Chiefs fans desperately hope the term “Patriot Way” dies a painful death, preferably in short order. There is no surer proof that your franchise has failed than having the catchphrase of a rival franchise turned into team mantra. Then again, maybe when you take out a team’s franchise quarterback, only to have them lay the wood to you with a backup who hasn’t started a game since high school…. maybe you’re obligated to wear their jacket in the hallway, even if you really don’t want to.
The truth is that most Chiefs fans welcome the concept of Patriot Way, even if they don’t want to hear it called that. Patriot Way embodies a smarter, better way to structure, develop, and replenish a roster. Patriot Way means balancing quality drafts with quality free agent acquisitions (that perception belies the fact that many of the Pats’ recent draft classes have flopped in a way that can only be described as Vermeilesque). Kansas City hasn’t seen much of that sort of balance. Herm Edwards favored building exclusively through the draft, whereas Dick Vermeil favored building exclusively through free agency (and Gunther Cunningham apparently favored building through neither). Thus, the concept is being openly embraced by most.
I’m not quite ready for that embrace. I think there’s a better way. I call it Steeler Way. It could also be called Giant Way. That way is very simple: build (almost) exclusively through the draft.
I have professed openly throughout the year that after watching the Giants win Super Bowl XLII, I did my research on them and found myself pretty thoroughly impressed. That team was nearly entirely homegrown–the Giants hand out very few big free agent checks, and when they do, they make them count (see: Antonio Pierce, Plaxico Burress).
That got me looking into other recent Super Bowl contenders. I was curious to see what perennially competitive teams look like. Seahawks? Check. Panthers? Check. Chargers? Check. Eagles? Almost, but not quite. Ravens? Check. Cowboys? Check. Colts? Check.
Steelers? Double check.
Most of those aforementioned teams carry five or six starters whose careers started elsewhere. The Steelers? Two. The Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with two UFAs for starters: LB James Farrior and FS Ryan Clark. Of course, the team wasn’t always so dedicated to grooming their own. In Super Bowl XL they had three (Farrior, C Jeff Hartings, and DT Kimo von Oelhoffen). No big signings. No flashy receivers or shutdown corners. No $10 million dollar elite pass rushers. Just a couple of solid linemen, a budget DB, and a castoff linebacker deemed by (then Jets coach) Herm Edwards to be useless after the 2001 season. The rest of both starting lineups were made of men whose blood had always bled Steeler black.
That got me to thinking. I was thinking about who was the Steelers’ most recent big money free agent signing, and I realized I couldn’t come up with a name. Was it Lane Staley? His contract was less than $3 million a year. No, there really wasn’t one of instance in the past decade where Dan Rooney opened up the checkbook and let the player fill in the amount. I researched back further yet. Dewayne Washington in 1998? He got paid, but in terms of contracts for elite cornerbacks, his wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
As it turns out, the correct answer is Jerome Bettis, back in 1996. If you trace further back through Steeler history you’ll see more of the same. They don’t spend in the free agent market. They build through the draft.
And they win. Ergo, we should adopt the Steeler Way.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we already saw this way, and it yielded 26 painful losses over two painful seasons. Well…. not really. Compare the Steelers’ rosters from 2005 and 2008 and you’ll see that there are 21 players in common. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but look a little closer and you’ll see another, far more telling number: 14 of those 21 were starters on both squads. When Mike Tomlin took over from Bill Cowher, he didn’t dismantle the team’s core. He just recycled the bottom half of the roster.
You know how some men buy Hummers to compensate for their inadequacies? Herm Edwards bought rookies and young journeymen to compensate for his. Compare the Chiefs’ rosters from the same time span and you’ll see the polar opposite of what you see with Pittsburgh: only six players in common, four of whom are starters. Fans heard lip service to the mantra of building through the draft, but what they saw was something different…. This wasn’t building. This was rebuilding, and part of that process was demolishing what was already built. He wasn’t cutting veterans by drafting their replacements. He was cutting veterans, then drafting their replacements.
That’s the antithesis of Steeler Way. Steeler Way dictates that before Joey Porter and Clark Haggans can be let loose, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley must already be on the bench. If Plaxico Burress is allowed to walk in free agency, Cedrick Wilson must be ready to take his place. If Cedrick Wilson is to be moved to the bench, Santonio Holmes must be ready to take his place. Many Steelers fans probably wondered how the team would fare without Burress and Antoine Randle El. In retrospect, it appears the team fared quite well. Surveys show that most Pittsburgh residents believe a Super Bowl MVP receiver is better than one with a bullet hole in his pivot leg.
Of course, Scott Pioli and Todd Haley/Kirk Ferentz/Bill Cowher/Chan Gailey won’t have to worry about facing the accusation of rebuilding rather than building. Rebuilding implies that a foundation of some sort is already in place. Our foundation is a left guard, a tight end, and three rookie cornerbacks. Kansas City is back to building, and it’s all thanks to Herm. Thanks, Herm.
As for why I favor Steeler Way over Patriot Way, the answer is simple: with Steeler Way, there is no propensity to get old. In recent years the Patriots have taken to signing big name free agents near the ends of their careers, using them to supplement a roster that isn’t particularly young otherwise. They’re living dangerously, just like the Raiders did in the Gruden years. Sure, it was fun to watch Rich Gannon chuck the rock to Tim Brown, Charlie Garner, and Jerry Rice, but that entire team looked like a lost episode of I Love the Eighties, replete with Bill Romanowski singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” to Todd Bertuzzi. I’ve seen what happens when the episode ends, and the show that comes on after really sucks. I can’t help but think that a team that has placed itself in recent years on the shoulders of players like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Rodney Harrison, Junior Seau, Mike Vrabel, and Roosevelt Colvin might be overdue for some serious aging pains. I’ll take growing pains over aging pains any day.
It’s easy to look at the past eight years and summarily conclude that Patriot Way is as good as it gets, but in the light of history there isn’t much of anything that compares favorably to Steeler Way. In the past 37 seasons they posted a losing record only six times. In an environment where head coaches seldom hold a job longer than four or five years, Bill Cowher coached there for 15 and Chuck Noll for 23, and I doubt U-Haul will see very much Mike Tomlin money in the next decade. I want that in Kansas City. I want the 31-19 postseason record. I want “one for the thumb” to be a historical reference, not a pipe dream. I want to have a front office and coaching staff I believe in, even in the down years.
More than anything else, however, is this: I want to know that the Kansas City Star will never have reason to post the words “salary cap purgatory” at the top of the sports section. Patriot Way flirts dangerously with Redskin Way, Raider Way, and 49er Way, and with the franchise tag placed on Matt Cassel it looks less like a flirtation and more like a tryst. I don’t want my perception of my team’s success in the upcoming season to hinge on whether or not we ink Hugh Douglas or Ty Law. I don’t want Patrick Crayton to be the missing link. I don’t want to see our future mortgaged for a one season push, followed by half a decade of toiling in futility.
At this juncture there is no way to tell what Pioli’s plan might be. I can only base my predictions on his past, which is inextricably linked with Bill Belichick. I know how that plan works, and I think there’s a better way.
Then again, there are plenty of worse ways too. I suppose if we have a couple of winning seasons and he doesn’t take a wide receiver in the 1st round every year, I’ll throw my support behind whatever plan Pioli proposes. And if his first order of business is to trade away Larry Johnson, my support for him will be expedited.
In the interim, while writing this article ESPN has announced that Todd Haley has been offered the job. Haley wasn’t my first choice, but I’m relieved the job wasn’t offered to Mike Shanahan. Rocky Mountain Way isn’t better than the way we had.