WHEN general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley arrived in early 2009 and got a feel for their team, they quickly realized the Chiefs needed a few good men. Pioli and Haley found the locker room almost devoid of veteran leaders who knew how to set an example for younger teammates. So in came the likes of Mike Vrabel, Zach Thomas and Mike Brown on defense, and Bobby Engram, Amani Toomer and Mike Goff on offense. The payoff was disappointing, however—with the exception of Vrabel, the former Patriots linebacker who owns three Super Bowl rings, those veteran additions had little left in the tank, and proud old pros like Thomas and Toomer didn't even make it out of the preseason.
Nevertheless, Pioli and Haley had identified a glaring deficiency. So they once again addressed the issue this off-season, taking a slightly different tack. Kansas City added a few still-productive veterans, particularly running back Thomas Jones and guard Ryan Lilja, and made it a priority to re-sign Vrabel. But the Chiefs' brain trust focused primarily on drafting building-block players who've exhibited strong leadership skills at every level they've played.
Six of Kansas City's seven selections in April were team captains last season, including first-round safety Eric Berry (Tennessee), second-round receiver and return man Dexter McCluster (Mississippi), second-round cornerback Javier Arenas (Alabama), third-round tight end Tony Moeaki (Iowa) and fifth-round safety Kendrick Lewis (Mississippi). Not only did the Chiefs reap a mature crop of rookies, but most of those players also appear ready to grow quickly into contributors. If they do, the 2010 draft could go down as a franchise turning point, representing the first step back toward playoff contention for a club that has won just 10 games in the past three years and last made the postseason in 2006.
"That work of rebuilding a program is not always a fun and pleasant experience early on," said Haley, who was 4--12 as a rookie coach in 2009. "You have to stay the course while you're trying to change the mind-set of grown men who think they're already doing things the way they should be done. But at least we got that painful part over with. I don't know if we can be any good, but we're going to be better, and things are going in the right direction."
Kansas City also acquired new coordinators in Charlie Weis (offense) and Romeo Crennel (defense), two old pros who won't suit up but will make an impact all the same. Both are coming off less-than-stellar stints as head coaches—Weis for five seasons at Notre Dame and Crennel for four with the Browns—and the conventional wisdom is that they're both back in the roles they know and are best suited to perform.
Weis's time in New England didn't overlap with that of Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, but the two know each through their mutual friendship with Tom Brady, and so far the fit has been everything Cassel, whom Kansas City acquired from the Pats last year, hoped it would be. "When I got [to New England in 2005], it was all Charlie Weis stories, and it was all great stuff," says Cassel. "Tom said Coach Weis made him a better quarterback and that he'll push us and make us accountable."
And Crennel will similarly raise the bar on defense. That means it's put-up time for a couple of top five draft picks who have underwhelmed thus far: defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. As a former D-line coach who knows the 3--4 scheme inside out, Crennel will make the two ex--LSU stars his personal projects.
Haley, Crennel, Weis and Pioli all learned coaching and personnel management from Bill Parcells, and one of the key instructions in the Tuna's turnaround manual is that teams won't start to win until they fully develop the second- and third-year players on their rosters. That means that in Kansas City the rebuilding is probably a season or two from being done. But like the newly renovated Arrowhead Stadium, the appearance of real improvement on the Chiefs is evident almost everywhere you look.
WITH 2009 STATS