General manager Scott Pioli started preaching the virtues of the "right 53" upon his arrival in Kansas City. He spoke about chemistry and player development, and the 2010 NFL draft spoke volumes about who that “right 53” were.
The Chiefs drafted players who were team captains in college almost exclusively, while shying away from talented players who possessed character concerns.
Kansas City continued that pattern in free agency, signing veterans Casey Weigmann, Ryan Lilja, and Thomas Jones. All three enhance the atmosphere of a locker room. Wiegmann and Jones especially earned their reputations as leaders, both on and off the field.
So as the 2011 NFL draft came around, many pundits predicted much of the same: high character draft picks with talent and positive attitude.Instead, Kansas City rolled the dice right off the bat with receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
Baldwin earned a reputation for under-performing at University of Pittsburgh, and accused his collegiate coaches of attempting to sabotage his draft stock.
Kansas City then drafted another questionable player in third-round pick Justin Houston. Houston dropped from an almost-certain first-round pick due to a positive drug test at the NFL combine.
Then in free agency, the Chiefs took a flier on offensive tackle Jared Gaither. Considered an underachiever and malcontent in Baltimore, Gaither signed a one-year deal after failing a physical in Oakland.
2011’s roster changes brought mixed results to date.Houston shined in Friday night’s game against Baltimore, while injuries have limited Gaither’s participation throughout training camp.
Then there’s Baldwin. After a training camp of saying and doing the right things, Baldwin reportedly scuffled with Jones in the locker room, leaving Baldwin with an injured thumb and re-injured reputation.
And while on-field success can gloss over off-field indiscretions, Baldwin must wait to heal before he can attempt to erase memories with receptions and touchdowns.
But this isn’t about Baldwin or Houston or any other single player. It’s about whether the Chiefs jumped ship too early on building a strong locker room. Pioli said the “right 53” didn’t refer to 53 clean-cut Dudley Do-Right’s who call their mothers every evening.
The Chiefs’ roster needs people who can buy into the concept of team. Thing is, chances favor the Do-Right’s over the divas when it comes to that.
And while Kansas City reigned as the AFC West champion last year, a harsher schedule awaits the Chiefs in 2011. Near the end of the season, Kansas City faces the Steelers, Bears, Jets, and Packers all in a row. All four of those teams played in their conference championship game last year.
Teams need both mental and physical strength to weather stretches like that without falling apart. Unfortunately, Kansas City hasn’t proven they have that yet. Plus, the release of Brian Waters weakened the locker room at Arrowhead; Pioli hasn’t filled that empty gap in leadership, at least not through this year’s roster additions.
So has Kansas City added enough high character players to hold the team together? The success of first-year players Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki will lend them credibility, while the development of 2008’s draft class (ref. Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr) serves as an example of what comes with hard work in Kansas City’s system. The Chiefs will need their younger players to step up and lead in the huddle.
How Kansas City opens this season will likely vindicate or indict Pioli and his approach this year. If the Chiefs start strong with high-intensity, disciplined play, it will demonstrate that Baldwin’s scrap with Jones is just a fluke and easily forgotten.
However, uninspired play in the coming weeks could represent a larger problem, with last week’s fight as a warning sign.