As you can see from the picture above, my thoughts are focused on (and keep returning to) the damage that will be done if this lockout happens. For me what is most significant about this lousy lock out is what it will do to the progress of the ongoing Pioli Plan that began to unfold a mere two years ago when the "Don" came to KC. If you are a firm believer that Pioli can make it possible for us to win a championship, then you share with me the fan perspective that this damn lockout is nothing more than a distressing delay in watching Coach Haley hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Then I came across a few things that have given me pause. Pause to consider if Scott Pioli is indeed the smartest man in football. If he is, and if he made the right calculations, he could be on the verge of the biggest coup in Chiefs history, not to mention NFL history. The possibility of this lockout is no surprise. The owners opted out of this CBA nearly three years ago, so many people knew that this work stoppage was possible. Three years is a long time to examine all the ramifications that an NFL lockout would likely include. I have a feeling that Scott Pioli has spent a fair amount of time preparing for all of them. The signs are there and in a convoluted way, it all makes a certain amount of 'warped' sense.
Pioli is doing his part. He has been adhereing to his plan from the start and Todd Haley is also a willing participant in this show. In fact, I think that what Scott Pioli accomplished with his friend Bill Belichick in New England, bears a striking resemblence to what is currently happening in KC in many ways.
One of those ways is the fact that Belichick and Pioli both arrived in New England at about the same time, similar to Pioli and Haley in KC. Pioli brought with him his beliefs of what it took to build a winning football franchise and hoodie (being the more experienced in coaching) set about using Pioli's prowess combined with his own skills to produce a football dynasty. What Pioli learned in this exchange is invaluable. What we are witnessing in KC now, is Pioli employing that knowledge by assuming the role of the sage advisor that Belichick was, but doing so with a very willing partner in crime, who himself is (like Bellichick) a Parcells disciple. Could there be more potential for greatness? I don't think so.
That being the case, I recently came across something that helped give substance to the ideal that I think that Pioli is operating under in Kansas City. Putting together "The Right 53" (sorry, I know that many are tired of hearing this, but it is the closest thing we have to a descriptor of what Pioli is doing in KC) has roots in what Pioli learned during his time serving Bob Kraft as well as something that occured before that. It's what we'll call the Polian Core concept.
This is Bill Polian. He is President of the Indianapolis Colts. He has been around the NFL for a LONG time. According to Ron Wolfley of Arizona Sports.com, Polian is responsible for creating the modern team building model still used in today's NFL.
Indianapolis Colts President, Bill Polian, created the modern model for how teams are built in the National Football League. He used this model to get the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990's before he moved on to Indianapolis.
Polian believed every team had a core-group of 6-10 players that made them who they were. Once identified, he signed these players to long-term contracts and used young players and journeymen to round out the roster. The players on the periphery were recyclable; the players in the core were not.
Polian drafted Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Thurmon Thomas, Will Wolford, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, Shane Conlan and a host of other Bills that contributed to winning four consecutive conference championships. He surrounded these players with excellent journeyman free-agents (Steve Tasker, James Lofton, Cornelius Bennett etc.) but went to four-consecutive Super Bowls mainly because of their best seven players.
Polian's model and the Bills example has been a mainstay in the league more or less for the last 15-years.
Ok, this isn't exactly new but it is, I believe, the basis for how Pioli does his business. While it contains the basic precepts for how to build a team, the formula has been mutating (just like any successful virus would) since it was originally formed by Mr. Polian in the 1990's. In steps Bill (Hoodie) Belichick.
More from Mr. Wolfley:
But Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are starting to change that model. Despite their lack of post-season success, the Patriots are showing other NFL franchises how to tweak Polian's model.
The tweak is simple: unless the player's name is Manning or Brady (or Kelly), don't fall in love with any of your core-group players and, when they age, sell high.
Belichick knows when to dump veteran players that still have value. (Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss etc.) He does not become emotionally attached to most of his players and will move them before their value expires, trading them for coveted draft-picks. When these draft-picks develop, become core players (hopefully) and then age, he moves them for draft-picks before their value plummets. And this starts the process all over again.
If you need proof or think I'm picking daisies from dandelions: in the last three drafts the New England Patriots have had seventeen-picks in the first three-rounds, eight more than normal! Of these seventeen-picks, nine of them have been second-round picks, six more than normal! Nine!
You can talk about the Patriots losing playoff games all you want but you cannot deny their new doctrine, or the success they have had in getting to the playoffs. This does not happen by coincidence. The Pats are built on a belief and more teams need to pay attention.
How is Pioli's record in this regard? Well, he did indeed dump Mr. Tony Gonzales (to the chagrin of many a KC fan) in similar fashion to Vrabel, Seymour and Moss. He did get a second round pick as well. The Pats have quite a bit more of a core group established in New England to choose from when trading for draft picks so it is not surprising that Pioli didn't do more of this. He really didn't have much to work with. It's not like he had Randy Moss acting the fool in KC like Belichick did. Man, did Belichick reap that harvest or what?
From Andrew Sharp, a SB Nation editor:
with the Moss trade, we basically got a referendum on The Patriot Way, the cliched approach to team-building that's made the Patriots personnel department infamous for the past few years. By trading a player as high-profile as Randy Moss, Belichick doubled down against the skeptics in the most public way possible. And two months later, New England's more dominant than ever, blowing out playoff teams almost every week, looking borderline invincible.
It'd be unfair to crow about New England's inflexibility when they look like fools and not praise them when it's proven brilliant. So for posterity's sake, let's just say put this on record: If trading Moss created a spectacle that turned into a referendum on the Patriot Way and Belichick's legacy as a manager, then the answer has been no less spectacular.
This was conventional wisdom when Hoodie made the trade:
It's an organizational philosophy, honed to an art form by Bill Belichick, of being strategically unappreciative — of treating football players as coldly and cynically as the rules allow. Moss was just pointing out the obvious, and he got killed for it, and now Brett Favre's a happier man, and poor Wes Welker will have two defenders in his earhole from here on out. Belichick just sacrificed a Hall of Famer at the altar of the local stupids. Hope you guys are happy.
I'd say that the New England fans are more than happy with the way this turned out.
So, given this basis for what Pioli believes in, why do I think that he is on the cusp of a turning point? Bill Polian has indicated he has four different strategies on how to handle the scenarios for when a new CBA gets done. I think that Pioli has done his own scenarios. The main difference is that Polian is dealing with a team that is well established and has the monetary constraints that go with that position, whereas Pioli is not. Pioli is still dealing with a team full of relative newcomers whose contracts (for the most part) are well in hand. Didn't Pioli extend a few contracts in the last few months? Hmmm...was that just business as usual or was that advance preparation for something bigger? Has Pioli been betting all along that there would be an explosion of free agent availability that could give him the opportunity to add to the Chiefs roster in very specific ways to help the Chiefs overcome their short falls as a team?
The Chiefs currently have one of the lowest payrolls of any team in the league. Why did Pioli maintain this status when he had money to spend last year? Many believe that it was because he didn't want to lock up expensive players prior to a new CBA being hammered out. Maybe so, but what if it was because he saw an opportunity on the horizon to score some FA help if he had the cash? I think it was his intention to have that money available shortly after the new CBA is signed. I think that Pioli sees this CBA crisis as an opportunity. Crisis has been defined as opportunity riding a dangerous wind. What if Pioli has positioned himself to 'catch this wave' of opportunity?
Polian created a different strategy for each of the following scenarios, 1) CBA gets done before expiration, 2) CBA gets done with in the short term 2-4 months of CBA expiration, 3) CBA gets done in long term 5+ months after current CBA expires or 4) NFL and NFLPA agree to go forward under some as yet undefined set of rules for a period of time. As time continues to pass, whether the CBA expires or not becomes irrelevant to what happens to this year's free agency.
Laura Calaway (a blogger at Coltzilla.com) has done a series of posts about these strategies that you can find here. I won't include all of them now, rather just focus on the one that I think Pioli is betting on. Namely that there will be a shortened free agency period this year that happens after the draft. Per Calaway's blog:
Under this scenario, the Colts must predict as best as possible what the market value will be for their own pending free agents, determine what they (the Colts) are willing to offer them, then adjust their draft board accordingly. It means they will probably need to rely more on rookies to replenish at positions where they stand to lose players to free agency or age/retirement, with the offensive line, safety and running back positions being particularly vulnerable. It also means they must be near spot on with their free agent value assessments, lest they offer too much to retain a free agent, or worse, lose someone they thought they could retain and not have enough talent waiting in the wings. It also means they have to guess which free agents from other teams will be available, and plan to have the space (roster spot and salary cap-wise, assuming the cap returns) to sign someone, should they target him.
Offensive line being particularly vulnerable? Music to my ears. In light of this conjecture, does the choice of Ryan Lilja seem to hold any larger significance now than it did last year when he was brought aboard? How many other NFL teams would you think would fall in the same category as the Colts concerning the difficulty they would have managing their Free Agents? Before you answer, remember that free agency usually happens before the draft. In this scenario, the teams are now having to adjust their draft choices based on what could happen with their free agents. How difficult will that turn out to be?
I would think that nearly all the perinnial favorites would have trouble here. Teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, Eagles, Chargers, Saints, etc., would be in this same boat. This CBA trouble could cause a flood of quality free agent veterans to hit the market, because teams may make the wrong choices in the draft because of uncertainty about what is going to happen going forward. Even better, this flood would happen very quickly and be over just as quickly meaning that teams will make mistakes. Enter Scott Pioli with a fat wallet, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. He could preside over the blood bath with the ability (should he desire to do so) to write a bigger check (plenty of salary cap room in KC no matter what that number is) than nearly any of his competitors. Even if he doesn't sign that expensive FA, Pioli is very good at finding 'just the right guy' for our needs. If there are more choices on the market, Pioli wins again.
You want a veteran OT, OG or C? Name your FA. Pioli can make the magic. I have to believe that if this happens, this is where we will get our true number one WR. Again, name the player. Pioli sharpens his pencil.
I don't know boys and girls. If this really happens and Pioli has planned this as I think he might have, he might just be the smartest man in football. Better yet, the Chiefs, by virtue of adding real playmakers via a 'screwed up' free angency period, might just find themselves in the playoffs for the second time in two seasons. We might just get that chance to see TJ run behind that 'stellar' o-line that we have been dreaming of since Dicky V. went over the hill.
There are only three ways to find and field players to help make your team a Super Bowl champion. The draft, trades and free agency. Pioli may well have predicted the perfect storm in the Free Agency sea that will fill the Chiefs nets. CBA fights don't happen every year, or even with any measureable frequency. This one was different because everyone knew it was coming. I wonder just how many GMs are smart enough to capitalize on the crisis? I think Pioli is. If things pan out like I think they will, everyone may be surprised at what the Chiefs roster looks like in a couple of months.