When you think of the best boss you can think of what are some of the characteristics you think of? I think of things like loyalty, trust, accountability, advancement on the basis of merit, concern for your balance between work and family, grace under pressure, and excellence. You also want to see success and growth in all areas that can be controlled. And then when you think of a good company you think of one that has continuity, consistency and doesn’t just have the end result in mind but also understands the intermediate steps necessary to get there. Ok, so you may have some slight differences from what I have here, but what’s described sounds like an environment that would be palatable for virtually all of us. So then why do we ignore all of these things when it comes to the franchises we support and we create arbitrary standards?! (At this point everyone is thinking…what is he talking about?!)
This offseason the Chiefs made a change at head coach and I heard more than one of the talking heads talk about how this reflects very poorly on General Manager Scott Pioli and how he only has this next hire to determine if he should stay around in Kansas City. And my reaction was…”WHAT?!” How does anyone outside of the organization really understand what the inner workings of the organization are and if things are going well? Ok, so we all heard different stories about the level of paranoia that Todd Haley apparently had at the end of his tenure (accusations of wire tapping, etc.) and so people look at that and his tension-filled dismissal and say that he was a failure as a hire by Scott Pioli. But I say, believe it or not there are things other than wins and losses that define an organization. When Pioli came into the organization it was in disarray. Scouts would happily be distracted in meetings, caring about checking their e-mails more than what the General Manager had to say. Staff would be wasteful in the office. And team performance was extremely poor. That would scream of a problem with the culture that would have to be addressed before any real strides could take place on the field. And the culture of the organization is exactly what Scott Pioli began working on when he arrived in Kansas City.
Oh, but you’re still hung up on the Haley thing aren’t you… Ok, we’ll look at that briefly before I get back to the big picture. Here’s why I don’t view the Haley era as a failure. In my professional life I have seen more than one example of there being different leaders for different times in an organization’s life. (If you read the oral history of ESPN “Those Guys have All of the Fun” you will see that concept more than once as well). There are people that are meant to build an organization from scratch, but may not be suited to run it once it becomes a wildly successful corporation. There are people that can’t build something from the ground level, but are very capable of refining it into a well oiled machine. And sometimes there are people who are brought in to shake things up and get the momentum going again and then transition to someone else. I truly believe that Todd Haley’s purpose in Kansas City was in that role. People were too comfortable in their lack of excellence when Pioli and Haley came in and Haley’s bulldog style was perfect to really shake things up and put some fight or edge back in the Chiefs. Yes, he has his flaws and I think his accusations at the end of his tenure are pretty outrageous, but I also see the changes that have taken place in the team and am pleased. I really don’t think that going from Herm Edwards to Romeo Crennel would have been the right move. I truly believe that Haley was a necessary bridge in this process.
Ok, so back to the real topic at hand. I want to start out by telling you a story. It’s a story of a young employee working his way up the chain for peanuts. He becomes friends with a kid who mows the lawn for the company. That kid’s dad also works for the company. The kid ends up getting a job somewhere else but the friendship remains. Then in the course of a year the dad gets fired from the company and then later is diagnosed with cancer. The kid can’t be around as much as he wants and his mom can’t handle taking care of the treatments on her own. So without being asked…simply out of love and care for the family, the young employee (who is working 14 to 16 hour days for the company) figures out ways to juggle his schedule so that he can take the kid’s dad back and forth to all of his cancer treatments. He is there through it all for physical and emotional support. And when the father passed away, the young employee was there as friend and pallbearer. But it didn’t end there. He still calls and visits the mom regularly because he truly loves the family. So when you hear an interview like the one during Super Bowl week where Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff gets an edge in his voice and some venom in his words when Pioli is asked about media criticisms about how he operates you understand it a little more. Thomas Dimitroff was the kid on the grounds crew for the Cleveland Browns and his father, Tom, was a scout for the team. So when I talked in the first paragraph about loyalty and family, these are the types of things I’m talking about.
Now let me tell you another story. This one is about two guys who became best friends while working for an iconic public figure. One guy falls in love with the boss’ daughter and ends up marrying her. (favorite note within this story is that when the guy knocked on the boss’ door to ask for her hand in marriage, the boss – not knowing what was coming – replied gruffly, that this better be important!). Then the time comes where the guy has to choose which way his career will go…will he leave to work with his best friend or will he stay and work for his father-in-law? This is where having grace under pressure is pretty important. He, Scott Pioli, went to work with his best friend, Bill Belichek, in New England and had to tell his father-in-law, Bill Parcells, that he quit.
So what about some of the other areas I talked about earlier? How about family? The Pioli’s have a young daughter that Scott absolutely adores. She has her own locker in his office. She gets his ear whenever she needs it. And rain or shine, win or loss, regular season or playoffs, after every game she goes down on the field at Arrowhead stadium and gets to play catch with her daddy for as long as she wants. After the 2010 playoff loss, Scott was visibly upset in his box and everyone could tell that he did not want any consolation or really much of any conversation. But what brought him back and gave him perspective was heading down onto the field with his daughter. That’s non-negotiable and arguably the highlight of game day.
So I’ve established that he’s probably a great friend, but fans only want on-field results. So what has happened in his tenure? Well leading up to Pioli coming on, the Chiefs had been ABYSMAL in drafts for a decade with only 2008 as an exception (and that year they had 12 draft picks so their odds were REALLY good for finding some players). Being hired in 2009 only a couple of months before the draft, he couldn’t install his scouting & evaluation system , or have his personnel overhauls in place for that draft. And to be honest, it showed. In truth, the biggest impact player from that draft class was Mr. Irrelevant (the last pick in the draft) Ryan Succop. So then in the past 2 years let’s look at the drafts. The Chiefs have had 15 picks in these two seasons and have picked up 7 or 8 important pieces of the current team. That basically means that half of the players drafted in those two years have been impact players when in 8 of the 9 drafts leading up to his tenure there were never more than 2 impact players drafted and many years there was just 1. And we haven’t had to let good players go just because of the GM’s personality at all (the Hali re-signing as opposed to Jon Tait & Jared Allen). (And don’t get me started on how Jared Allen was the greatest accidental draft steal ever. I mean, Carl Peterson was so cheap he didn’t want to pay his long-snapper the veteran minimum so his number one plan for Allen was to make him the long snapper and just a backup defensive end!). So I would say that in the draft room there isn’t too much room for criticism of the impact of Scott Pioli.
Now onto the field. In the first year of Pioli/Haley the Chiefs showed a couple signs of life and won twice as many games as the previous year (uh, yeah, it was only two, but it was still an improvement). In year two, draft picks Eric Berry, Dexter McCluster, Javier Arenas, & Tony Moeaki made a huge splash and helped propel the Chiefs into the playoffs and to a win total equal to the previous 3 years COMBINED. And then last year the Chiefs lost their starting Tight End, Pro Bowl Running Back & Pro Bowl safety before anyone could blink and then a few weeks into the season their starting Quarterback. And they still ended up with more wins than the two years prior to Pioli/Haley combined despite having one of the harder schedules in the NFL last year.
Now, in summary, do I think that Pioli is flawless, or shouldn’t be questioned? No. But we need to look at things from a much broader perspective than what fans & media typically do. Everyone wants to build an organization that has consistent success and is run professionally like the Steelers, Giants or the Patriots. One of the main reasons that those organizations have success is because of continuity and getting a system and a group of good people that can establish an organizational identity that can then be sustained through the highs and lows. I mean, if the fickle mistress of fandom had its way, the Giants would have fired Tom Coughlin during this season… a season in which his team ended up winning the Super Bowl! So why don’t we dial it down a bit and see where we go from here. From where I sit I see an organization that is making better decisions and winning more games than it did before while establishing the Chiefs Way of doing things. And that’s something to be proud of.
*Note: The Pioli personal excerpts were taken from Michael Holley’s two books “Patriot Reign” and “War Room”. The radio interview referenced was from Boston’s WEEI.