Almost four full years after VP Scott Pioli arrived and brought his Bill Belichick blueprint with him, Chiefs fans finally broke into applause Sunday.
Some cheered when their own quarterback, Matt Cassel, was KO’d during another bitter defeat, their crude way of saying this idea of the Chiefs becoming the Patriots of the Midwest was funny.
Wasn’t that the grand plan originally? Weren’t Pioli and Cassel and coach Romeo Crennel, all imported from New England, supposed to be the new boys in the hoody? Wasn’t some of Belichick’s genius supposed to rub off on Crennel and especially Pioli, who promised sweeping changes and raised Super Bowl dreams for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game in nearly 20 years?
That hasn’t happened in Kansas City. While Belichick remains the most accomplished coach of the last two decades, if not the smartest, his secrets are staying with him and the Patriots. Pioli was his personnel man during the run of three Super Bowl victories, and Crennel the crafty defensive coordinator. And while they haven’t turned dumb all of a sudden, neither has matched their mentor. Belichick and the Patriots are 3-2 and fresh from beating Peyton Manning. The Chiefs are 1-4 and once again floundering under the direction of Pioli, and this will only feed the notion Belichick can produce championships a lot better than championship disciples.
It’s supposed to be a byproduct of great coaches, their ability to mold future leaders -- another way to keep their legacy alive. These great coaches hire and train good assistants and right-hand men, who, in turn, leave the nest once learning their lessons and branch out, taking that famous last name with them.
In that sense, though, Belichick is no Walsh or Parcells or even Schottenheimer. Only one former aide has turned into a smashing success, and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who worked under Belichick in Cleveland, is winning in college, where his championships are tied to recruiting. Saban can go into any high school in Georgia and Florida and Texas and find what he needs to stay No. 1. But when he was with the Dolphins for two years, bailing after going 15-17, Saban was like all the other little Belichicks. They shared one very common and disturbing denominator:
None had Tom Brady. Or anyone who even came close.
If you’re looking for reasons why the Belichick disciples haven’t won, start there. Start with their inability to get lucky with the most important position in football.
Poor Eric Mangini. When he took over the Jets and dared to compete against his former boss in the same division, he tried to beat Belichick and Brady with Chad Pennington, which is like trying to sink a battleship with a spitball. All Mangini got for his trouble was a wet handshake from Belichick at midfield. Pennington had a million-dollar brain and 10-cent arm strength. The Jets went as far as Pennington could throw, all the way to the wild card game in Mangini’s only playoff appearance. And Pennington was a ton better than any quarterback Mangini had in his next stop, Cleveland, where Derek Anderson proved nothing but a cruel, coach-killing tease.
Crennel had Anderson and Brady Quinn in Cleveland, and that’s why he left with a 24-40 record after four years and no playoff appearances. And in a strange twist, Quinn could replace Cassel as the starter this season, hoping to save Crennel’s job in KC.
“This has been a very disappointing season, the way it’s gone,” Crennel said.
Another Belichick guy, Josh McDaniels, young and high-strung and stubborn, clashed with his emotional twin in Jay Cutler, then hitched his fate with Kyle Orton and couldn’t even last two full seasons in Denver.
At least Jim Schwartz has a better chance in Detroit, because he has Matthew Stafford, the Lions’ best quarterback in decades. But the Lions are off to an underachieving 1-3 start this season, the fourth on the job for Schwartz, who's still looking for his first playoff win.
It’s almost enough to wonder if Belichick would be headed to the Hall of Fame without the help of Brady.
Maybe it sounds silly, since Belichick is one of the finest defensive minds in football and a terrific motivator; those traits certainly helped him reach five Super Bowls. But until Brady took over as starter for good in the third game of the 2001 season, Belichick’s career record was 41-57 and he had lost his one and only playoff game.
He’s now coaching the NFL leader in total yards, points and touchdowns this season, and in the past few years, that offense has clearly been the strength of the Patriots. When Pioli took over the Chiefs, he tried to duplicate the Patriot Way by stealing Brady’s backup, hoping Cassel would be a poor man’s version. Instead, the Chiefs are just poor.
That was no reason for fans to vent on Cassel after he was pummeled against the Ravens. Their method was cruel, yet their frustration was understandable. Cassel earned a $63 million contract with the Chiefs after a surprising 2008 season when he replaced the injured Brady and looked like a franchise player. He had a great November in 2010, his second season in KC, when he threw for 12 touchdowns and one interception. Then he underwent an appendectomy a week later and hasn’t been the same since.
Chiefs tackle Eric Winston went on a rant after Sunday's loss to the Ravens, saying the booing of Cassel was “sickening and disgusting,” and without a doubt, this was the rock-bottom moment of the Pioli era. With the Chiefs skidding along, they’re all feeling the heat: Cassel, Crennel and Pioli, three of Belichick’s former students who can’t seem to shake what’s now become the family curse.
This isn’t the way their old boss drew it up. Those who learn from Belichick were supposed to take everything from him except fashion tips, right? Well, for a variety of reasons -- the lack of a Brady being right at the top -- they haven’t followed the same path as the patriarch.
The gold standard is Bill Walsh, an innovator who knew how to build a staff, with Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jim Harbaugh, among others, sharing the bloodline.
Belichick himself is part of the Bill Parcells Family, along with Sean Payton and Tom Coughlin, a trio of Parcellians who’ve won six of the last 11 Super Bowls, a dominance unlike any other. This is what fans thought they were getting in Kansas City, a passionate football town wishing to revive the days of Len Dawson and Hank Stram. Yes, you must travel quite a ways back to see how deep these roots of desperation run with the Chiefs.
“They’re frustrated, I’m frustrated,” said Crennel.
Kansas City usually has a family-friendly Midwestern vibe, which is why the booing of an injured player, even if only a segment of fans were guilty, was jarring and out of character. This just shows even KC fans have limits when it comes to empty promises and false starts by their football team. After coping with decades of labor, they want to finally sample the fruit -- the kind they were led to believe would be shipped in from New England.