Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson has known Clark Hunt since Lamar Hunt’s second son worked as a ball boy at Chiefs training camps.
Dawson has seen Hunt rise from high school and college soccer star, marry a former Miss Kansas, raise three children, and take over Hunt Sports Group — and become chairman of the Chiefs in 2005, a year before Lamar Hunt’s death.
Dawson, like most Chiefs fans, is anxious to see what kind of changes Hunt will be making as the Chiefs’ season grinds to a halt a week from today. Dawson has heard the rumors about the future of general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel. The team is 2-12 heading into its final home game today against the Indianapolis Colts.
“I’m sure something is going to happen,” said Dawson, color analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts. “I just don’t know what it’s going to be.”
Can Hunt possibly retain Pioli and Crennel after what will go down as the darkest season in the 53-year history of the franchise, a year that began with former coach Todd Haley’s allegations that his phone and office was bugged and included the recent muder-suicide of linebacker Jovan Belcher and girlfriend Kasandra Perkins? Or does Hunt have Pioli fire Crennel despite an association that dates to the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning years of 2001-04, and then ask Pioli to hire another coach after what would be two whiffs in four years?
Lamar Hunt, who founded the franchise in 1960, was famously patient with and loyal to his front office — some would say to a fault. He allowed Jack Steadman to run the club during a period in the 1970s and ’80s when the Chiefs made the playoffs just once in 15 years. And Carl Peterson, who replaced Steadman in 1989 and oversaw the club’s renaissance in the 1990s, stayed on as president and general manager until 2008, or 15 years after the club’s last playoff win.
It’s hard to tell whether Clark Hunt, an extremely private person who has declined repeated interview requests, is as loyal and patient as his dad was, or if he has learned from Lamar’s blind spot.
“The Hunts have always been hard to figure out,” said Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys executive who has known the family since the Chiefs were founded as the Dallas Texans in 1960.
It’s possible Hunt could fire Pioli first and keep Crennel around for a little longer, enabling the new general manager to decide on the coaching staff. The new general manager would take the opportunity to interview the incumbent coach and pick his brain on the talent on the team and coaching staff. Pioli fired coach Herm Edwards 10 days after he was hired as Carl Peterson’s successor. Peterson did the same thing when he replaced Jim Schaaf as general manager. He interviewed coach Frank Gansz and got ideas about the team’s personnel before letting that staff go.
Former Chiefs safety Deron Cherry has known Hunt since Cherry made the club as an undrafted player in 1981 and in his role as a former owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Cherry, a Chiefs Hall of Famer, isn’t sure that Clark Hunt, 47, will be as tolerant of failure as his father.
“He’s very practical and understands the landscape probably more so than what people probably give him credit (for), because they think this is a young kid who grew up in this (environment) and is now faced with tough decisions,” Cherry said.
“Nobody likes to see a season turn out the way this season has and thinks there can’t be some changes, but that’s his decision. Not only his (decision), but his family because they all have a vested interest in this franchise and what’s going on here.”
Indeed, the Hunts committed $125 million of their own money to the $375 million renovation project that was completed at Arrowhead in 2009, only to see swaths of empty seats this season in both the grandstands and suite level, which was to produce not only a return on their investment but revenues that would make the Chiefs competitive.
Even when the Chiefs’ performance declined on the field during Peterson’s last two seasons, the parking lots were filled with tailgaters, and the money kept rolling in.
But as the Chiefs have gone 9-21 in the last two years under Pioli — including eight losses by 15 points or more this season — life has been drained from the game-day experience. The franchise has lost its connection with its fans, who are demanding change and paying to fly banners over the stadium calling for Pioli’s dismissal.
“I understand what everybody is saying,” Dawson said of fan unrest. “I’m sure Clark does, too. He’ll confer with somebody … this is a results business. You win games, you pack the place, play for championships, and people will be there. I’ve seen what’s happened this year. People are not happy at all. I’m glad it’s not my decision.”
Since taking over as the Chiefs’ chairman, Hunt has had to make some monumental decisions.
He gave his blessing to a youth movement in 2008 as the Chiefs transitioned from the veteran-laden club assembled by Peterson and coach Dick Vermeil to a collection of promising draft picks under Edwards’ watch.
Hunt then reversed field after a 2-14 season in 2008, parting company with Peterson, Edwards and eventually most everyone else in the front office after hiring Pioli as general manager and Haley as head coach.
A year after a 10-6 season and AFC West title, Hunt and Pioli dismissed Haley and replaced him with Crennel, who went 2-1 as an in interim coach in 2011 before getting the job permanently heading into this season.
Hunt’s next big decision will come on Dec. 31, which will likely be a Black Monday all over the NFL, a day after the regular-season ends.
“The things you have to do is first, sit down and evaluate where you are,” said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly of the process Hunt will go through. “Evaluate the head coach and evaluate the staff ... the offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) was in his first season … and you know you have to be better at quarterback.
“Then you evaluate the talent against any injuries you might have had. And how did the club play once they were out of the race? Did they still give an effort? Were they still listening and paying attention to the coaches?”
A year ago, the Indianapolis Colts were at a similar crossroads. Owner Jim Irsay, like Hunt a second-generation owner of a once-storied franchise, endured a 2-14 season, largely because iconic quarterback Peyton Manning missed the entire year with neck injuries.
Irsay decided to clean house. He fired longtime general manager Bill Polian and third-year coach Jim Caldwell, two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. And rather than pay the 36-year-old Manning a $28 million roster bonus, Irsay let the four-time league MVP walk as a free agent.
Indianapolis, armed with the first overall pick, selected quarterback Andrew Luck, who has led the Colts to a 9-5 record and within a victory of clinching a wild-card playoff berth.
The Chiefs are in line for the franchise’s first overall pick since they selected Buck Buchanan in the 1963 AFL Draft, but it’s anyone’s guess whether Pioli or Crennel will be around to make that choice.
Pioli’s performance in the draft, in acquiring players through trades and his judgment in hiring coaches are hard to defend. His handpicked quarterback, Matt Cassel, is on the bench after turning the ball over 18 times this season and is counting the days until he can leave town.
While Pioli has to be credited for re-signing key players he inherited — running back Jamaal Charles, cornerback Brandon Flowers, outside linebacker Tamba Hali and linebacker Derrick Johnson — he made a dreadful miscalculation by not re-signing cornerback Brandon Carr, who may have been overpaid by Dallas but has been irreplaceable in Kansas City.
The high-dollar free agent Pioli signed to replace Carr, cornerback Stanford Routt, was released at midseason. And the Chiefs’ major free-agent signing of 2011, wide receiver Steve Breaston, has been healthy but inexplicably inactive for five of the last six games, even though the team is woefully thin at the position.
The fact that the Chiefs have not announced any new contracts for players who would be free agents after the season — including tackle Branden Albert, defensive end Glenn Dorsey, punter Dustin Colquitt and center/guard Ryan Lilja — may indicate Pioli has been told not to conduct business for the future, or those players may want to test the open market.
The four draft classes under Pioli’s watch have not produced consistent playmakers. It took four years for the Chiefs to realize defensive end Tyson Jackson, the third overall pick in 2009, could be a three-down player, and he’ll likely be a free agent in 2013.
While a solid player, Eric Berry has proven that taking a safety with the fifth overall pick in 2010 was a reach. And the biggest bust of all was wide receiver Jon Baldwin, taken in the first round in 2011 despite all kinds of red flags. Baldwin has caught just two touchdown passes in two years.
It’s highly unusual to fire a coach after just one full season. Crennel would join some rare company if he’s let go next week.
Miami fired Cam Cameron after a 1-15 season in 2007, as did New England when it canned Rod Rust after a 1-15 season in 1990. Minnesota’s Les Steckel was let go after one season after he went 3-13 in 1984.
Oakland fired Hue Jackson after an 8-8 season in 2011, but that came after the death of owner Al Davis, who had hired Jackson, and after Jackson mortgaged the future in a trade for quarterback Carson Palmer.
And Marty Schottenheimer, a paragon of success in Kansas City, among other places, was relieved of his duties by impetuous owner Daniel Snyder of Washington after an 8-8 season in 2001.
“Firing a coach after one year is fair if you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Brandt, “but if you do see some light.…”
Casserly said “I’d be disappointed if they made a (coaching) change. A lot of (the blame) was the quarterback play.”
Coaching changes are no guarantees of success, either.
“When you bring in a new coach,” said Brandt, “unless you have a dynamite team, in the first year or so, you usually take a step back, though I don’t know how much farther they can fall back.”
Former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who spent five years in Kansas City after leading Philadelphia and St. Louis to Super Bowls, put the onus on Pioli.
“I’ve always believed it takes three years to get a program going,” Vermeil said, “but the program has been there longer than three years … with the new management. The head coach isn’t the only one responsible for winning.”
Certainly, there are plenty of names being bandied about for both the Chiefs general manager and head coaching positions, once they become available.
The usual suspects, such as former Super Bowl-winning coaches Jon Gruden, Brian Billick and Bill Cowher, make everyone’s list, though they probably couldn’t co-exist with Pioli, who would want to retain full power when it comes to personnel decisions. Longtime Philadelphia coach Andy Reid could be interested if he’s fired, as expected, after the season, and so might former Browns and Jets coach Eric Mangini, who has Pioli connections.
Polian, who got his start as a Chiefs scout in 1978 before building Super Bowl teams at Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, is a logical candidate for the general manager’s job.
“He’d crawl back there,” said Brandt.
Other possibilities as general manager include Green Bay director of football operations John Dorsey; former San Francisco general manager Scot McCloughan; Baltimore assistant general manager Eric DeCosta; New York Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross; and former NFL executive/turned media commentator Mike Lombardi. Former Chiefs executives Terry Bradway and Bill Kuharich could wind their way back into player personnel roles.
If Pioli stays on and makes the hire, he might return to his New England roots and tap Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who flamed out as head coach at Denver in 2010 but is currently directing the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense.
Other top assistant coaches who may be head-coaching candidates include Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy; San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio; Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter; Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan; and Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose son, Adam is already on the Chiefs’ staff.
Among college head coaches who may draw interest from the Chiefs or other NFL teams are Chip Kelly of Oregon, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame and Kirk Ferentz of Iowa, who worked with Pioli in Cleveland in the early 1990s.
Whatever it turns out to be, Hunt’s next move will have major financial ramifications.
’Tis the season for Chiefs fans such as Herb Christiansen to decide whether to renew their pricey season tickets. Christiansen is looking at his 25th consecutive year as a season-ticket holder; if he re-ups, he will continue to make the overnight treks to Arrowhead from his home in the Lake of the Ozarks.
“Other teams that struggle make changes in the offseason that make them competitive in a year or two,” said Christiansen, who wrote a passionate letter of frustration to Hunt last Nov. 5 that has yet to be answered, even by a staff member.
“I was hoping I would hear something from some part of management saying, ‘Stick with us; we can’t divulge what we’re going to do, but I guarantee you we’re going to do something,’” Christiansen said. “If right after the season is over, they start making some announcements before my bill comes due in January, then maybe I’ll give it a 25th year … give them one more chance.”