KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In 2009, when Scott Pioli took over as general manager of the Chiefs, he faced the same critical decisions that his predecessor, Carl Peterson, did 20 years earlier.
Hire the right coach; select a quarterback with a strong and accurate arm; make shrewd picks at the top of the draft; fill holes on the roster via free agency.
Those are the four pillars for building a successful NFL franchise. Make the right decisions, and the club can enjoy long-term stability that produces perennial playoff teams, if not Super Bowl champions. Whiff on those choices, and it will set a franchise back into perpetual rebuilding jobs.
Pioli, who is midway through his fourth season running the club, appears to have struck out on all counts.
His first coach, Todd Haley, who had never been a head coach at any level, didn’t make it through his third season, though the Chiefs did win the AFC West in 2010. Haley’s successor, Romeo Crennel, is 3-8 since taking over last December, including a 1-7 mark this year going into Monday night’s game at Pittsburgh.
Pioli’s hand-picked quarterback, Matt Cassel, is the 31st-rated passer in the NFL, has turned the ball over an NFL-worst 18 times and would be on the bench right now had it not been for a concussion to backup-turned-starter Brady Quinn.
Pioli’s drafts have been unproductive, starting with defensive end Tyson Jackson, taken with the third overall pick in 2009, and his free-agent signees have made little impact.
When the late Lamar Hunt hired Peterson as president, general manager and chief operating officer before the 1989 season, he brought in Marty Schottenheimer, a proven winner at Cleveland, as coach. Peterson inherited veteran quarterback Steve DeBerg, but for competition in the first year, Peterson brought in free agent Ron Jaworski, spent a second-round draft choice for Mike Elkins and traded for Steve Pelluer. DeBerg led the Chiefs to three straight winning seasons and to the 1990 and 1991 playoffs.
While Peterson’s draft record was spotty at best, he used the fourth overall pick in the 1989 draft on outside linebacker Derrick Thomas, who would be the centerpiece of a ferocious defense and eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And though unfettered free agency would not begin until 1993, Peterson took advantage of the precursor of the system, Plan B free agency, and combed the waiver wire for several major contributors on both sides of the ball.
The differences in the Chiefs of 1989-92 and the Chiefs of 2009-12?
The Chiefs went 39-24-1 in Peterson’s first four years, and only a 17-17 tie in the mud at Cleveland in 1989 kept the club from reaching the postseason all four years. And a once-moribund fan base that included fewer than 25,000 season-ticket holders in 1988 became 75,000 strong by 1991 and created one of the most menacing home-field advantages in football.
“The general manager presents and acquires the players, but the rest of the story has to be the coaches who develop these guys to do what they want them to do,” said Peterson, who today divides his time between Kansas City and New York. “I don’t keep track of what’s wrong (in Kansas City), but it’s a sad situation.
“As a general manager, you have to have an intimate working relationship with your head coach. My job was to hire the head football coach and give him everything he needed to be successful … That would include his coaching staff, players, facilities and create an environment to win.”
The current Chiefs are 22-34 under Pioli and have spiraled into one of the biggest punchlines in the NFL. They have trailed by at least 17 points in seven of their eight games; lost six games by double digits; became the first team since 1929 not to have led in regulation through the opening eight games of a season; and, worst of all, have won just three of their last 14 games at Arrowhead Stadium, where fan apathy is starting to set in — just as it did in the dark days of the late 1970s and most of the 1980s.
“I don’t know exactly what happened in the first year before I got here (in 2010),” said Crennel, speaking for Pioli, who chose not to comment for this story. “We got to the playoffs (in 2010), and we weren’t able to repeat it (last) year. And then this year, we’re really struggling.
“The only thing I can do is try to improve the lot that I have right now. We’ve got eight games, and if we can get it turned around in eight games, we can say that there’s a chance that this organization can move forward.”
When Peterson came aboard, he inherited a solid nucleus of players, including Pro Bowlers in safeties Deron Cherry and Lloyd Burruss, nose tackle Bill Maas and linebacker Dino Hackett.
He also had a promising defensive end in Neil Smith, who was taken with the second overall pick in the 1988 draft, and a bull-in-a-china-shop running back named Christian Okoye, a second-round pick in 1987.
The Chiefs ended a 15-year playoff drought in 1986 but had lost their way with consecutive four-win seasons before Peterson was hired. He turned to Schottenheimer, who was fired by Cleveland after the 1988 season despite taking the Browns to consecutive AFC title games only to lose to Denver and QB John Elway in heartbreakers made famous by The Drive and Fumble.
“We had a lot of the people in place already when Marty came in,” said Rich Baldinger, a Chiefs offensive lineman during 1983-92, “but Marty brought in a different attitude. The expectations were brought to a different level … that’s the biggest difference I see. … Romeo cannot demand excellence from his players. They will not take their game to the next level.
“You can put up all the signs you want on the wall, but there has to be an expectation at practice and meetings and everything you have to perform at this level. Some coaches can do it, some can’t. Marty was a difference-maker.”
Schottenheimer had the advantage of bringing in most of his staff from Cleveland, so they could hit the ground running. Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry believed in a power-running game, which turned Okoye into the NFL’s rushing leader. The defensive staff included a young coordinator named Bill Cowher and secondary coach named Tony Dungy, who emphasized sacks and taking the ball away.
“It was important to get someone who had winning experience and a respect he would command the minute he walked in the locker room, from players, coaches and fans,” Peterson said of Schottenheimer.
By contrast, Pioli had to wait until after the Super Bowl to hire Haley because he was offensive coordinator for the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. Haley had to hastily piecemeal together a staff of relative strangers. When Haley clashed with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, a holdover from Herm Edwards’ staff, Haley fired Gailey during the 2009 preseason and assumed the role of coordinator.
Pioli and Haley inherited a team that had gone 2-14 and 4-12 in the previous two seasons as Peterson’s Chiefs underwent a youth movement. The team was sprinkled with talented but inexperienced players such as former first-round picks in defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, defensive end Tamba Hali, linebacker Derrick Johnson, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and offensive tackle Branden Albert. Other high picks included cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Jamaal Charles.
“When we made the decision to go from the old to the young team, we knew we were going to take some lumps for a while,” Peterson said. “That’s why you get good young players, and you coach them. Four of those guys have played in Pro Bowls. Your coaching staff has to continue to make them develop and grow and fit into what they want to do.
“I don’t think the cupboard was bare when they came … They had one good year, won the division and then went south. I can’t tell you what all the problems were. You have to look at every year … what players have they acquired who have continued to add to the improvement of your team each year.”
DeBerg had the reputation of a coach-killer and was famously the quarterback who made room for Joe Montana at San Francisco, Vinny Testaverde at Tampa Bay and Elway in Denver.
But after an inconsistent season in 1989, he had a career year in 1990. Taking advantage of a backfield that combined Okoye’s power running and free-agent signee Barry Word, DeBerg flawlessly executed the play-action passing game and threw 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions when the Chiefs returned to the playoffs in 1990.
DeBerg’s arm strength seemed to wane during another playoff season in 1991, and Peterson released the popular quarterback following a postseason loss at Buffalo. He then signed Seattle veteran Dave Krieg as a Plan B free agent in 1992, and Krieg helped the Chiefs to a third straight playoff season.
Pioli made a bold move after arriving in Kansas City, sending a second-round draft pick to his former team, New England, for Cassel, who had been Tom Brady’s backup, and linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Vrabel, a veteran of New England’s three Super Bowl championship teams, provided leadership, and Cassel enjoyed his best year as a Chief in 2010, when he threw 27 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions as the team went 10-6.
But in 2011, Cassel’s career began to nosedive. He threw 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions before suffering a season-ending broken hand. It didn’t help that he was playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in four years behind an offensive line that had begun to spring some leaks.
This season has been a total nightmare for Cassel, including a concussion that forced him to miss a start.
“You look at Matt Cassel, and you have to wonder about this poor guy,” Baldinger said. “He never had the same people, and a different line in front of him … different wide receivers …”
Cassel also never had much competition for his job, so when he was injured, the Chiefs were stuck with the forgettable Tyler Palko until Pioli claimed veteran Kyle Orton off waivers for the second half of the 2011 season. But Orton, who led the Chiefs to two wins in their last three games — a mini-run that helped get then-interim coach Crennel hired as the permanent head coach for 2012 — elected to take a backup job with Dallas this season instead of re-signing with the Chiefs.
Peterson deliberated between two linebackers in the talent-rich 1989 draft — linebacker Derrick Thomas, the Butkus Award winner from Alabama, and Broderick Thomas, an all-American from Nebraska. The Chiefs chose Thomas, and he made an immediate impact.
Thomas racked up 10 sacks as a rookie and a club-record 20 in 1990, including an NFL-record seven in one game. Thomas would roll up a 126 1/2 sacks in his career — which still ranks 12th in NFL history — before his untimely death in 2000.
“They had drafted Neil Smith the year before, and everybody thought he was a bust,” Peterson said. “They were wrong. Marty and his staff got the best out of him. We realized we had a pass rusher on one side and a pass rusher on the other with Derrick, and they created a lot of havoc …”
In 2009, Pioli had the third overall pick in the draft, the highest for the Chiefs since Thomas was taken in 1989. To the surprise of many, Pioli selected LSU’s Tyson Jackson, who played defensive end in the national champions’ 4-3 front. The Chiefs tried converting Jackson to an end in their 3-4 system, comparing his role to that of former Dallas star Russell Maryland, who helped the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles.
But today, Jackson’s all but invisible. In 52 career games, he has made two career sacks and has yet to force a fumble, or recover one.
Peterson had his share of busts, too, in his first four years. He had a blind spot in the second round, where quarterbacks Elkins (1989) and Matt Blundin (1992) and offensive tackle Joe Valerio (1991) were wasted picks. First-round pick Percy Snow (1990) started 15 games as a rookie, but a foot injury sustained in a motorcycle accident during training camp in 1991 derailed his career.
But Thomas, center Tim Grunhard (No. 2, 1990), guard Dave Szott (No. 7, 1990) and cornerback Dale Carter (1992) were integral to a program that went to the postseason seven times in eight years during the 1990s.
Pioli’s Chiefs appeared to have hit the mother lode in the 2010 draft. Safety Eric Berry, the fifth overall pick that year, went to the Pro Bowl, and five other players Pioli selected that April have started games for the Chiefs. But second-round picks Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas have not justified their lofty selections, and tight end Tony Moeaki has not been the same since a knee injury sidelined him for all of 2011.
“When people say we had a great draft, that six of our seven guys made our team, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Peterson said. “If they help you win, you can say it was a good draft. If they just replace somebody else, then you’re not making any progress. You’re either treading water or going backward.”
The same can be said about free agency. One of Peterson’s first signees in the old Plan B system was future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who came to Kansas City to work as a strength coach but decided to play two more years, one as a starter and the second year to tutor his heir, Grunhard.
Indestructible defensive tackles Dan Saleaumua and Joe Phillips, wide receivers J.J. Birden and Willie Davis, linebacker Tracy Simien, versatile running back Kimble Anders — as well as Word and Krieg — all joined the Chiefs during that four-year run from 1989 to 1992, and were big contributors to a decade of success.
The Chiefs of 2009-12 have yet to attract or develop that level of talent. And the record shows it.