Becoming the Patriots
By William T. Cloake IV
Since Scott Pioli was named Chiefs GM on Janauary 13, he has certain wasted no time putting his stamp on the Chiefs. Predictably, he has moved the Chiefs away from the trends of the Carl Peterson/Herm Edwards regime and far closer to the environment he created with the Patriots. While this was predictable, what is surprising is how abruptly the change has taken place. It is clear that Pioli is sending a message to all the fans and everyone in the organization that things will be if nothing else different.
First and foremost, the Chiefs are going to be more active in changing their roster. For years, the Chiefs have spent free agent money on retaining their own and being patient for players to develop. Those days appear to be gone. To date, only three of the Chiefs free agents safety Jon McGraw, Center Rudy Niswanger and quarterback Ingle Martin have been resigned. Meanwhile, silently starters such as Pat Thomas and Adrian Jones have slipped away. Others of course have been cut, guys like Damon Huard, Patrick Surtain and Donnie Edwards are all gone.
However, even faster than Pioli has been letting players go, he has been picking them up. Last off-season, in March of 2008, the Chiefs signed two free agents, Devard Darling and fullback Oliver Hoyte. However, in contrast, in March of 2009 the Chiefs have signed a whopping eleven free agents, including players like Mike Goff and Bobby Engram, who are expected to be starters (considering the slot wide receiver spot). Further, the Chiefs pulled the trigger on the trade to bring Mike Vrabel and Matt Cassel, who both should be starters as well. It is obvious that Pioli isn't going to sit by with the same guys that brought the Chiefs a losing season in 2008. He is making changes and making them now. Likely, this is quite different than if Peterson and Edwards had been retained for another season. Had this taken place, the tact probably would have been to stand more or less pat, in an effort to build on 2008.
This process of reinventing the roster in the face of failure is new to the Chiefs. Take 2003, for example, faced with a defense that had really struggled and had ultimately cost the Chiefs a play-off win vs. the Colts by being completely unable to get a stop vs. Peyton Manning, the Chiefs answer was to consciously re-sign the same personnel bring back Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator. Then, as recently as two seasons ago, after a 4-12 record, the answer was to return basically the same players, with the hope that they would grow and improve with another year of experience. The result of course was a 2-14 record.
Obviously, this is going to change. In his tenure with the Patriots, Pioli was often not even attached to good players let alone bad ones. Troy Brown, Adrian Branch, Ty Law, these guys all got let go after productive seasons because they didn't fit what the Patriots wanted to accomplish. One thing is for certain these days in Chiefdom, you had better work hard, you had better watch your back, because no one's job is safe.
Which brings us to a second big difference in the Pioli regime. Gone are the days of coddling players. Carl Peterson was famous for protecting guys like Larry Johnson or Ryan Sims. Such is not the case here, even the Chiefs good players, such as Brian Waters and Tony Gonzales aren't going to get special treatment. Everyone is on equal standing. Now, I am not saying that this is right or wrong. What I am saying is this is the wrong place to be if you have tender feelings. What is more, this seems to be a stance that Pioli's new coach, Todd Haley, agrees with. He says few words and when he says anything of substance, he doesn't mince words, either. I half expect him to open his next press conference by saying something like: "We were 2-14 last season and everyone who was here is worth about as much as a big pile of steaming dog crap. In fact, I'd like every player on last year's team to come to my office so I can personally spit on them. Frankly, I'm done watching the film from last season because I can't stomach anymore and I keep puking."
Again, the message comes through loud and clear. No one on a team is exempt from being held responsible for the team's performance. Sorry, Brian Waters, but this is how is going to be, right or wrong. But again, this is the Patriot way. Remember when Troy Brown sacrificed himself to play defensive back for the Patriots so they could make a Superbowl run? What was his reward? He showed the Pats that they could live without him as a wide-out and got cut (although ultimately resigned) the next off-season. For Pioli, players are assets, they are parts of a machine, and you don't coddle parts or assets, you evaluate them, see what is working and remove what you don't need. This is a business and players aren't treated like people, you don't let them meet with you and have an open door. You don't get close to them because this can cloud your judgment. You keep your distance. You evaluate, you make decisions and then you move on.
In keeping with this theme, even prized quarterback Cassel has not been handed a starting job. Quite simply put, the best players are going to play. What's more, the term "best player" now has a new meaning in K.C. In the past, best player may have been often related not to how a player performed, but instead to his potential. Pioli and Haley seem to make it clear that the best player is the one that gives the team the best chance to win today. End of conversation; if you don't give the Chiefs the best chance to win today, you don't play. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Remember last season when an untested Brodie Croyle was handed the starting job going into camp? I have a feeling that things might have been different if Haley and Pioli had been in charge.
But lets all not get too cocky because, frankly, gone too are the days of coddling fans and the media as well. The sense I get from Pioli is that he doesn't seem to care that Chiefs fans are frustrated and want to know how he is going to fix the team. He was brought here to do a job and is so confident that he can do the job that he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. Giving out information means you tip your hand. Tipping your hand decreases you advantage over the competition, which decrease your chance to win. Therefore, you don't give out any information. As a result, gone are the days of the Peterson / Edwards regime with long-winded answers, jokes and smiles. Pioli and Haley seem to be the types of guys who see press conferences as annoying interruptions that keep them from doing there jobs. People will find out what they are thinking about doing when they do it. Fans, players, media simply don't need to know. Further, Pioli and Haley know that - no matter who they tick off a Superbowl win will fix everything.
And you know what? When all is said and done, they are right. Bring a Superbowl win to Kansas City and everyone will love you. I don't care how much you tick them off. This is how the Patriots became the Patriots. And maybe it is how the Chiefs become like them, too. It is as if the Chiefs have gone from being the loveable loser, the general store owner, who was sort of incompetant, but everyone knew, to becoming Walmart, a big powerful corporation who simply crushes its competition at any cost.