class (the one guy we drafted was Colin freaking Brown). He hired Todd Haley, a personally abrasive personality who could never coexist with another cook in the kitchen. And he signed Matt Cassel long-term that offseason, the last of the 2009 decisions this franchise is still living with and suffering from.  And then there was that disasterous article about the toxic working environment at Arrowhead, driven by startling accusations from Haley.

But to that last issue… well, maybe there’s a method to that degree of madness. The environment has worked, for instance, with the new Bears GM who was our scouting director for a couple years. It worked enough for former coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. And for the countless coaches in New England who later enjoyed promotions. And Pioli has managed strong coaching hires nonetheless. Pioli is not, after all, an unknown quantity, so it’s not like he pulled some fast one on Haley to come here. He spent a decade in New England, so it’s not like people have no idea what the guy’s like.

But let’s get back to that garbage 2009 offseason. There are ways to consider it. For starters, imagine it had never happened… kind of a stretch, I know. But if Scott Pioli had arrived in 2010 and accomplished all that he has in these two years, wouldn’t we largely be praising his amazing work in those two years? Two solid years of coaching hires, drafts, free agency acquisitions, and talent growth on this team? That’s an incredibly strong track record. I understand the frustration over 2009 (a weak year for the draft and free agency anyway), but clearly the past two years are the path Pioli will blaze for this team, and has blazed so far this offseason.

Surely that must excite you for the future.

The Coaching Hires

Even in 2009, the only truly botched hire was Clancy Pendergast for defensive coordinator, and that was because Pioli held out so hard for Haley to become available.

Todd Haley was not a bad hire. It’s very clear that if this organization had found some way to keep him reigned in with a very specific responsibility (like offensive coordinator with the Cardinals/Steelers, or 2010’s just-head-coach responsibility with the Chiefs), he was extremely effective in those specific, limited roles. Haley did eventually lose support of the locker room in 2011, but there’s no denying his ability to groom the talent this team did have. Pushing Derrick Johnson and Dwayne Bowe deep down the depth chart revitalized both players, the benefits of which we’ll be reaping for years to come. He was an expert motivator, and never minced words on the field (who gives two shits if he gives a bad interview). His dressing-down of Brodie Croyle against the Ravens in 2009 was as perfect a syncing up with ChiefsPlanet thought as there’s ever been. Sadly, Haley did not work out with the personality of this organization (to say the least…), and chased off two different offensive coordinators and had an overly burdensome relationship with the most recent one.

Since then, Pioli has been hitting on all cylinders with his coaching hires. He brought on the two best coordinators on both sides of the field in 2010, both of them giving this team an incredible boost. Crennel in particular did as good a job on this defense as any coordinator has over the previous five years leading up to his hire. Muir was as good as this organization could do with Haley on board, but we did bring in Jim Zorn.

2011 brought on more coaching hires that hit the spot. Zorn stayed on, and former Dolphins and Browns offensive coordinator Daboll was an odd hire but probably the best this organization could do for the time being. Daboll himself is not altogether a bad hire; he did have success with fairly comparable offensive talent in Miami, including a limited QB, a solid run game and a mostly inert passing game with one true gamebreaker at WR. And Crennel, of course, was the best coaching hire of this offseason.

The most important shift in coaching philosophy under Pioli is the emphasis on development of talent. Carl Peterson was too invested in acquiring new talent. But since Marty Schottenheimer, we’ve had virtually zero coaching that was capable of developing the talent we already had. But with Haley, Zorn, Weis, Crennel… that all has changed under Pioli. And we’re all the better for it.

The Drafts

Even including the 2009 draft that disappointed so many people, the Chiefs have been one of the league’s absolute best drafters under Pioli. But even including 2009… what did we get? A league-leader in run defense at DE, and a franchise kicker. That’s a pretty weak haul, but it’s better than most teams fared in that sorry-ass draft class. Tyson Jackson was a pretty weird pick at #3 overall, but virtually every other player in the Top Ten picks that year after the Chiefs busted, including BJ Raji who doesn’t even fit our two-gap defense. You can throw in Jovan Belcher, who was a UDFA this year, and the team’s draft is starting to magically look average for 2009.

The 2010 draft, meanwhile, was one of the five best drafts this team has ever, ever had. The team drafted safety Eric Berry, gadget back Dexter McCluster, cornerback Javier Arenas, guard Jon Asamoah, tight end Tony Moeaki, passrusher Cameron Sheffield, and safety Kendrick Lewis. That’s a hit on every pick, save the Sheffield pick in the fifth round. Coming from a guy who absolutely hated the 2010 draft, I will be the first to say I was dead wrong. It landed us one All Pro, four starters, and two people (McCluster and Arenas) who play a prominent role on the team. That profundity of this class of new Chiefs is amazing; virtually no team in NFL history has hit on all of its picks in any given year. A draft this good can fastforward a rebuilding process.

The 2011 draft, also, still has the potential to be one of the five best drafts this team has ever had. Receiver Johnny Baldwin will be starting shortly. Center Rodney Hudson will be starting. Passrushers Justin  Houston and Allen Bailey will be starters soon. And quarterback Ricky Stanzi and nose tackle Jerrell Powe have yet to get their opportunities, and we’ve seen them flash in the preseason.  The top five picks the Chiefs made played an average of 14 games last season.

And the 2012 class is… just starting.

Free Agency and Cap Management

With one notoriously bad signing in quarterback Matt Cassel (more on him in a moment), the Chiefs under Pioli are not mere cheapskates like it’s been alleged. They are sticking to one word above all: value. Value, value, value. No signing is made unless it’s a deal on the Chiefs end.

Now that necessarily means that, in an era of bloated free agent contracts, the Chiefs will largely sit on their hands when free agency comes around. And that surely frustrates many of us to great end, but the approach of signing the Next Shiny Thing on the market did squat for Carl Peterson’s Chiefs.

2009 gave us only one free agency signing worth remembering: halfway through the season we claimed Chris Chambers off waivers. And he flamed out so hard he got kicked off the team shortly after signing a very manageable contract in 2010. But for the rest of 2009, he was a good option to have opposite Bowe. (And it should be mentioned that Mike Vrabel provided us an excellent defensive coach while DJ was getting his act together.) Though it should be mentioned the worst move all offseason, outside of the Cassel deal, was trading a 6th to the Dolphins for two offensive lineman we didn’t play.

But even the Cassel deal was reasonable to the vast majority of minds in the NFL. Beyond reasonable. The Chiefs had zero talent at the position, and brought in a player the GM was intimately familiar with, along with a defensive coach-on-the-field, who at the time was relatively young at 27 years old, for pennies on the dollar. The 2nd round pick we gave up for Cassel/Vrabel was such a value deal, people wanted to conduct an investigation for us “raping” the Patriots. Meanwhile, we had nobody but Tyler Thigpen at the position (who we essentially turned into Kendrick Lewis via the 5th we traded him for), and only quarterback Mark Sanchez to consider in the draft.

2010 beefed up our offensive line with Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Lilja. It beefed up our run game with Thomas Jones, who had just enough tread left on his tires to rack up 900 yards in a committee role. We brought in a bear of a defensive lineman in Shaun Smith. Leonard Pope had been a strong blocker for us. Of all Pioli’s free agency moves, only one turned out to be a mistake: Jerheme Urban. Who was brought in for no money anyway, at Haley’s behest.

2011 was yet another year for valuable free agency acquisitions. We brought back Wiegmann for another year, and landed a good tackle/tight end in Steve Maneri. Gregg finally gave us a true nose tackle. We picked up two Ravens who temporarily worked out for us in fullback LeRon McClain and tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither in particular was a steal, and losing him for nothing was perhaps our worst blunder in the Pioli era outside of the Cassel acquisition. But even then, Gaither cannot be relied on as anything but an emergency situation due to his back, and we’re all going to see that play out in 2012. The Chiefs landed receiver Steve Breaston on a deal as solid as we could get from a guy who will be playing out wide most of the time. Our only bad signing? Safety scrub Sabby Piscitelli, which was a desperation signing and was never supposed to get the playing time he ended up logging.

Pioli never landed a QB to backup Cassel that offseason, but who was he supposed to get? The only legitimate option he had, he took, when Kyle Orton hit waivers. A move that paid royal dividends, and has a remote chance of landing this franchise a new QB.

2012 is starting off solid. Bowe is getting tagged/resigned, and the team has allowed such outstanding cap room for itself, signing him should be no problem. The Stanford Routt signing was completely reasonable — it’s not reasonable to expect the Chiefs to be the first team in NFL history to commit $100 million to its starting corners. Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers were a powerful combination, but were they really worth being paid as if they were the best tandem in NFL history? We talk about devalued positions all the time on this blog. Tell me: how valued is the #2 corner? Is that worth the massive contract we would have had to commit? At the expense of the primo talent we have the potential to end up landing?

The 2012 offseason has been fruitful.  In fact, this team’s effective drafting and player development that the Chiefs only had a few holes to address — which they did, with a backup QB (Brady Quinn), a bigger running back (Peyton Hillis), a right tackle extraordinaire (Eric Winston), and tight end depth (Kevin Boss).  All were signed for reasonable deals that will serve the team’s cap situation well, while bolstering this team’s depth and talent across the board.

The Quarterback Problem

Of course the biggest, most profound error of the Pioli era was to bring in Matt Cassel. But in the short time that Pioli has been our GM, we have had no other conceivable options, short of taking a flyer on Andy Dalton at the bottom of the 2011 Draft 1st round.

So we landed Cassel, for a bargain’s bargain, and got a defensive coach-on-the-field with it in a deal so good people wanted to investigate us (a move that, for good measure, began the implosion in Denver). Since then, we passed on Mark Sanchez, a move that I think almost everybody would have preferred us to do. We passed on Jimmy Clausen twice, which is starting to look like a smart idea. We passed on trading for Kevin Kolb. We passed on the Donovan McNabbs and the Michael Vicks. Peyton Manning, sadly, was a pipe dream.

There was really only one realistic opportunity for the Chiefs to land a new starting QB, and that was last year when Kyle Orton was released. Pioli didn’t hestitate.

Fact: in the time that Scott Pioli has been GM of the Chiefs, there have been no legitimate franchise options for us to take at the QB position. All the rookies except for Dalton have failed to fulfill any franchise role. All the free agents have looked like iffy signings at the best. And it’s never smart to trade away your entire draft for a player like RG3, who may not even work out. Because then you’ve not only got a player who won’t work, you’ve sacrificed all-important depth for your team. Not a great idea.

Matter of fact, our new coach has done nothing but openly entertain the idea of new QBs on multiple occasions. If Pioli is the all-seeing, all-controlling entity that Haley makes him out to be, there’s no way this happens. So let’s embrace the truth that we all know to be true: Pioli is ready to move on. He just doesn’t want to move on for anything, like a desperate idiot. He wants to make the next move for QB the smartest possible move, and that may or may not be this offseason.

So abandon your Pioli hate for a season. Stop resisting the process and try looking at how well Pioli works the process to this franchise’s favor in the near- and long-term. Admit that the man’s been one of the best drafting GMs since he’s been in KC, has not overreacting and made brash, ill-advised moves (other than cutting Gaither), and generally has ushered in the talent and the coaching necessary to continue improving this team all three years he’s been here.