After four years under general manager Scott Pioli, the Kansas City Chiefs were two games worse than the four years preceding his arrival. Pioli’s teams have gone 23-41 since 2009, and the team went 25-39 from 2005-2008. The Chiefs haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since the mid-1990s under the leadership of Marty Schottenheimer.
The Chiefs have made the playoffs three times in the past 15 years, which is the exact number of appearances as the division-rival Oakland Raiders have over the same time period. The Chiefs are in the same company as the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns. Only the Lions didn’t fire their head coach and general manager at the conclusion of the season.
The 2012 season was a total loss for the Chiefs, and they won just two games for only the second time since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule. The last was in 2008 and was one of the main reasons the Chiefs hired Pioli.
Things have gone horribly wrong for the Chiefs for years, and the entire franchise is trending down. Identifying what went wrong in 2012 is imperative if the franchise is going to turn things around. Where did they go wrong, and where do they go from here?
A Quarterback League
The NFL has become increasingly reliant on quarterbacks. The “Ty Law” rule and all the rules made to protect quarterbacks from getting hurt have turned the NFL into a passing party. Look at all the teams in the playoffs, and you won’t find a truly bad quarterback.
The lowest-rated quarterback in the playoffs is Andrew Luck, but he also threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns. There are some average quarterbacks who made the playoffs thanks to elite defenses, elite running backs or both.
The Chiefs have an elite running back, and many thought the defense was going to be great. The two combined could carry an average Matt Cassel and the Chiefs to the playoffs. That was the thought, but that thought was wrong. While quarterback was hardly the Chiefs' only problem in 2012, it was the biggest issue.
Pioli and the Chiefs hitched their wagon to Matt Cassel in 2009. That decision has ultimately been the Chiefs' downfall over the past four years despite a brief trip to the playoffs in 2010. The Chiefs passed on opportunities to bring in a quarterback through the draft, but hindsight is always 20-20.
Since Pioli became general manager, the Chiefs have passed on quarterbacks in the draft like Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson. There isn’t a quarterback that Pioli passed on in the draft that was without flaw at the time.
Pioli did the logical thing, stuck with a known commodity in Cassel and focused on other areas of the roster. Not drafting a quarterback in the top few rounds of the draft was a mistake, but it was an understandable one.
Pioli’s biggest mistake in 2012 was not finding a veteran quarterback who could compete with Cassel. The Chiefs briefly had Kyle Orton in 2011, but they didn’t give him enough money to stick around. Jason Campbell was a free agent and chose to sign as backup to Jay Cutler in Chicago. There were options out there.
Pioli invested in a risky product and failed to hedge his bet with anything other than Brady Quinn. Cassel was benched for turning the ball over too much, and Quinn took over and was actually less effective than Cassel.
The Chiefs go into 2013 with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft and in desperate need of a quarterback. Improving at the position might be as simple as selecting the best quarterback in the draft. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, this may not be the best year to be looking for a quarterback.
If Geno Smith isn’t the right quarterback, the Chiefs will have to start looking around the NFL for other options. Alex Smith has been demoted to the backup job in San Francisco and will be looking for a new home. With the right coach and offense, Smith can help the Chiefs bridge the gap while they search for or develop a young quarterback.
The Coaching Carousel
Pioli is thought to be a skilled talent evaluator for players, but the same doesn’t appear to extend to the coaching staff. Pioli hired Todd Haley, the two clashed and Crennel’s team managed to win only two games in 2012.
Perhaps the problem isn’t the coaches, but the working environment Pioli has created. Either Pioli has done a poor job selecting the coaches or there are problems outside of their control. In some cases, coaching is just as important as personnel.
There is evidence every couple of years about how coaching makes a difference. Jim Harbaugh, John Fox and Mike Shanahan all helped turn their franchises around in a short time period. There’s no one model to turning around a franchise, but all of them managed to find a starting quarterback.
Dick Vermeil hitched his wagon to Trent Green and had moderate success in Kansas City. Coaches can have success without drafting a once-in-a-decade quarterback, but sooner or later they are going to want their guy. Haley and Crennel were given Cassel whether they liked it or not.
2012 Personnel Moves
Pioli hitched his wagon to Cassel and hired Crennel, and Brian Daboll came in as offensive coordinator. We know that didn’t work. Coaching and quarterback are probably two of the most important decisions Pioli makes, and he failed on both of them, but there were other factors that contributed to such a terrible season.
Pioli had plenty of cap space and chose to let cornerback Brandon Carr leave in free agency while giving the franchise tag to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. A case could be made that Bowe and Carr were two of the most valuable players on the Chiefs in 2011. Bowe played under the franchise tag, and Carr signed a big deal in Dallas and had a solid season there.
The idea was that Jon Baldwin would develop into a No. 1 receiver and make Bowe expendable. Another miscalculation by Pioli means that Bowe is even more important to the Chiefs, still wants a long-term contract, would cost more if given the franchise tag and is a year older. Bowe has the leverage now, and the Chiefs can’t afford to lose him unless they can get another elite wide receiver in free agency.
The Chiefs replaced Carr with Stanford Routt, and the pass defense suffered. Routt was released after eight weeks with the team. The Chiefs were already thin at the cornerback position and were forced to start Javier Arenas at cornerback.
Arenas was surprisingly adequate on the outside, but the secondary suffered overall. The Chiefs finished the season 30th in yards per pass attempt (8.0), 31st in touchdowns per attempt (a touchdown every 16 attempts) and last in quarterback rating against (99.9).
In the 2012 NFL draft, Pioli opted to draft a raw nose tackle prospect in Dontari Poe. Eventually Poe could become a good player, but he was drafted No. 11 overall and was forced to start immediately. The nose tackle’s primary responsibility is occupying two blockers so the linebacker can make plays in the running game.
The Chiefs allowed 4.5 yards per carry in 2012, their worst since the 2009 season. You can look at the best run defenses that use the 3-4 and you will find some of the best nose tackles in the NFL. According to ProFootballFocus grades, there was only one nose tackle in the NFL worse against the run than Poe.
If there is a positive sign for the future, it is that Poe ranked eighth in ProFootballFocus’ run stop percentage statistic among all defensive tackles (that statistic uses tackles per running play). Pioli could have brought in players who would have made a more immediate impact, but he was apparently so confident in his earlier moves that he didn’t see the need.
Given how bad the Chiefs were in 2012, they are not nearly as far away from the playoffs as some of the other really bad teams in the league. To get back to the playoffs, the Chiefs need to focus on finding a head coach and quarterback while retaining their impact players. Along with a few other tweaks to the roster, the Chiefs could be a good team in 2013.