It was Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli's first press conference in January of 2009 and it was the 23rd question asked to him.
"What are the first things you do in building a team?"
His response started with: "It's not necessarily the best 53 players it's the right 53 players."
And from there, the "right 53" phenomenon was born. Those were the words many fans latched onto and have continued to talk about over the last two-plus years. On Arrowhead Pride alone, the exact words "right 53" have been mentioned in 63 stories, 113 FanPosts, 21 FanShots and a whopping 1,336 comments.
That's over 1,500 times in two years on this site alone. The words have become a lightning rod because, as fans, we try to apply the "right 53" to every player that's brought in.
This guy is a veteran leader so he's part of the right 53. This guy got into a fight with a teammate once so he's not part of the right 53. This guy scored a 37 on the Wonderlic so he's part of the right 53. This guy once complained about his coaches so he's not part of the right 53. It goes on and on.
So in my interview with Pioli on Wednesday, that's one of the topics I wanted to address. What is the right 53? Is it solely about off-the-field behavior? If a guy has the label that he's a jerk, or that he's a troublemaker, can he still be a Chief?
"The right 53 is about a chemistry thing," Pioli said. "It's about putting together 53 people that have very different backgrounds, socioeconomically, racially...the right 53 is a chemistry thing. It doesn't mean you're going to have all saints and no sinners. And just because people do things wrong doesn't mean you despise the sinner. You may not like the sin. But you're trying to put together the right group of guys and make sure the chemistry experiment is right.
"Just because a guy had issues doesn't mean he doesn't have a chance to be a Chief."
As fans, the problem with trying to figure out what those words mean is that we all have different definitions of what the right 53 means. My definition of a good character guy may be different from the one you have, or the one Pioli has.
"Each individual has a different definition of the word character," he continued. "Be on time. Pay attention. Work hard. Be accountable. Be responsible. Be dependable. That doesn't mean you're not going to have times in your life where you step outside of that -- no one's perfect."
Pioli also mentioned that not everything in football is black and white. As a fan, we don't have all the information so we're almost forced into making black and white decisions. That's why bringing in Free Agent X is a no-brainer for us but maybe a harder decision for Pioli. That, I think, is why the right 53 has become such a topic of conversation around here. We want to use those words as a barometer of sorts when looking at players who may or may not become Chiefs and sometimes that's just not possible with the limited information we have. One of the keys to this whole thing, especially when you enter the gray area, is having a team that cultivates the mentality that Pioli is talking about with the right 53.
"Just because a person has a little baggage doesn't mean they can't evolve as human beings. That's why you put in place a structure. There has to be a player developmental structure. It's a critical part because you're getting young men who still need guidance and still need direction. Part of our responsibility in this job is to help the players grow and to set a structure in place where they grow while they're here. And when it's their time to leave here, whenever that is, that they're better prepared for whatever their next chapter is whether it's a new team, a new stage in life, or a new career if their career has ended."
That "structure" is important. I'm not sure the Chiefs are there yet with this team but I think they're getting closer. For example, it's been reported the Chiefs have several players going back to school this summer. In fact, Dexter McCluster was quoted as saying the Chiefs nudged him into going back. It may seem like a small thing to do but in the grand scheme of things I think that's an important part of the mind-set they're creating within the players.
We'll never quite understand what the right 53 means -- and that's part of the reason we'll continue to debate what it means and whether certain players meet the criteria -- but I think it's important to know that it's not as black and white as we make it.
"Just because someone gets arrested, or makes mistakes, doesn't mean their character is horrible. It's just like a test score. If you see a low test score, go do your research."
This won't end the debates on the right 53 but I hope it helps us realize, especially around draft time, that what we think is the right 53 may not be the entire story.