This has been a major point of contention in Kansas City. The Chiefs have not won a playoff game since the 1993 season. But former team president Carl Peterson had a knack for finding superstars. Linebacker Derrick Thomas is in the Hall of Fame, tight end Tony Gonzalez and offensive linemen Will Shields and Willie Roaf figure to join him there soon. Priest Holmes set a single-season record for rushing touchdowns. Joe Montana and Marcus Allen and Larry Johnson—there were always talented players in Kansas City, led by successful coaches like Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil. And still the Chiefs did not win even one playoff game.
And so when Pioli got to Kansas City, he announced that the day of the individual was over. His mantra was, "We don't want the best 53 players, we want the right 53 players." Every G.M. talks about building families, but Pioli believed it. He wanted to be surrounded by lifelong football men. He found that he saw eye to eye with Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, son of football legend Lamar Hunt, who had grown up around the pro game. As his coach he hired Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose father, Dick, was a longtime scout and one of the architects of the 1970s Steelers.
Haley in turn hired offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who held those same positions for New England when the Patriots won three Super Bows. And while Pioli insists the Chiefs are not a good team yet—"We have so far to go," Pioli says—he does say that he can begin to see things coming together.
He brought in Tom Brady's backup, Matt Cassel, to be the quarterback. "Matt represents all the things we are trying to do here," Pioli says. "He is completely unselfish." The Chiefs have found a few jewels left over from the Peterson regime, starting with linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Jamaal Charles.
And Pioli has clearly changed the drafting philosophy. The Chiefs have passed on bigger names to bring in "the people who fit the kind of team we want to become." Six of the seven Chiefs picks in 2010, from first-round safety Eric Berry of Tennessee to fifth-round safety Kendrick Lewis of Mississippi, were everyday captains on their college teams. That percentage led the NFL.
Not surprisingly, four of Atlanta's seven draft choices in 2010 were also college captains. "I want to stress this again and again," says Dimitroff, whose Falcons, at 9--2, are tied for the best record in the NFL. "None of us are saying we are right. There are countless ways to build teams, and no one of them is better or more right than the others. I'm just saying it's the right way for me and the Atlanta Falcons. It's the right way for Scott and the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I think we learned this in New England—we just have a hypersensitivity to distractions," Dimitroff adds. "Character issues can be a distraction. Selfishness can be a distraction. There are a thousand of them. And they can tear down what you're trying to do. Talent is essential. But it really comes down to what talent means."
KNOWING WHO YOU ARE
"I think we had a connection because of our relationship to [high-profile] coaches," says R.C. Buford, who met Pioli a few years ago through Cleveland's Shapiro. "Bill Belichick. Gregg Popovich. I think we connected because we were trying to realize the vision both of those guys have."
In 1994 Popovich made Buford the Spurs' head scout, and he quietly moved up to director of scouting, then vice president, then general manager. But as with Pioli, the titles don't matter. The titles—San Antonio's four NBA championships—do. The Spurs, like the Patriots, became the industry standard for unselfish team play. And what Buford found in talking with Pioli is that they shared a thrill about winning a certain way: with hardworking players who played for one another, and for that larger purpose.