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A game of Inches and the return to laughingstock status
Few have defended Scott Pioli as much as I. Even as the Chiefs dropped to 1-4 against the Ravens last week (in year 4 of the Pioli era, mind you), I liked this roster. I view the job of the General Manager to bring as much talent to the team as possible and then put the right coach in place to lead that talent. And I thought (and maybe still think) that there's plenty of talent on the roster.
I kept up the mantra of "this team is better than it has played so far." I pointed at turnovers as the primary culprit. Mindless mistakes, freaks of nature. Take those out and we're a good team, I'd argue. I also (as we all have) pointed to Matt Cassel as the primary culprit. And it's not hard to blame a guy with over a dozen turnovers through 5 games.
Two things happened in the last week that have shaken both my faith in Scott Pioli and my opinion as to why we're losing the way we are this year.
1) We got absolutely blown out of the water by a Tampa Bay team that isn't nearly as good as we made it look.
2) I listened to the local sports radio here in Minneapolis.
I'll circle back to No. 2 shortly, but let's talk about that loss to the Bucs. Seriously... what's the excuse? Yeah, we had some turnovers. But we also forced what COULD have been a key turnover early, and ended up even in that department. We had a shot here. It's not as though there was an entire series of "unlucky" fumbles that made the game impossible to win.
You know what I DID notice? Josh Freeman averaging over 12 yards per pass attempt. Doug Martin (and later LeGarrette Blount) running all over us for well over 5 YPC. Jamaal Charles and Shaun Draughn getting stuffed time after time after time. Brady Quinn making poor decisions and throws. Our receivers dropping passes. THEIR receivers making big plays even in the face of good coverage (or just being wide open and taking advantage).
Basically, an absolute stomping. This wasn't a fluke win. This was a team imposing their will on our guys. I'm firmly convinced that Tampa Bay team beats us 8 out of 10 times, regardless of venue. The beating was that complete.
The thing that stood out the most, though, were the "swing" plays. Tipped passes. Jump balls. One-on-one plays in the open field. Basically, the plays where things are up for grabs and it's up to the player to make a play.
I didn't see us win one of those plays on Sunday. And THAT'S what concerns me the most.
Every tipped pass makes me cringe now. If we're on offense, I totally expect it to be an interception. If we're on defense, I'm just WAITING for the opposing wide receiver to pluck it out of midair. Every loose ball gives me a similar feeling. Every time opposing QB's throw downfield I expect a completion or PI call. Every time we do it I'm just praying it's not picked.
I chalked it up to bad luck early on this season. But at a certain point, when do you stop blaming luck? I played a great deal more basketball than football in high school, and we had a name for those plays. "Hustle plays." They happen dozens of times in every basketball game, and are often the difference between winning and losing.
Everyone remembers Al Pacino's epic speech near the end of "Any Given Sunday," right? Just in case you don't, here's a snippet...
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us
to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know
when we add up all those inches
that's going to make the f****** difference
between WINNING and LOSING
These are the hustle plays I'm talking about. Those plays that can go either way. And the team that wins the majority of those plays wins the game.
The NFL is all about parity. Coming into last week's games anyone could've told you that the Texans and Niners were the best teams in their respective conferences (with absolutely dominant defenses), and that the Packers were in trouble after some really, really lackluster showings. Then the Giants went to San Francisco and STOMPED on the Niners, while the Pack hung 42 on Houston.
25 of the 32 teams in the NFL have 3 or fewer losses. There's ONE team that's undefeated, and that team barely defeated a 1-4 Oakland Raiders squad that is considered terrible. There isn't a single team in the league that has failed to win a game, even a team that's so terrible it has yet to hold a lead in regulation (pardon me while I vomit). The difference in talent level on teams isn't nearly as great as one might think.
As Pacino's character says, those inches are what make that difference. In league where the talent difference from one team to the next is maybe five to ten percent, you cannot lose those inches consistently. And that's what we're doing.
I don't know if talent is what's missing on this team. When I look at our starting lineup, I see plenty of guys who would compete for starting jobs across the league. What I DO see is a lack of that extra "something." I see a group that looks like it's expecting things to go wrong. as much as I hate the expression, I think we've got a culture of losing on this team.
That's on Romeo Crennel. And past that, it's on Scott Pioli. When you talk about bringing in the "right guys," that HAS to include guys who are winners, leaders, and competitors. Yes, they have to be talented as well. But the biggest thing I see missing from this team is leadership. Or at least the CORRECT leadership. Yeah, Eric Winston stuck up for Cassel. But where was he when we got SLAUGHTERED by the Bucs? Why wasn't he up there talking about how embarrassing it was? Why is the one time a player has shown genuine emotion been regarding fan behavior and not the putrid results on the field?
Scott Pioli has, in my opinion, developed a talented roster. But it's also a losing roster. And a huge part of that is the coaching selections he's made. He's had two tries and has failed miserably in both of them. In my opinion, that's enough to warrant him being gone. Throw in the complete and utter failure to address that Matt Cassel situation... and it's tough to argue for him staying.
All of that thought process, though, might not turn me on the guy. But what happened to me yesterday did... Onto my #2 (right place for a poop joke? Or is this column to serious for that? Can't decide...):
I'm driving to school yesterday morning listening to Minneapolis sports radio. The local talking heads are discussing Houston's loss to Green Bay. One of the guys feels it exposed Houston as a team that's been playing creampuffs and the other felt like they just lost to a good team. A rousing debate, and one I was enjoying until I heard these words...
"Yeah, they've played kind of an easy schedule, but come on! It's not like they're out there playing the Chiefs every week!"
This was met with laughter and agreement from the co-host. And intense rage on the part of me.
That was it. That was the moment I stopped supporting Scott Pioli. We're a laughingstock again. Just like we were in 2008. What does the infusion of talent matter if you're in the exact same place? Who gives a crap about the defensibility of individual moves when the sum of the parts is the worst team in the NFL? Not me.
It's time to blow it up. This roster HAS talent. It also has a culture of losing. Cut of the head, and the body will die (thanks for the advice Greg Williams). Our defense has enough players to stand losing Crennel. And frankly, what's been so great about the D that we should worry about losing him? We just got 30+ hung on us... AGAIN. By the freaking Buccaneers!
So... I'm saying it. Fire Pioli. Fire RAC. Replace them with someone who can actually work with the talent collected (because I DO believe the talent is there) on this roster. Draft a QB. Trade up to get your guy if you have to. IF Pioli is willing to can RAC and do ANYTHING IT TAKES to get a good coach (not just one he's "familiar with") and draft a top QB, fine. I guess. My preferred route is to get rid of him as well, but I could be talked into him staying if he did those two things.
People hear the phrase "blow it up and start over" and assume it has to be a long, grinding process. I don't believe that is necessarily true. Look at the Niners. Cut out a terrible coach, insert a good one, and BOOM! The talent on the roster just magically gels! We're close. We're just losing those inches. And I believe a culture that has allowed us to turn into a team that loses those inches MUST be blamed on those at the top.
We're a laughingstock again. Just like 4 years ago. Time to do whatever it takes to change that. If Scott isn't willing to do so, he needs to go.