A day before the country voted on Election Day, the Chiefs gave their concession speech for the season following a 1-7 start.
It came off as a conciliatory measure when, three days after an embarrassing 31-13 prime-time loss to the Chargers — their third consecutive double-digit setback — Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel removed himself as defensive coordinator, promoting Gary Gibbs to that post, and the team cut starting CB Stanford Routt.
A day later, Crennel announced that QB Matt Cassel (who previously had been benched for Brady Quinn) would start again in Week 10 because Quinn was suffering the aftereffects following a Week Eight concussion against the Raiders.
Assuming that the embattled duo of Crennel and GM Scott Pioli are not employing Socratic irony in running their NFL franchise, we only can assume that the first two moves are their contrition for a lost season. The third, their hopeless QB situation, is a symbol of their severe limitations.
“Their QB situation is bad and they really have not upgraded it at all,” a former Chiefs evaluator said. “Not to mention, the playmakers on the roster — Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, Derrick Johnson, Brandon Flowers, Tamba Hali — they were already there. (Pioli has) added nothing like that. The left tackle (Branden Albert) they complained about — guess what — he is still playing. He was already there.
“(Pioli) gives $60 million to a backup quarterback, then swap him out for Brady Quinn who now has a concussion. They have done nothing to that roster but (screw) it up.”
The Chiefs are bad — not necessarily historically so, but to a shocking degree:
When the Chiefs next return to Kansas City in Week 11, an unpleasant sight might be awaiting them. Two banners flew over Arrowhead Stadium the last time they played there, a hard-fought 26-16 loss to the Raiders. One read “Return Hope, Fire Pioli” and the second read, “Blackout Arrowhead 11/18,” the date when the Chiefs face the Bengals. The “blackout” portion encourages fans to wear all black (instead of their traditional game-day red) as a sign of protest for the direction of the team.
The banners were sponsored by a fan-based group, SaveOurChiefs.com, that is frustrated with the miserable start to the season that began with reasonably high expectations but has endured — and for most intents and purposes, ended — with massive disappointment and the futures of Crennel and Pioli very much up in the air.
“It’s as bad as it’s been here,” said Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger, who has been a frequent, caustic critic of the team this season. “The fans are tired. They are tired of not having a quarterback. (The Chiefs) were a chic Super Bowl pick for some people, and this happens. Fans are angry right now, and you can understand why.”
Naturally, Chiefs coaches and players are frustrated, too. A source told PFW that CB Brandon Flowers, who signed a six-year, $49.3 million deal last September, has been telling teammates in the locker room that he would give back all his new money just so he could leave the team.
“I haven’t heard him saying that,” Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson told PFW. “Brandon Flowers isn’t a problem guy — let’s just get that out there.
“His locker is right by mine. He’s one of our better players on defense. I didn’t know he said that. He does his talking on Sundays on the field. That’s all we ask of him.”
Even with talented players on the roster such as Flowers, the Chiefs have not been able to win. Earlier in the season, after Cassel was injured in the 9-6 loss to the Ravens and replaced by Quinn, ORT Eric Winston launched into a postgame tirade, railing against what he said were fans cheering Cassel’s injury, when neutral observers struggled to hear what Winston said he heard. The rant didn’t do wonders for the relationship with the rabid fan base, some of which is calling for heads to roll, namely those of Crennel and Pioli.
“(Pioli) let a Hall of Famer and great locker-room and great community guy in Tony (Gonzalez) get out of there,” the former Chiefs evaluator said. “(OG Brian) Waters was a great leader and locker-room guy and community guy and went to New England and played at a Pro Bowl level. There are a lot of mistakes there.”
There’s also the issue of Pioli’s contract, the details of which remain closely guarded. It was reported by other news agencies in October that Pioli had been offered a two-year extension during the offseason, but a well-placed league source told PFW that he might quietly have signed such an extension this summer. Like his mentor, Bill Belichick, the Chiefs’ GM does not speak about his contract status. It’s not known what a potential buyout might cost the team, but it certainly would not come cheaply. Either way, fans remain perhaps even more frustrated with Pioli than anyone else in the organization, and it will be tough for him to retain his job without significant second-half improvement.
“I bet (Chiefs owner) Clark (Hunt) is praying that they finish with three more wins some way, somehow,” a top NFL executive said. “If they go 1-15, he can’t justify (keeping Pioli). But get to 5-11 or 6-10 — they will go get a QB and hope they’ll be fine, try to sell that Kool-Aid.
“That is not the answer either. They need a QB and need a lot of other things on defense, too. I love it when it is third down and (2012 first-round pick Dontari) Poe and Tyson Jackson are sitting on the sideline — how many top-10 picks are sitting on the sideline next to the coach on third down?”
Following the loss to the Raiders, Crennel said, “I understand their frustrations because I’m frustrated myself. What we’re doing — coaches, players — we’re continuing to work to try and get it right. And if they’ll just hang with us, hopefully something will change.”
That was followed by the 18-point loss to the Chargers last Thursday. Monday night they face the Steelers, winners of three consecutive games, in Pittsburgh.
“They have big-play potential every play, and we know what they are capable of,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen it, plenty of it, before.”
Awaiting them is former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator who, according to various reports last week, isn’t afraid to run up the score against the team — and, more specifically, the man, Pioli, with whom he repeatedly butted heads for two years — that fired him prior to Week 15 last season. Fox’s Jay Glazer reported on Sunday that the Chiefs had not yet paid the remainder of Haley’s contract that he was owed.
Following Haley’s ouster last season, Crennel was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach, engineering a colossal upset of the 13-0 Packers in a defensive masterpiece. It’s believed that the victory, along with Crennel’s good working relationship with Pioli and the players was what earned him the full-time job in the offseason.
But things have gone south since. After Flowers’ deal, plus long-term contracts for Tamba Hali and Johnson the past two seasons, Pioli deemed re-signing CB Brandon Carr too expensive. Instead, the team let him walk to the Cowboys at an average-per-year salary of $10 million, signed Routt as a Band-Aid (three years, $19.6 million, $4 million guaranteed) and used the franchise tag on WR Dwayne Bowe.
No long-term deal has been signed with Bowe, who is playing on the one-year tender of $9.5 million but is expected to walk in free agency this coming offseason. Joining him could be free-agents-to-be OLT Branden Albert and DE Glenn Dorsey. There has been talk about a long-term deal with Albert, and the team could opt to use the franchise tag on him, but it’s not known if any real progress has been made toward an extension. At the start of the season, per NFLPA figures, the Chiefs were $14.5 million below the salary cap.
Of course, the more pressing issue is whether Pioli will be the one making that decision. Some league sources believe that his strong relationship with Hunt — and how much money Pioli has saved the owner by not spending up to the cap every season — could spare the GM for another season, but others believe that ship has sailed and there’s little he or Crennel can do in the final eight games to save themselves.
The moves of cutting Routt, who was signed since Carr left, and promoting Gibbs (which Crennel said would help him spend more time with the struggling offense) appear on the surface to be last-ditch efforts to do so. But many around the league believe that Pioli has not done enough to warrant a return. If Hunt lets Pioli go, it’s unlikely a new general manager would retain Crennel, as he likely would want to hire his own head coach.
The approval ratings and morale around the team are as low as they’ve been since Pioli’s arrival in 2009. Although the Chiefs are strong candidates to earn the first pick in next year’s draft, there doesn't appear to be a college quarterback in the caliber of Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III to provide relief — or hope.
“Scott has never been a guy who hits the road hard,” an NFL GM said. “I heard he was out scouting the QB at USC (Matt Barkley). To me, that is a sign Scott is running away from his problems. If anything, he needs to be in-house protecting his head coach. Now is not the time to be running out.”
Hunt has heard the fans and seen the midseason results. It’s going to be a tough sell to keep the current administration in place for another season.
“We have to play hard, play for pride,” Johnson said. “It’s not easy. No one is feeling sorry for us. We just have to make the best of this and win as many games as we can.”