As I listen to more and more Chiefs fans, I become aware of one thing. Many fans have not been happy with Pioli and Haley since shortly after they came to Kansas City. I for one, can put my finger on the date that I think that the proverbial bird turned: May 18, 2009. This is the day that the face of the Chiefs franchise, Tony Gonzalez was dealt to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2010 2nd round draft pick. Regularly you hear things like: "How can you deal you best player?" or "The Chiefs new management alienated Tony Gonzalez".
Frankly, I think that the blame here is a little misplaced. In a world where Tony Gonzalez clearly wanted out of Kansas City, I believe that Pioli did the best that he could in getting value for a 33-year old player who is entering his 13th NFL season. However, in the end run it wasn't about value. Had the Chiefs even gotten a number one draft pick, it wouldn't have been enough to appease the masses.
The reason for this is because the loss of Tony Gonzales hurts on so many levels. Not only was Gonzalez a great player on the field, he was emblematic of everything that can be right with pro football. On the field, Gonzalez played with plethora of quarterbacks on a number of bad football teams and yet still managed to surpass every tight end receiving record on the books. What is more, blessed with a commanding smile and a gentile nature, Gonzalez had become a pillar of the Kansas City community. In some ways, fans appreciation of Gonzalez grew to legendary stature. He silently saved a man by performing a Heimlich maneuver, started the Tony Gonzalez foundation, assisted Oprah in the "Big Give" and went back to Mexico to learn Spanish. In many ways, Tony Gonzalez was the saving grace for Chiefs fans, as if to say, "We may stink, but at least we have the best tight end to ever play the game and one of the best individuals in the NFL".
But, when all was said and done, like most legends, the man behind the mask was mortal. Losing was taking its toll and prior to the Chiefs 2008 campaign, rumors began to surface that Gonzalez wanted a trade. Now, in retrospect, it seems even more understandable. Tony Gonzalez is a perfectionist who works harder than anyone to be in shape and be at the top of his game. Although he never said it, one can imagine the frustration he must have experienced playing for a Chiefs team that was overweight, out of shape and lacked the same commitment that he carried in his heart and soul. After going 4-12 in 2007, the Chiefs outlook for 2008 was bleak and one could hardly blame Gonzalez for wanting to move on. Still, Gonzalez came and played his best as a consummate professional. Still, prior to the trade deadline, it was apparent that the Chiefs were going nowhere. Gonzalez came out and requested a trade, which Carl Peterson half-heartedly attempted to accommodate.
Interestingly, in not accommodating Gonzalez' trade request, Peterson perhaps unwittingly stuck it to his successor, Scott Pioli. I wonder how everyone might look at Pioli now if Peterson would have gotten his 3rd round asking price for Gonzalez and shipped him off in 2008. We will never know. What we do know is that following 2008's disastrous 2-14 finish, Gonzalez was at best ambivalent about staying with the Chiefs. It was clear that he wanted a chance to make a Superbowl run and also clear that he did not want to be part of a new rebuilding process. As Gonzalez said himself, "It wasn't about abandoning my teammates. It was about being realistic and saying, ‘My window is closing.'" Like it or lump it, Gonzalez had made one thing clear to his teammates, he didn't believe in them.
In reality, you could hardly blame Gonzalez for feeling this way and wanting a Superbowl shot. The fact that only two of the Chiefs 31 castoffs from their 2008 squad have landed jobs tells you everything you need to know, the Chiefs roster was lousy. Gonzalez is a smart guy, certainly smart enough to make a great coach or GM someday, and he knew this to be a fact; it was unlikely that there was going to be a quick fix for the Chiefs.
For Todd Haley and Scott Pioli, there position was equally complicated. How could they rebuild arguably the worst team in professional football and also accommodate special treatment for the one player who most assuredly deserved it? Certainly, Gonzalez was the one player who the Chiefs new management seemed to respect, as Pioli told the Associated Press: "From an organizational as well as personal standpoint there are mixed emotions, I have the highest personal and professional respect for Tony and consider him to be a future Pro Football Hall of Famer." Let's face facts, Scott Pioli and Todd Haley didn't alienate Tony Gonzalez, two seasons of losing and terrible football did.
Ultimately, Pioli and Haley were in a catch-22. Keep Gonzalez and accept the fact that he may request a trade again at a later date or be a (albeit likely silent) distraction in the locker room or trade him and risk the ire of the Chiefs fan base. For better or worse, they chose the latter option. Like it or not, it was probably the right thing to do. In a world, where Haley was trying to reinvent the Chiefs culture, Gonzalez could not help but serve as a reminder that he was one who didn't believe in many of the guys who were left. He didn't want to be here and it would probably show. You can't fake commitment. Like it or not the die had been cast.
Additionally – perhaps more importantly - was the fact that, realistically, Gonzalez was not going to be around for when the Chiefs were making a Superbowl run. At 33 years old, it is quite likely that he may only have 2-3 more good years left. As a result, it was in the Chiefs' best interest to trade Gonzalez for future considerations and it was in Gonzalez' best interest to send him somewhere that could help him to live his dream.
When all was said and done, this may have been the best move for Gonzalez' legacy in Kansas City. As Gonzalez himself said, "When Scott (Pioli) and Todd (Haley) told me a little bit ago and there were nothing but positives, I think this is something that will help them because they are rebuilding. There was no bitterness at all from either side." Given that the Chiefs had Gonzales under contract until 2012, Gonzalez was somewhat painted into a corner. He could either quietly go into the night or finally raise a ruckus to get out. Although it is unlikely that the latter would have ever happened, the trade removed this possibility from table. The trade also removed any possibility that any of Gonzalez' teammates would worry about his commitment to the team. Again, when you are building a new culture, you have to have 100% buy-in from everyone, even your best player.
Still, for Pioli and Haley, they are left with the aftermath of trading arguably the most popular player in the Chiefs recent history, including the wrath of a fanbase, which would have preferred that Gonzalez be kept at all costs. This makes sense, since losing Gonzalez certainly made the Chiefs worse in the short-term and suddenly fans are faced with supporting a still undermanned squad, now stripped of its favorite son. Many Chiefs fans are so disillusioned and hopeless about their team that the thinking seems to be, "We should keep Tony G. because we are going to lose either way. At least if we lose with Tony G., we have something."
In reality, though, Pioli and Haley are not to blame. Who is to blame is the previous regime, who allowed the Chiefs to get worse and worse until Gonzalez came to see the situation as hopeless. Frankly, to the extent that one respects Gonzalez' football knowledge, is to acknowledge how bad the Chiefs must really be from a talent standpoint. Rest assured that if Gonzalez thought there was any chance the Chiefs would get better in the short term, he would have stayed. As he said himself, "It's somewhat bittersweet. I love Kansas City. I grew up in Kansas City. The city means a lot to me. I got there when I turned 21. It will be sad to leave a city I love. But I'm looking forward to making a Super Bowl run in Atlanta every year for the next three or four years." Of course, the implication is that there is no way he would have been able to make such a run in Kansas City. What is more, it is unlikely that this is an indictment on Haley, with whom he never really worked. It is an indictment on the state of the Chiefs roster. As Gonzalez said: "It's not banging on the franchise — reality is reality, and we weren't very good. That gets old. It was tough."
So, suffice it say, Pioli did what needed to be done. He did the classy thing and traded Gonzalez to a contender, where he could immediately have a chance to play for a Superbowl ring. It would just be nice if doing the right thing didn't hurt so much. Still, this move shouldn't serve to tarnish the future legacy of Pioli or Haley. Let the tarnish grow where it should, on the failed legacy of Carl Peterson.