Kansas City, Mo. Scott Pioli spoke quietly and carefully, not at all like his reputation might suggest.
He had just fired coach Todd Haley after a miserable 5-8 start, leaving the Chiefs’ general manager to explain the organization’s failures.
Pioli pointed his finger right at himself.
“We have a locker room that has talent. We also have a good makeup of character in that locker room,” Pioli said, “but it’s abundantly clear that we’re not in a spot we need to be with our record where it is and our team in a position it is. I need to do a better job.”
Kansas City has lost five of its last six games to fall from a tie for first in the AFC West to the brink of another losing season. After winning the division title last year, devastating injuries and discouraging losses have quickly turned the environment surrounding the team toxic.
The Chiefs’ 37-10 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday culminated in the decision to fire Haley, once a rising star in the NFL, and the appointment of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as interim coach for the final three games of the regular season. The Chiefs host the unbeaten Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
There was no shortage of blame to heap on Haley, from an unorthodox approach to training camp that left the team woefully unprepared to the decision to stick with journeyman Tyler Palko as his quarterback once Matt Cassel went down with a season-ending injury. But there has been just as much reason to blame Pioli for the shortcomings, something he was quick to acknowledge.
“I do believe in the players we have here,” Pioli said. “We need to continue to improve this roster and improve the depth of this football team.”
Depth may be the biggest reason the Chiefs have struggled.
Palko has led the offense to two touchdowns in four games. Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones have been unable to fill in for Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The tight end position has been virtually non-existent since Tony Moeaki sustained the same injury, and Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry’s torn ACL has left an enormous void in the secondary.
The fact that the cupboard was bare was particularly discouraging given the reputation Pioli cultivated during his time in the front office of the New England Patriots.
After the NFL lockout wiped away much of the offseason and forced teams to scramble to sign free agents, it was thought that Pioli would be able to shine. He’s considered among the best in the game at finding players who may have slipped under the radar, one of the reasons he’s been honored several times as the league’s executive of the year.
Instead, Pioli brought in just a handful of players and hardly took a bite out of the salary cap, leaving the Chiefs with more money available than nearly every other franchise in the league.
“I do have a lot of confidence in Scott and I do believe he’s going to help us be successful over the long run,” said Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, who likewise has received plenty of fan criticism for the appearance that he’d rather make money than field a winning team.
Pioli’s inability to land talent on the open market hasn’t been his only shortfall.
There have been 24 draft picks in his three seasons running the team, only a handful of which have given Kansas City meaningful downs this season. Among the most glaring misses are Tyson Jackson, the third overall pick in 2009, and third-round pick Alex Magee, who isn’t even on the team.
The Chiefs’ best players — Tamba Hali, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr and Derrick Johnson — were holdovers from the previous regime.
“We’ve made some progress the last couple years and we’re at the point where some of that progress has slowed down,” Pioli said. “I do think we have a good, strong core of players here, but clearly I need to get to work, too, because if we’re going to be a good football team and continue to get better and consistently compete for championships, we need to have a good roster.”
That goes for whoever is chosen as the next head coach.
Crennel has said he wants a shot at the permanent job, and there are several other experienced coaches who have ties to Pioli. The decision to fire Haley with three games remaining gives him a chance to start surveying the candidates and whittling down the list.
Pioli said he understands the importance of getting this hire right. He was the one who picked Haley as his first head coach, and he saw firsthand how things unraveled this season.
Now that he’s missed on one head coach, he knows another failure may cost him his own job.
“Probably nobody is harder on himself or holds himself more accountable than Scott,” Hunt said, when asked specifically about Pioli’s job status. “As hard-working as he is, I know he’ll redouble his efforts to make sure we’re more competitive next year and the year after that.”