The story of the Kansas City Chiefs' plummet to NFL ineptitude is one of how imitation took the wrong form. It also involves over-reliance on a single coaching tree and how one man attempted to enforce a cult of personality, rather than improving talent.
Like many stories of failed franchises, the Chiefs' story naturally begins at the top. The succession of Clark Hunt to replace his late father and team founder, Lamar, as owner, could be seen as the beginning of the decline.
There's good reason for that view, considering the Chiefs' records since Clark Hunt assumed control in 2007. In six seasons, the Chiefs have won just 29 games. They have lost 67 and made only a single trip to the playoffs.
The reason for these follies really begins and ends with Hunt's most important hiring. In 2009, the young owner tabbed Scott Pioli to be the architect of a Chiefs revival.
To clear the way for the former New England Patriots personnel man, Hunt dismissed Carl Peterson The veteran general manager was a mainstay of some sustained success in the '90s.
The hiring of Pioli did more to condemn the Chiefs to failure than any other decision. Bill Parcells' son-in-law was given carte blanche to replicate the formula that had worked in New England.
This desire to imitate the Patriots and place full faith in the coaching tree of his father-in-law doomed every major decision Pioli made. It started first with hiring Todd Haley to take the reins as head coach in 2009.
Haley had just padded his reputation by directing the Arizona Cardinals offense en route to a Super Bowl appearance. However, anyone who witnessed his frequent bust-ups with players, notably then-Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, could see Haley was a questionable choice.
Of course, that didn't matter to Pioli, who tabbed Haley based largely on his connection to Parcells. He coached on Parcells' staff for the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. Pioli was obviously seeking a disciplinarian who could motivate a rebuilding roster the way the Big Tuna had for years during his Hall of Fame career.
The problem was that Haley was the wrong kind of disciplinarian. He was simply too volatile and abrasive. There was no method behind his madness, just madness.
Haley wasn't helped by Pioli getting virtually every major personnel decision wrong. The first was arguably his most important gaffe and showed the lengths Pioli was prepared to go to replicate the Patriots.
That desire meant Pioli decided to fix the most important position on the team, by trading a bounty for a backup with a single season's worth of experience. Enter Matt Cassel and a new low for quarterbacking in Kansas City.
Pioli gave up a second-round pick, precious currency to a team then coming off a 2-14 campaign. In exchange, he acquired Cassel and ageing linebacker Mike Vrabel.
So the signal-callers for the Chiefs new offensive and defensive units were both bred in the so-called "Patriots way." That fact alone seemed to help Pioli ignore that although Cassel guided the Patriots to 11-5 in 2008, the team missed the playoffs.
While his numbers had been good, he had only looked ordinary at best against top defenses. Yet the trade for Cassel marked Pioli's most dominant pattern.
That pattern involved implicitly trusting the coaching tree that had succeeded in New England. It meant trusting that any product of that system could succeed anywhere, regardless of talent level.
The next step in creating a New England-lite was Pioli's decision to adopt a 3-4 defense. This had a huge and mostly negative impact on the rebuilding process in Kansas City—mostly because the schematic switch sent Pioli into the draft to spend prime picks on 3-4 personnel.
Nowhere were the pitfalls of this decision clearer than along the defensive line.
The 3-4 switch all but wasted 2008's first pick Glenn Dorsey. A dynamic, gap-shooting tackle at LSU, Dorsey didn't have the physical attributes to play the more functionary, 2-gap style of the 3-4.
Yet that didn't stop Pioli and his new regime from forcing a square peg into a round hole anyway. It also didn't prevent Pioli from using two first-round picks in four drafts on more linemen for his 3-4.
Again he was trying to recreate the success the Patriots had enjoyed drafting defensive linemen with prime picks. The problem was the Patriots picked the right ones; Pioli didn't.
Bill Belichick no doubt played a major role in selecting Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. In contrast Pioli, who was left to his own devices, used first round picks on Tyson Jackson and Dontari Poe.
Putting in Patriots schemes also meant hiring Patriots coaches. In 2010, Pioli brought in Belichick/Parcells brain trust Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as coordinators.
In doing so he undercut Haley's authority and made the head coach seem little more than a figurehead. Pioli's desire to simply transplant what had worked for the Patriots to Kansas City became a vicious circle.
Players were brought in who only thrived in one system. They required the coaches who had taught it to them. Those coaches needed to be surrounded with more players used to their methods.
The Chiefs became a bizarre version of an old boys network. Pioli was at its helm, attempting to rebuild a roster seemingly based off a dog-eared copy of a hand-me-down playbook.
There was nothing new brought to the Chiefs. There was simply a cycle of regeneration that hoped familiarity and comfort would translate into wins.
A look at the Chiefs offense this season shows the ultimate folly of this brand of team building. The Chiefs offensive ineptitude is the stuff of infamy.
However, the 2012 season could be a new low, even for a franchise that hasn't ranked in the top 10 for offense since 2005.
They were last in the league in points and 24th in yards. Those numbers shouldn't be possible with a running back like Jamaal Charles and a wide receiver like Dwayne Bowe.
However, as with the rest of the Chiefs' issues, the problem begins with trouble at the top. After Pioli tabbed Crennel to succeed Haley, Crennel, rather than seeking new ideas, surrounded himself with familiar faces.
That meant hiring Brian Daboll to run the offense. Daboll had worked with Crennel for, surprise, surprise, the New England Patriots. That seemingly was enough to recommend him to run the offense in Kansas City.
That was despite Daboll's two previous stints as a coordinator with the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, which didn't produce an offense that ranked above 20th in points or yards. Once again the Chiefs let a connection to the Patriots overshadow actual results.
Just like every other time they made this mistake, the Chiefs soon compounded it. Daboll needed players he was familiar with around him. That led the Chiefs to sign the quarterback who started nine games for him in 2009—Brady Quinn.
So the Chiefs entered 2012 with a shaky starter in Cassel being backed up by flop first-rounder Quinn. That was a recipe for a disaster even the most casual armchair observer could have predicted.
A look at the following play encapsulates what these decisions did for the Chiefs offense in 2012. It is from Week 15's embarrassing shutout against the usually generous Oakland Raiders defense.
In the screenshot below, the Chiefs are facing 3rd-and-10. They have aligned with four receivers and one running back.
The problem is that with Quinn under center, the Raiders know they can challenge him to beat coverage, and win. They have presented six defensive backs, so already they have won the numbers game.
The Chiefs already lost the coaching battle before the ball is even snapped. The screenshot below shows how their offense immediately encountered problems after the snap.
Daboll's blocking scheme has been fooled by a blitz off the weak side. So only four receivers release into their patterns, while the Raiders are able to drop six into coverage.
Quinn is now looking at four covered receivers, with two safeties providing help deep. Daboll's dubious play design has been wrecked. The screenshot below shows how the Chiefs pay the price for poor coaching and placing poor talent under center.
Quinn failed to adjust. He ignored Charles running underneath against a linebacker, easily his best matchup on the play. Instead, for reasons beyond understanding, Quinn forced the ball into the strength of the coverage, resulting in an easy interception.
This one play, revealing bad design and poor execution, is a microcosm of the worst scoring team in the NFL in 2012.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Chiefs' fall was how management focused more on controlling and modifying behaviour than improving talent. This is where things really do turn bizarre.
In January 2012, Kent Babb of The Kansas City Star recounted a slightly amusing, yet more than a bit scary incident from Haley's tenure as head coach.
It seems Haley became convinced his phones were tapped and spent many of his days shiftily trying to avoid prying eyes and ears:
Looking up toward the ceiling, he darted into a back hallway before hesitating. Then he turned around, going back through a door and stopping again. Haley suspected that many rooms at the team facility were bugged so that team administrators could monitor employees’ conversations.
Seriously. This is an NFL head coach prowling around his own team's facility to avoid detection. It's amazing it took Pioli so long to get the team back to 2-14.
Babb's article was just as revealing about how Pioli was able to impose a culture of overbearing personality on Chiefs personnel:
Clark Hunt, the team’s chairman and CEO, rejected the notion that Arrowhead is a difficult place to work, but he said there has been an emphasis placed on responsibility. Change, he said, is often uncomfortable.
“We needed a culture that pursued excellence,” he said. “One that valued honesty and integrity, one where the employees would be held accountable.”
So the owner has given Pioli total autonomy to carry out his ideas, not matter how farcical and dangerous they are. Where were the watchdogs for Pioli and his abuse of power and emphasis on the wrong things?
The former Patriots man clearly believed that just by insisting on what he deemed to be the "right attitude" he could replicate the success enjoyed in New England. Here's a tip: the Patriots won with talent, as well as smarts and commitment, at both the playing and coaching levels.
Creating festering paranoia serves no purpose towards winning. Yet it's easy to see Pioli believing that keeping people nervous and anxious is the only way to push them towards their best.
Sadly, that symbolises everything that has made the Chiefs the worst team in football. They have been run on a blueprint for a foolhardy homage.
Misguiding this imitation was a general manger craving almost Machiavellian-like control and undermining through Nixon-like paranoia. He was given too much power by an equally out-of-his-depth and truculent owner.
All Screenshots courtesy of CBS Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.
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