Football Notes

Pioli saw gains in lost season for Kansas City

By Albert R. Breer
June 20, 2010

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There were blowouts, heartbreakers, and only four wins.

But all along the way, even as the proud Chiefs franchise watched its 156-game sellout streak snapped, first-year general manager Scott Pioli kept a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail’’ in mind:

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.’’

The point, in Pioli’s mind, was not to block out all around him during the 2009 season. To the contrary, he tried to take in much of the criticism, process it, and use it to improve himself, his work, and the team.

That didn’t make it easy to go through what Kansas City did — remember, Pioli had experienced just one losing season in the previous 12 years with the Patriots and Jets — but it did help him stick to and have confidence in his grander plan.

“It was professionally challenging and personally challenging, because in this profession, as much as you want to keep it at work and remain unaffected in your personal life, your family life, that’s nearly impossible,’’ Pioli said. “The toughest part is the most obvious thing: the losing. Because in changing the culture and making things different, and getting people to understand, that’s difficult.

“Going into the job, you know how big the workload is going to be, you know how big the task is, and you have a good idea of where the difficulty is and the resistance is going to come. But change is hard for everyone.’’

And change in Kansas City has been sweeping, and not just in the football operation, but overall in the vision of owner Clark Hunt and Pioli.

Arrowhead Stadium is undergoing a $375 million renovation that Hunt believes will make it as modern and high-tech as any venue in the league, and it’s just part of the effort to remake the team’s overall image.

The best way to do that, though, isn’t by adding luxury suites or erecting sleek downtown billboards rebranding the team. It’s to win football games, and that’s where Pioli comes in.

Proud as the franchise has been over the years, it has just three playoff wins in the 40 years since winning Super Bowl IV. Only the Texans and Lions have fewer.

That means the problems were deeper-reaching than just a couple of players or coaches. And that explains some of the hard-line changes and cage-rattling that happened in 2009.

“If you’re going to change the culture of a football team and an organization, you better be genuinely willing to do the things that are going to change it, and that goes beyond the players, the coaching, the locker room,’’ Pioli said. “People understand the expectations now. Any time there’s change, there’s a lot of variables that contribute to perception and people’s behavior. All of that matters.’’

For Pioli and his hand-picked coach, Todd Haley, that meant changing not just the way people operated, but the way they thought.

A lot of the principles Pioli and Haley employed working for guys like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick remain in place. Pioli is still looking to build “a big, strong, tough, smart, fast, disciplined football team,’’ and the old “we are building a team, not collecting talent’’ adage rings true in Kansas City’s facility.

But selling it is always tougher than saying it, and there were bumps along the way. There were dustups with Chiefs all-timer Brian Waters and promising youngster Dwayne Bowe, and a full-on blowup with Larry Johnson, plus the jettisoning of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey just prior to the season opener.

The roster was overhauled, too. The offense is being built around quarterback Matt Cassel, while the defense now has two top-five picks — Tyson Jackson and Eric Berry — as foundations. And the players learned through the losing.

“Here’s what I know: We became smarter and we became more competitive,’’ Pioli said. “We were more competitive down the stretch, we continued to play hard, the players kept playing for the head coach. Overall, we’re smarter, tougher, more disciplined.

“We were getting a better degree of production, and that’s people knowing their jobs, what was expected, and what we expect them to do to prepare for their job — being on time, paying attention, doing extra things.’’

The idea now is for everything to be a year better. Haley has a year as a head coach under his belt and a couple of like-minded coordinators (Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel) from the Parcells/Belichick coaching tree. The system is entrenched, and no one is going to be put off by the organizational ethos the way, say, Johnson was last year.

This rebuilding effort is a massive one. It may take patience, but Pioli’s persistence — and focus on that “constructive work’’ — has the GM believing everything remains on schedule.

“They’re starting to understand what’s required,’’ Pioli said. “It’s not completely ingrained yet. It can’t be in 12 months time. It needs to be rewarded with more success.

“[But] everyone’s now been through a whole season cycle with an understanding of expectations. Now, you go in the locker room, talk to the trainers, the video people, the equipment guys, all the support staff, and they have an understanding not only of what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it.’’

Past is Prologue

Haynesworth’s antics no surprise to Titans

Albert Haynesworth’s behavior as the Redskins opened minicamp last week — boycotting just 10 weeks after accepting a $21 million option bonus — sent shock waves through the locker room.

But it’s a fair bet no one in the Titans organization was flabbergasted. A number of officials in Tennessee, where Haynesworth spent his first seven seasons, characterized him as a player who was hard to understand outside of blatant selfishness.

“He’s a ‘me’ guy,’’ a league source said. “The fact that he’s making noise, and being a baby, that’s not surprising.’’

It’s obvious that Washington either (A) didn’t properly research Haynesworth’s personality before making him the league’s first $100 million defensive player last March or (B) didn’t care at the time.

What’s also obvious is that new coach Mike Shanahan does care, and as Washington makes an effort to recoup the bonus money, this situation doesn’t appear to be taking turns for the better.

Haynesworth has, in less than 16 months, collected $32 million from the club and played in 12 games. To be fair, he did make a bigger impact in 2009 than his statistics indicated, and he played a part in Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo ringing up 11 sacks apiece.

But he very much lived up to his reputation as a player who’d take series, and even games, off.

After the Titans franchised Haynesworth in 2008, part of the decision to keep the tag off in ’09 was knowing his performance would be enhanced greatly in a contract drive. Indeed, Tennessee got a previously unseen level of consistency in effort out of Haynesworth.

And, as the Titans expected, once he became a free agent, he didn’t leave a penny on the table.

What’s somewhat surprising to those in Tennessee is that scheme is now the problem, though another league source theorized it could be due to knee and back issues that might jeopardize his longevity taking on blocks in a 3-4.

“The sad part is he’s still so talented, he can be a quality 3-4 ‘anything,’ ’’ the second source said. “He has that kind of ability. It’s embarrassing because you know what he’s capable of.’’


With Tomlinson gone, QB is face of Chargers

Even as the Chargers’ pass offense became one of the game’s most prolific, and their once-dominant running game started to sag, the face of the team didn’t change. The club remained LaDainian Tomlinson’s. And that’s the way it was until San Diego released its icon in March.

Only now, in his seventh year as a pro and fifth as San Diego’s starting quarterback, is Philip Rivers pushed out front. After throwing for 8,263 yards and 62 touchdowns over the last two years, Rivers is the face of the franchise.

“I think gradually, over time, your leadership role becomes magnified, and gets tweaked from year to year,’’ Rivers said. “I feel like this is how it should be in Year 7, to the extent that the personality of the team has changed. We still want to run the ball. And LT, what he did here is unbelievable.

“But it’s a different feel out there with the weapons we have at the skill positions, and having another year together.’’

If general manager A.J. Smith can iron things out with restricted free agent wideout Vincent Jackson, San Diego returns a matchup migraine for defensive coordinators, with a receiving group that looks like the front line of a college basketball team. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee complement Jackson, and tight end Antonio Gates’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

Of course, no one is more aware than the Chargers of how it takes more than talent to win a title. Rivers is 46-18 as an NFL starter, and has three playoff wins to his credit, but the void remains.

Seeing former teammate Drew Brees, after all he went through, win a Super Bowl only steeled Rivers’s resolve and showed him that sometimes it just takes time to break through.

And the overall outlook his teammates have taken since January’s devastating loss to the Jets in the divisional round has him counting the days until training camp.

“That was as tough a loss as I’ve ever been a part of,’’ Rivers said. “And as they all do, it’s made an impact on our approach. The commitment, the participation, the enthusiasm, it’s the best it’s ever been here. We’re going to fight like crazy.’’


Colts’ recent action is a sign of commitment
The Colts’ signing of safety Antoine Bethea may not be a harbinger of a Peyton Manning deal, but it shows that the team is willing to negotiate with players it isn’t necessarily forced to extend. Locking up linebacker Gary Brackett was different, since he had reached unrestricted free agent status. Bethea was caught in the fourth-/fifth-year mix, and very easily could’ve been compelled by the club to play under his $2.521 million tender. “With the situation being what it is with the CBA, they really didn’t have to [negotiate] a long-term agreement to me,’’ Bethea said. “It does show the commitment [owner Jim] Irsay, [president] Bill [Polian], and [general manager] Chris Polian have in trying to keep this core group we have together.’’ A decision like this can reverberate in the locker room, and could give Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis the faith to return thinking they will be taken care of. Meanwhile, the idea with Manning seems to be to negotiate a few contingency plans in regards to the labor situation, so the trigger can be pulled quickly if a new CBA is reached.

Texans will be geared up
Those coaches who don’t have a set formula for the summer often adjust the tenor of training camp to address a team deficiency. It worked last year for the Cowboys, when a drab, sterile, football-centric environment inside the Alamodome in San Antonio wiped out the circus atmosphere that eviscerated the 2008 team’s chances. Across the state, Texans coach Gary Kubiak is hoping for similar results with a look-in-the-mirror tilt to camp. Houston ranked 30th in rushing offense last year, and while the Texans did come in 10th in rushing defense, they were leaky enough to yield 4.3 yards per carry, with toughness in the middle of an active front the culprit. Jobs will be on the line in the interior of both lines, as well as at tailback, and the winners will be charged with shoring up the problem. “You don’t know until you actually put the pads on, and it changes when you put all that gear on,’’ Kubiak said. “We’ll probably have to do it more this summer than we have in the past, because we have to find out. So we’ll be in pads a little bit more.’’ The Saints did that last summer, and the results were obvious in the team’s improvement.

Is his total a haul of Fame?
Isaac Bruce’s retirement again sheds light on the debate about Hall of Fame voting at the receiver position. Bruce retires fifth all-time in catches (1,024), second in yards (15,208), and ninth in touchdowns (91). He also has a championship, and was a cornerstone of a famed offense. At other positions, such credentials would have a ticket to Canton punched. But with a bottleneck of qualified wideouts coming, the case of Andre Reed can be instructive. He retired third all-time in catches but has quickly fallen to eighth in that category, while falling out of the top 10 in yards and touchdowns. Remember, he too was once the best receiver on an iconic attack. So Bruce had better make the cut early, before the memories he created fade and the numbers lose meaning. He does have a staunch supporter in ex-teammate Torry Holt. “I’ve always said Isaac is the epitome of a professional athlete,’’ Holt said. “He exuded that every day, all the way to the press conference. He’s very competitive, his routes, the way he caught the ball, the way he ran when he caught the ball, the unselfishness he displayed out there on the football field. Those are the things he brought to our ball club.’’

Dispute bubbles to the surface
After Giants wideout Domenik Hixon tore his ACL during a practice at the New Meadowlands Stadium Wednesday, a firestorm erupted over the quality of the surface, which the club quickly tried to quell, even as players complained that it was slippery. “It could happen right out here on a grass field,’’ general manager Jerry Reese said. “Hopefully, we’ll have all the kinks out before we get on it again.’’ The Vikings followed that up by arguing that the FieldTurf brand provides an unsafe surface, which has touched off a war of words. The bigger question, though, may be whether the field in New Jersey had the time to settle that it needs. The Patriots just installed FieldTurf’s Duraspine PRO surface, but by the time they get on it in a competitive situation, it will be well broken in. The Kraft family’s MLS entry, the Revolution, will make sure of that.

Three and out
Browns coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll worked with Brett Favre in New York, and they see more similarities besides a cajun bent between the one-year Jet and new Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme. The leadership style ties the two. “He reminds me of Brett, in the sense that he can work really hard but have a good time,’’ Mangini said. Now they have to hope Delhomme can cut down on the other thing he shares with Favre: spells of turnover problems . . . The Ravens, Raiders, Jaguars, and Lions have all been nailed by the league for getting a little too jacked up for OTAs or minicamps. This is a pretty transparent show of union solidarity, and word is there may be more to come. The question now is how teams will be disciplined. The league has been taking OTA days from the offenders. With those wrapping up now, would training camp practices be in peril? . . . Keep an eye on the roles of running backs Jamaal Charles in Kansas City and Jerome Harrison in Cleveland. Both carried a heavy load late last season, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they turn into Leon Washington types, with Thomas Jones and Montario Hardesty, respectively, providing more traditional early-down options.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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