Carl Sagan, probably the most famous astronomer since Galileo, once said “if you want to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” I’ve always liked that quote. It speaks to the fallacy of human egoism. Regardless of our perception of the situation, none of us ever truly does anything alone. If you drove to work alone today, you did so with the aid of the men and women that built your car. If along the way you read a street sign, you did so with the aid of your parents and teachers, who taught you to read. And if you’re logged onto the internet and reading this article, I don’t have to tell you how beholden you are to Al Gore.
I keep a watchful eye on first time head coaches and general managers. A lot of them want to make apple pie from scratch. A lot of them think they have the recipe. They’ve worked in the kitchens of some of the finest pastry chefs. They’ve learned a lot. Not enough to make apple pie from scratch, of course, but enough to really earnestly believe they can. They take that earnest belief into their new jobs, and sometimes they fall on their faces.
It’s hard to fault them when they do. Coaching or managing a football team is intrinsically more difficult than coaching or managing a baseball or basketball team. The front office evaluates 53 active players rather than 25 or 15. There is no farm system or proper minor league. Age and injury are greater factors than in other sports. Cohesive team play is a greater factor too. It’s a tough gig for even the most seasoned vets of the profession, let alone first timers.
That’s why I’m scared as hell watching Scott Pioli and Todd Haley right now. I can’t figure out if either one has the slightest clue what the hell they’re doing.
During the Matt Millen era the Detroit Lions were the perennial laughing stock of the draft. Millen used three of his ten first round picks on offensive tackles and four more on receivers. The common thread is that they consistently panned out poorly (though the jury is still out on Calvin Johnson and Gosder Cherilus). It’s that level of stunning consistency (let’s not forget that their 1st round quarterback and 1st round tailback mightily sucked as well) that gets a team to 0-16.
In the same time frame the Chiefs have used no less than eight high round picks on defensive linemen, and all for naught. The only top flight player they’ve produced in the interim was a happy accident in the 4th round. He’s no longer with the team, as per the tradition of shedding the team’s best player at the end of every season (see also: Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez). The Chiefs are addicted to questionable linemen the same way the Lions are addicted to questionable wideouts and left tackles.
The problem with defensive linemen, however, is that when a team has bad ones, they have no choice but to keep taking more. If a team is incapable of winning in the trenches, they are incapable of winning. That’s precisely the reason I never once second guessed Herm Edwards’ decision to sink a good part of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 drafts into fixing that issue–he had no choice. Eric Hicks, John Browning, and Lional Dalton were old and Ryan Sims was bad. New blood was needed.
In the same vein, a part of me wants to justify Pioli and Haley taking Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee with high round picks. But I can’t, and here’s why. When Tamba Hali, Turk McBride, Tank Tyler, and Glenn Dorsey were selected, it was done so out of both design and necessity. All of them fit the implemented scheme and all of them replaced players who were old, bad, and/or career backups. At the present juncture, however, Pioli and Haley aren’t replacing players who are old, bad, and/or career backups. They’re replacing first, second, and third year players for whom, as with Detroit’s Johnson and Cherilus, the jury is still out. The change is by design, but not at all by necessity.
The design, of course, is the somehow urgent rush to transition the defense from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, a scheme for which Hali, McBride, Tyler, and Dorsey are not ideally suited. Pioli seems to have forgotten that with Romeo Crennel in New England it took four full years to change schemes. Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant weren’t ideally suited for the job, so the team phased them out over time, replacing them one by one with players that suited their burgeoning team concept. It was that skillful graduated transition that kept the defense afloat.
In Kansas City, however, there will be no graduation to the transition. The Chiefs will employ a 3-4 in 2009, and they will do so with 4-3 personnel. Tyler (too small) will line up at nose tackle. Dorsey (too short) will line up at defensive end. Hali (too slow) will line up at outside linebacker. Rounding out the starting front seven will be Derrick Johnson (never played in a 3-4), the aforementioned Tyson Jackson (rookie who has never played in a 3-4), Mike Vrabel (old as dirt), and Zach Thomas (older than Mike Vrabel, and with only one season in a 3-4). The likely backups will be Magee, McBride, Demorrio Williams, and Monty Beisel. Three of them have never played in a 3-4.
That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. It sounds like a recipe for making apple pie from scratch.