Scott Pioli's prescription: Total culture change the fix for Chiefs
RIVER FALLS, Wis. — There is a palpable, atmospheric change around the Kansas City Chiefs reminiscent of the kind that follows a fierce thunder storm.
There is the driven look of collective purpose etching the faces of players and coaches stemming from an extreme offseason makeover after just six wins in two seasons, including a 2-14 debacle last season.
New Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli is a former four-time NFL Executive of the Year and the noted co-architect of the three-time, Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots. Pioli started his Kansas City remodeling with critical hirings at the team's two most important spots. He hired head coach Todd Haley, the former Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator instrumental in Arizona's run to Super Bowl XLIII.
PHOTOS: Chiefs training camp
Then, Pioli traded for former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, an ultra-competitive, charismatic leader who stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the first game last season to lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record. Along the way, he had to make his first start since his senior season in high school.
Pioli has been part of teams that won seven division titles during his 17 NFL seasons, participating in 21 postseason games. He knows that a turnaround starts with generating tenacious competition — hence the daily thudding Haley and his coaching staff have orchestrated in their hard-hitting, full-padded practices.
"The thing Todd and I share is we have a genuine passion and a respect for the game," Pioli says. "We're going to find people who care. Those that don't care about playing and playing well, won't be here."
Pioli and Haley, who worked together with the New York Jets from 1997-1999 when the franchise went 29-19, both have experience on teams that turned from losers into winners.
"The common trait and issues that existed in those organizations when we got there, the things we needed to change to turn that around, were the same thing," Pioli said.
"Part of it is not only changing the culture of your football team and your locker room, it's changing the culture of all the things that touch your football team and your locker room."
The makeover is a work in progress. But veterans such as former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, former Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Zach Thomas and former Seattle Seahawks slot receiver Bobby Engram are here to join Cassel in showing the way.
Can the Chiefs make a 2008 Dolphins-like turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5 and division winners?
Says Haley: "They made it tough for everybody."
"What those three teams did last year, Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami (all made the playoffs after dismal 2007 seasons) was off-the-charts phenomenal. To dream about doing something like that, I don't even know if we can think about that. But what we can do is do everything in our power to give ourselves the best chance to win every game we play.
"If we have some breaks go our way, and we ever got a chance to be in a situation like that, it would be awesome. But it's a process."
The only way to elevate a football team is by playing football, thus the padded practices.
"I want to get the team in condition and stronger, first and foremost," Haley says. "I want a mentally tough team, and a physically tough team, in order to get that, you must practice in pads.
Haley said challenging his team in camp ("It can't be an easy camp," he says.) will help them overachieve in the regular season.
"We can beat a couple of teams we're probably not as good as if we can play physical and smart," he said
Monday was the first day of two-a-days. Haley is a Bill Parcells disciple and it's showing in how he's working his team.
"I want guys who want to be here practicing and playing every day that I can count on that are the same guy every day," Haley says. "I don't even care if they're great.
"I don't want a yo-yo team and I don't want yo-yo players."
AROUND CHIEFS TRAINING CAMP
• The scene:
River Falls is something out of a 1960s time capsule, a small-town with a throwback main street (Sorry, Peter King, no Starbucks in town) from an Andy of Mayberry television re-run.
The Chiefs have camped out at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls for 19 years. But this is their final year in the time-warp town as they will relocate camp to Missouri Western University in St. Joseph's, Mo. It is an hour north of the Chiefs' Kansas City facility.
River Falls is a rural setting about seven miles from the scenic St. Croix River that meanders through the Minnesota and Wisconsin border. Many Chiefs fans and their families have been making River Falls a summer destination for years because the food, lodging and the accessibility to the practice field is ideal for getting an up-close glimpse of players.
Another plus is the cooler weather. Though Sunday night the air-raid signal went off in the nearby town of Hudson, Wis., (signaling the onset of a severe thunderstorm/hail storm), most of the players slept right through after Haley's tone-setting physical afternoon practice wore them out.
• Reason to believe:
Pioli, Haley and Cassel are dynamic leaders setting the hard-working ethos and raising the thermostat of belief. Vrabel, Thomas and Derrick Johnson are the guts of a good linebacking corps and former Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson should take pressure off Cassel as he looks to mesh with Dwayne Bowe and Engram.
• Trouble spots:
The defensive line is in transition with last year's first-round pick, 4-3 defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, converting to defensive end. Former defensive end Tamba Hali is transitioning to outside linebacker. Haley and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast may have to blitz more to generate more sacks after the Chiefs set an NFL low with 10 sacks last season.
• What's new:
Several players have lost weight, including Larry Johnson, who's down from 230 pounds last season to 222 pounds.
So far, Johnson acts and looks like a different guy than the sullen running back who didn't seem to want to be here last year. By his own admission, Johnson didn't figure to survive the changeover from former head coach Herm Edwards and team president Carl Peterson to Pioli and Haley. But he has worked hard and if he is back to his 1,750-yard, 20-touchdown form of 2005, he will give Cassel a physical running presence to open passing lanes Cassel lacked last season in New England after Laurence Maroney got hurt.
• Positional battle:
Safety is the hot spot. Veteran Mike Brown, formerly of the Chicago Bears, is vying for the strong or free safety job with last year's starters Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard. Brown, a 10th-year veteran, brings savvy, diagnosis skills and won't be fooled the way Pollard was at times last season. Pollard appears the odd man out, considering he was a liability in coverage at times last season and could be used more as an extra run defender on early downs.
• Rookie watch:
Defensive end Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick, remains unsigned. The 6-4, 299-pound run stuffer doesn't have exotic pass-rush speed or sacks numbers, but he is a solid technician who should set the edge and hold up well at the point of attack. He also has the flexibility and size, a la Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour, to occasionally move inside on some passing downs.
• On the mend:
Dorsey missed the first three days of camp with an apparent lower left leg injury, as he was observed by reporters with an ice wrap around his lower left leg after failing the team's conditioning run July 31. Tight end Brad Cottam, expected to step in for the traded Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City's leading receiver the last five seasons, sat out Monday and was replaced by sixth-year pro Sean Ryan, who had a nice sideline catch of a Cassel throw.