Haley and Pioli: Evaluation Time
By William T. Cloake IV
December 21, 2009
With two games left to go in the 2009 season, it might seem early to evaluate the work of Scott Pioli and Todd Haley, but actually after playing two similar teams in the Bills and Browns the timing could not be better. Two weeks ago, when the Chiefs were sitting at 3-9, I kept thinking that the next two weeks against the (then) 4-8 Bills and 2-10 Browns would be a perfect test of how the Chief's staff has done.
The reason for this is that I am not particularly concerned about how the Chiefs have done against top tier teams. The fact that we get blown out by the Chargers doesn't really concern me. Unfortunately, blowouts are part of the rebuilding process when you aren't a good team.
However, what one does expect to see particularly going into the end of the season is that an "up-and-coming" team will play well against other teams that have nothing to play for and will build some momentum going into next season. So, in my mind, a 5-11 or 6-10 finish would signal potentially good things to come for the Chiefs in 2010.
Sad to say, what we've learned is not good news. Against the Bills, the Chiefs offense moved the ball but was unable to punch it in. A quarterback keeper on a 4th and goal from the one resulted an 8-yard loss and a 14-point switch when the Bills proceeded on a 91-yard drive on the ensuing possession.
The play encapsulated everything that has been wrong with Haley this season: over-coaching. First, following a turnover that set the Chiefs up at the Bills 9-yardline it was imperative that the Chiefs get points. An 18-yard field goal might have been a letdown but it would have kept the momentum going the Chiefs way. Going for it gave the Bills a chance to seize momentum, which they promptly did. Haley has said himself, over and over again, that the team has a very small margin for error. Well, teams with small margins for error (due presumably to a lack of talent which I don't disagree with) shouldn't take risks because it is more likely that something bad can and will happen. As such, it was a bad idea to go for it, anyway. Later, the lack of three points would come back to haunt the Chiefs.
Then, secondly, there is the call itself. Jamaal Charles may not be a battering ram but he is the best thing that the Chiefs have had on offensive this season. The decision to go with a quarterback keeper is an all or nothing decision. If it works great, but if just ONE of the guys on the other team sniffs it out the play is dead in the water. In my mind, I kept saying: "Just give it up the gut to Charles, just give it up the gut to Charles". If you are going to go for it on 4th and 1, you can't rely on deception because it is too big a risk you have to be able to make the play. If you don't have confidence you can do it, then don't go for it.
As such, Haley over-coached, first he should have kicked the field goal. Second, when he decided to go for it, he should have just handed the ball to Charles over top. Really, when the Chiefs got stopped from the one and the Bills drove 91-yards it was checkmate. Teams like the Chiefs aren't good enough to overcome 14-point swings. Haley, hopefully, has learned this.
In reality, Haley's problem all season can be summed up in over-coaching. The failed move of firing Chan Gailey: over-coaching, a failed fake punt against the Broncos: over-coaching and moving wide receivers in and out of the lineup: over-coaching. Interestingly, while Haley over-coaches in some areas, he seems slow to respond in others. One wonders, if Larry Johnson not melted down, would still be getting carries at a 2.7 clip? If Mike Goff had not gotten hurt, would he still be still be struggling at guard? It has taken Haley too long to figure out that guys like Charles and Wade Smith needed to be starters. Haley needs to learn to be patient and trust the process, but also know when to pull the trigger. Hopefully this is something he has learned in 2009, or 2010 will also be a long one for the Chiefs. The good news is that I do see progress, on a 4th and 11, late in the 1st half verse the Browns, Haley opted to punt, when I got the sense that he really wanted to go for it.
Speaking of the game against the Browns. This game was even more disappointing than the Bills loss. Had the Bills loss been coupled with a solid victory over the Browns, I might be singing a different tune today. After all, there were some positives to take from the Bills game. You take back a dropped pass by Chris Chambers and you feel like this was one the Chiefs should have won. The offense rolled up 354 yards against a good defense, while the Chiefs "D" although appearing vulnerable to the run held the Bills to 273 total yards.
It would be the Browns who would take the phrase "vulnerable to the run" to new heights as the Browns literally punched the Chiefs in the mouth at home. Unheard of Jerome Harrison runs a NFL history 3rd best 286 yards, while Josh Cribbs returns to kickoffs for TD's. In retrospect it may be good that Cribbs got his returns because with the extra possessions, Harrison may have gone for 400 yards on the day. The Chiefs defense was completely unable to stop the Browns, who simply bent the Chiefs to their will. Everyone knew a run was coming and the Chiefs couldn't stop it.
While I used the Bills loss to illustrate Haley's shortcomings of over-coaching, I will use this game to evaluate Scott Pioli. When Haley came in, the decision was made to go to a 3-4, which I applauded because I have always loved the 3-4 defense. At its best, no defense is more intimidating with fast, mean linebackers shedding blocks and slamming quarterbacks and runningbacks in the backfield for big losses.
The problem is that the Chiefs don't have but maybe two mean linebackers and one who you might call fast and mean, in Mike Vrabel and Tamba Hali, respectively. Pioli brought in Vrabel and Zach Thomas to shore up the Chiefs linebacking core for the transition to the 3-4 and it was a mistake. While Vrabel is a good leader and a guy who could probably be OK if he was surrounded with other talented guys, Thomas never played a down for the Chiefs. So what did the Chiefs have left? Derrick Johnson, Corey Mays and Demorrio Williams. This was a recipe for disaster. While the Chiefs have Vrabel and Hali on the outside, there is no one for the interior positions. Johnson is a guy who the Chiefs had previously tried at all three LB positions with no success, while Mays was a special team's guy who hadn't played substantial snaps at LB. Meanwhile, Williams was moved into the inside where, at 230 pounds (and I do believe the media guide is generous), he is playing way out of position. You add to the mix Jovan Belcher and you have essentially four linebackers all with major holes in their games. All four are unable to shed blocks or even hold their positions. The result is they take exaggerated angles to get around blocks and wind up way out of position. In addition, excepting for Williams, they all struggle in pass coverage, leaving the middle of the Chiefs defense susceptible to crossing routes.
While this is a rebuilding process, the problem I have with Pioli is that by not acquiring at least enough talent to allow the defense to grow into the 3-4 much of this season has sadly been spent grooming guys who probably won't be here in 2010. Also, although I won't say that Tyson Jackson won't be a great player, to me, there was something strategically wrong in not drafting at least one linebacker when making the transition to the 3-4. Just based on sheer numbers, when going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, you have too many defensive linemen and not enough linebackers. Clancy Pendergast, never a popular choice to begin with, will likely take the brunt of Pioli's shortcomings and will be gone in the off-season. However, I have my doubts that Bill Cowher could get this group to play well. As a unit, the Chiefs linebackers are a triple-threat, slow, inexperienced and small. Of course, the 3-4 is built around linebackers, so you can see why there might be a problem.
When looking at the Browns game, the other thing that stands out is 9 dropped passes. This points to Pioli's other shortcoming. Now, I understand the trading of Tony Gonzales and am not going to sit here and say that we should have forced him to stay nor am I going to lay this on Pioli's doorstep. However, what I do hold Pioli accountable for is not landing an appropriate replacement. Gonzales functioned more for the Chiefs has a big wide receiver than a tight end, so I am not going to say we should have gotten a TE to fill the void he left. However, we needed to get someone. I give Pioli credit for snatching Chris Chambers off of the waiver wire, but it has been too little, too late. It is as if Pioli realized this was a problem too late. The result is that the Chiefs brought in every retread from Bobby Wade to Ashley Lelie to fill the void, with little success. The result is that we have struggled in the pass game and this has doubtlessly hurt Cassel's progress.
Again, what is disappointing here is that the Chiefs have spent the season grooming guys who won't likely be here next season. Of the Chiefs wide-outs, I think it is likely that only Bowe and Chambers return. Interestingly, the Chiefs took two receivers in the draft, but Quinton Lawerence (cut on Sunday) and Jake O'Connell were both project players. Lawerence was supposed to handle kicks but that never panned out, while O'Connell is a very raw guy with tons of athletic talent. Given that the Chiefs have. Pioli needs to make 6th round picks like the one spent on Lawerence count if the Chiefs are going to improve.
Finally, the offensive line was an area that Pioli missed on. Now, given the fact that this group has improved its play greatly the past few weeks, it is easy to forget that for the first 10+ weeks of the season, this group played terribly. Still, there should have been better answers at guard and tackle than Mike Goff and Ryan O'Callaghan waiting in the wings (and there may have been in the case of Goff, problem was getting Wade Smith on the field). Now O'Callaghan and Barry Richardson seem to be playing better, but the growing process has caused problems in the development of Cassel and the running and passing games.
So, when all is said and done, I am not saying that we should fire either Haley or Pioli. However, I am giving them poor marks in the first season at the Chiefs helm (barring some tremendous improvement in the last two games in which case I will gladly eat crow). Few 2-14 teams catch lightening in a bottle and become winners. However, after 14 weeks one would like to see improvement and there isn't a whole lot to be seen in Kansas City.