KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With three sparkling Super Bowl rings earned during his time as second in command with the New England Patriots, Scott Pioli in January 2009 looked like the perfect hire as general manager of the Chiefs. That championship hardware seemed reason enough to believe he could transfer the football success he’d found in Boston to Kansas City.
Four tumultuous years later, Pioli’s continued employment with the Chiefs is hanging on the edge, awaiting a decision from chairman Clark Hunt and a new coach whom Hunt, with no apparent help from Pioli, will hire.
It’s difficult to blame Hunt for excluding Pioli from the coaching search.
Both of Pioli’s handpicked coaching hires went sour: Todd Haley, after his endless squabbles with Pioli, and Romeo Crennel, after the Chiefs’ recently concluded 2-14 season.
Pioli will remain general manager if Hunt determines Pioli can have a satisfactory working relationship with the new coach. But his role would greatly be reduced if he stays.
Pioli formerly had decision-making power over the Chiefs’ football operations. But early this week Hunt described a different arrangement moving forward, in which the coach and general manager will have equal power over decisions such as the drafting, trading and signing of players.
Hunt would serve as referee in times of dispute.
But the question remains: Where did the hiring go wrong?
Pioli appeared at best distracted by the wrong things and at worst more interested in power than winning. The Kansas City Star, in a story published last January, detailed a number of changes instituted by the Chiefs upon Pioli’s arrival that appeared to have nothing to do with increasing the football team’s chances of winning.
Pioli arrived in Kansas City knowing one way, the New England way. He worked with Bill Belichick for nine seasons before joining the Chiefs and seemingly brought few new ideas to his new job.
He surrounded himself with those he knew and trusted. From assistant general manager Joel Collier to national scout Jim Nagy to director of player development Katie Douglass, former Pioli co-workers populate the Chiefs’ football administration.
That even extended to Haley, who had worked with Pioli for three years with the New York Jets in the late 1990s. Their relationship deteriorated when Haley began having his own ideas about how to run the Chiefs, ideas that differed from the Patriot Way.
“When you’ve only been around a certain group of people your whole life, then the way those people do things is all you know,” said an agent who represents a number of NFL players, including one with the Chiefs.
Haley was considered a rising coaching star as the offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals when the Chiefs hired him.
Still, other than his background with Pioli, he was an odd hire. In 2009, he was just 15 years removed from working as a golf pro.
He had worked his way up the coaching ladder quickly, but it’s easy to see now that he wasn’t ready to be a head coach.
The point became moot when he and Pioli couldn’t get along. Haley was replaced by Crennel, another friend of Pioli’s.
The two got along fine, but their friendship more than likely clouded Pioli’s judgment. Crennel was head coach for four seasons with Cleveland, where he had a 24-40 record.
But Pioli said in an interview last summer that he wasn’t as interested as he otherwise might have been in the reasons Crennel had failed in Cleveland. He knew Crennel well from their years of working together at various NFL stops.
“Not everybody deserves to be a head coach,” said an assistant coach for another NFL team. “He had his chance with Cleveland and proved then he probably was one of them. I was surprised when the Chiefs fired him.”
The Patriot Way doesn’t appear to work as well without a guy like Tom Brady at quarterback. The Chiefs’ collection of quarterbacks at the time Pioli arrived included the aging Damon Huard, the brittle Brodie Croyle and a developmental prospect in Tyler Thigpen.
An uninspiring bunch, to be sure. So Pioli traded for Matt Cassel, who had also worked with Pioli in New England. The Chiefs committed to Cassel, a smart tactic in trying to make the move work.
But the Chiefs may have gone too far with that strategy. With one exception, they never acquired another quarterback capable of stabilizing the program were Cassel injured or ineffective.
The exception was Kyle Orton, who was claimed off waivers from Denver late in the 2011 season. Orton was never interested in playing for the Chiefs and arrived only grudgingly. Knowing how committed the Chiefs were to Cassel, then injured and out for the season, Orton had his eye on the door during his whole time in Kansas City.
The Chiefs could have changed his attitude by offering him big money once he became a free agent and promising competition for the starting job. But it’s not the New England way to give big money to more than one quarterback, so the Chiefs allowed Orton to sign with Dallas without much of a fight.
The Chiefs instead signed Brady Quinn to be Cassel’s backup for the low price of $1 million. Quinn started eight games, throwing two touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
“They just didn’t have the quality at quarterback it takes to win in this game and it killed them,” the agent said. “One of the first moves Pioli made was a crucial mistake. He tied the anchor of the ship to Matt Cassel, and that was a mistake because he dragged it all the way to the bottom. They missed at quarterback when they brought in Cassel. They had a quarterback, but they gave him away. Kyle Orton is a good, solid quarterback. What they should have done is let those guys have an open competition.”
Along the way, the Chiefs alienated some of their best and most popular players. They eventually sent some of those players, most notably Tony Gonzalez and Brian Waters, away.
That left them with a roster last season with no player over the age of 30 and with few leaders capable of stabilizing the situation and serving as mentors for their younger players.
That was an overlooked factor in their 2-14 record.
“Maybe things would have been different if Tony Gonzalez had been retained,” the agent said. “Maybe things would have been different if Brian Waters had stayed and finished his career there like he should have as one of the great players in the history of the organization.”
Pioli’s greatest strength when he joined the Chiefs was seen as his ability to evaluate talent. But the Chiefs didn’t always adequately replace the players they lost. Many of their best players are those who were with the Chiefs before Pioli arrived.
That’s the case with four of their five Pro Bowlers. Linebacker Derrick Johnson and punter Dustin Colquitt joined the Chiefs in 2005, linebacker Tamba Hali the next season and running back Jamaal Charles in 2008. Pioli drafted safety Eric Berry in 2010.
Among their two Pro Bowl alternates, cornerback Brandon Flowers joined the Chiefs a year before Pioli arrived, and Pioli drafted linebacker Justin Houston in 2011.
“I still think Scott is an excellent talent evaluator,” the agent said. “I will not change my feeling on that. That’s how New England ended up with Wes Welker and Tom Brady and so many other people there who are core players.
“The Chiefs have some good, young players. Some of them were already playing for the Chiefs when he got there. But they do have more good players than a 2-14 team usually has.”