When will Scott Pioli fall flat on his face?
In some NFL circles one year ago, that wasn't so much a question as it was a certainty.
When Pioli took over as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs with so much fanfare in January of 2009, there were opposing executives who wagged their finger and smirked. These were the same officials who had long felt Pioli was too smug for his own good, and had a reputation that far exceeded his talents. They thought he was in a coddled position in New England – allowed to scoop up executive of the year awards when things were going good, and able to disappear behind Patriots coach Bill Belichick when things were going bad.
Kansas City, these executives smacked, would be his downfall. The roster was rotted to the core. The market was small. The fan base was impatient. And Pioli would struggle with all of that.
Asked about those doubts when we sat in his office more than a year ago, Pioli said he was aware of the outside bitterness. He talked about how he suspected the league was rampant with resentful competitors who would toast his downfall. He talked about how he knew he was gambling a chunk of his sterling reputation on unproven commodities like quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) and head coach Todd Haley. And he figured he'd be roundly criticized for dealing tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) to the Falcons when Gonzalez clearly had a few good years left on his Hall of Fame résumé.
And as the Chiefs went through their blood-letting over the past 20 months, butchering almost 50 percent of the roster and gutting the coaching staff, more than a few critics said it spoke volumes. Pioli was supposedly in over his head. They theorized he had hired the wrong coach in Haley, an emotional grinder who would eventually get on Pioli's nerves, or undermine personnel decisions.
When it became clear the coaching staff needed retooling, detractors snickered at the additions of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. It would be too many egos in one room, they said … and no lording Belichick to keep "Patriots West" in working order.
Here we are, 20 months from his hiring, and the improbable Chiefs are sitting atop the AFC West at 3-0, thanks to a 31-10 drubbing of the 49ers. And much to the cynics' dismay, Kansas City is doing it through Pioli's machinations.
The offense is sometimes uneven, but maturing. The defense is surprisingly superb. The coaching staff, as expected, has been disciplined and prepared. And the draft classes are already showing signs of being something special, particularly guys like safety Eric Berry(notes), cornerback Javier Arenas(notes), tight end Tony Moeaki(notes), defensive end Tyson Jackson(notes), and utility man Dexter McCluster(notes).
Of course, it's early. Three straight wins in Kansas City won't anoint Pioli and the Chiefs – not the way three Super Bowl wins did in New England. But there is growth in Kansas City again. A once barren roster is now fertile, and players are responding to the blunt prodding and high expectations that once made the Patriots great.
Where they go from here is anyone's guess. But Pioli has won more than just games. He's won silence from the bitter masses, too.
Now on to this week's other winners and losers …
• Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch(notes)
There is a reason why the guy is playing in his 13th season despite not having been a regular starter in the league since 2001. It's because he's a smart player who knows the offense well enough to be counted as an extra quarterbacks coach. He wasn't perfect in the win over the Buccaneers, and he'll have a tougher time next week against the Ravens, but the job is already done. Three wins without Ben Roethlisberger(notes) is huge. The AFC's early Super Bowl favorite? You might be looking at it.
• Baltimore Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin(notes)
This was the healthy guy we remember playing at the top of his game when he was in Arizona. Boldin had 142 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Browns, reminding everyone why the Ravens traded for him and paid him like a No. 1 wideout. Boldin can still destroy defenses, and Sunday's performance will help get people off quarterback Joe Flacco's(notes) back for a week.
• Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes)
His on-field critics will always be there, but coach Andy Reid was right when he noted that Vick was playing great football right now. He's not perfect – particularly the timing on some of the deeper medium routes – but he's looking sharper with each game. His performance against the Jaguars is better than anything I can remember from him in maybe five years. And I'm not sure he's ever been better as a passer. Once again, the guy is simply fun to watch.
• Atlanta Falcons
You could see this was a good team a year ago, when they were still healthy in training camp. Now that they're relatively healthy again, the Falcons are showing they can hang with Super Bowl contenders. That's because the defense is a level better from front to back, and the offensive skill positions are as deep as ever. The win over the Saints in the Superdome establishes Atlanta as the team to beat in the NFC South.
• Dallas Cowboys wideout Roy Williams
Who would have guessed Williams would be the pivotal player in a win Dallas absolutely had to have? Williams hasn't had a better day as a Cowboy, and couldn't have shown up at a better time. It might buy him a little line of credit with Tony Romo(notes), too. And considering how good Dez Bryant(notes) is beginning to look, this performance was needed to preserve his slice of the opportunities for a little while longer.
• Cincinnati Bengals
The offensive line still isn't playing up to last season's best moments, and Terrell Owens(notes) has yet to have that breakout game that we've been waiting for, but the Bengals have righted themselves nicely after drubbing the Panthers. This could be a 4-1 team headed into the Week 6 bye. And from the looks of things, first-round pick Jermaine Gresham(notes) is going to be worth every cent.
• Cleveland Browns
Yes, they are 0-3, but acquiring running back Peyton Hillis(notes) and two draft picks for Brady Quinn(notes) looks like a landslide at this point. Hillis may not be the most agile guy in the world, but as his 144 rushing yards showed against Baltimore, his quick feet and power can compensate. Take the silver linings where you can, Browns fans.
• Tennessee Titans defense
This unit is one of the top three or four defenses in the NFL. Eventually people will begin to figure that out. The secondary is downright nasty. The defensive line is a no-name collection that just keeps producing. Coordinator Chuck Cecil is doing a heck of a job calling games, too. And guess what? Albert Haynesworth(notes) just keeps getting cheaper on the trade market.
• Minnesota Vikings
They had to have the win over the Lions, plain and simple. You could feel this team stretching at the seams. Had the Vikings lost to the Lions, the bye week would have been spent questioning everyone and anyone. Now the Vikings can spend a much needed extra week to get healthy, and continue to work on the chemistry between Brett Favre(notes) and anyone not named Percy Harvin(notes) and Visanthe Shiancoe(notes). And maybe Sunday showed where this team is headed: back to a power, run-dominated look that everyone expected last season.
• St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford(notes)
Few are noticing outside of St. Louis, but the guy has been pretty solid for a rookie quarterback. His start reminds me a little of what we saw from Mark Sanchez(notes) and Matt Stafford last season – he gives you a few “wow” flashes every game. You can definitely see why he retained such a high draft status despite recovering from a shoulder injury his last season at Oklahoma. Now we'll see how well he fares when a team has a chance to game plan for him sans old reliable Steven Jackson.
• Seattle Seahawks running back Leon Washington(notes)
His pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns essentially won Sunday's game against the Chargers. And you can't help but feel good for Washington, who had his 2009 season ended after horrifically breaking his right leg. There was a moment when coaches wondered if he'd play again. Not only is he back, but he's got his speed and elusiveness almost where it was at the height of his promise with the Jets.
• New England Patriots wideout Randy Moss(notes)
Two touchdowns, and a totally transformed attitude following Sunday's win over the Bills. I'm guessing Moss heard what he needed to from Belichick – that if he went out and did his job, they would find a way to get something done for him on a contract extension. Frankly, he needs New England. And I believe the Pats will get around to realizing they need him, too. A three-year extension worth about $35 million (and $22 million guaranteed) would solve it.
• Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes)
He's so good that you almost breeze by Sunday's numbers in the win over the Broncos – 325 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions. The guy is chopping up secondaries better than anyone out there right now: 1,013 passing yards, nine touchdowns, zero interceptions. At this rate, his contract extension is going to read like the national deficit.
• The Arizona Cardinals
Amazing what a difference Beanie Wells(notes) makes, isn't it? He looked healthy against the Raiders, pummeling tacklers on a few plays. He's clearly the most explosive player in the backfield, and should regain that starting job pretty quickly. Now the real question: How long before the coaching staff wants to give Max Hall(notes) a shot at quarterback? You can't possibly live with a 52-percent passer all season.
• New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin
This thing is sliding backward fast – and frankly looking a little out of control. What does Brandon Jacobs(notes) need to do to get suspended? He drew one of New York's five personal foul penalties with yet another emotional outburst. The Giants now have 10 turnovers in three games, too. This just looks like a sloppy, emotionally undisciplined team. Not exactly a good reflection on Coughlin.
• Saints kicker Garrett Hartley(notes)
We keep hearing about how powerful his leg is, but that doesn't mean a heck of a lot when you can't make pressure kicks, particularly when those kicks are from 29 yards out. Hartley's badly hooked miss in overtime against the Falcons will be remembered if this division comes down to the wire between Atlanta and New Orleans. And it almost certainly will.
• San Francisco 49ers
All of those good feelings about hanging tough with the Saints in Week 2 are gone. San Francisco has now been embarrassed in two of their three games, and the offense has basically played one good half all season. It's more than fair to question now whether this is a coaching staff that can get the job done on offense. And with Atlanta and Philadelphia on the horizon, we should have an answer to that question in two more weeks.
• Detroit Lions
You can feel another long, rough season in the midst. You can't help but wonder when Matthew Stafford(notes) will come back … or whether the team should even rush him considering it is almost certain to fall into a 0-4 hole next week after facing the Packers. Could Week 5 against the Rams be another early precursor to the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in the 2011 NFL draft?
• Buffalo Bills coaching staff
OK, so they bench Trent Edwards(notes). The offense plays a bit better, and they give yet another scare to the Patriots. But hasn't C.J. Spiller(notes) shown enough to get more than seven touches on offense … even with his work on special teams? He's the Bills' most explosive player on offense. And yes, Marshawn Lynch(notes) is playing well, so I understand him eating carries, but why waste touches on anyone other than Lynch and Spiller at this point?
• Carolina Panthers
Wideout Mike Goodson(notes) is ready for a bigger load. With Jimmy Clausen(notes) starting and the rebuilding underway, the Panthers should be shopping one of their two-headed monster of DeAngelo Williams(notes) and Jonathan Stewart(notes) for draft picks. This team needs a lot of ammunition next offseason.
• Jacksonville Jaguars
What isn't flat about this team? The defense is atrocious, and the offensive line that they invested so much time and money in is a total sieve. I've got a feeling this will be the last season we see Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. And it may be the beginning of the end for quarterback David Garrard(notes), too.
• Washington Redskins
Seriously, just end the Albert Haynesworth thing already. End it, please! The whole thing has gotten beyond stupid, and there is no doubt it is a tremendous distraction to that locker room. You paid the guy a ton of money and it was an epic mistake. Yeah, he has been a jackass during the process, but it's time to bite down, take whatever you can get on the trade market, and just get him out of town. Lord knows you need to spend every week focusing with guys who want to be there. After all, you just lost a game to the Rams and their rookie quarterback, for goodness sake.
• Denver Broncos
Racking up 519 yards of offense and scoring only 13 points is a hard thing to do in the NFL. Then again, turning the ball over three times on downs in scoring position will do that to you. There was plenty of bad coaching decisions in this one not to mention an offense that can't get into the end zone on four tries from the one-yard line. This doesn't look like a tough team to me.
• San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner
Before people push the panic button, there are three winnable games still lying ahead: vs. Arizona, and at the Raiders and Rams. But how many times do we have to watch Turner teams come out of the gate slow? Maybe adding tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) will kick this offense up a notch. But like Seattle's pair of kickoffs returned for touchdowns, something always seems to break down at the wrong time.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Hearing CBS's Gus Johnson compare Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman's(notes) game to that of Ben Roethlisberger. It was refreshing to hear someone forgo the typically lazy racial comparison. Another broadcaster might have compared Freeman to a young Daunte Culpepper(notes), just like people comparing Peyton Hillis to Mike Alstott(notes). The Roethlisberger comparison is more accurate for Freeman.
Loathed: Watching Houston's Steve Slaton(notes) touch the football and wonder what in the world happened to the guy who racked up 1,659 yards from scrimmage in 2008. Slaton is a different player now. It's reminiscent of the way Michael Clayton(notes) fell off dramatically after his amazing rookie season in Tampa Bay.
Loved: Seeing Kansas City's Dexter McCluster's(notes) 31-yard touchdown catch and run against San Francisco. Thanks to offensive creativity, the role for smallish, super-quick athletes is growing in the NFL.
Loved: Kevin Boss'(notes) 53-yard reception in the first quarter against Tennessee. Boss was first hit at the Giants' 38-yard line, but went another 29 yards before three Titans dragged him down. When healthy, Boss is one of the most underrated tight ends in the league.
Loathed: Eli Manning's(notes) terrible Brett Favre-esque left-handed quacking lob pass from the 6 that the Titans intercepted in the end zone. The awful play illustrated why Manning is still so maddening seven years into his career.
Loved: Seeing Danny Woodhead(notes), who had a feel-good storyline in "Hard Knocks," score on a juking 22-yard run for the Patriots on Sunday. It has got to grind on Jets coach Rex Ryan, who hates New England and so clearly liked Woodhead as a player. When you see the play, check out the move Woodhead put on Drayton Florence(notes).
Loathed: Watching the Bengals let the clock run out and blow an easy field-goal opportunity at the end of the half against Carolina. It was abominable watching right tackle Dennis Roland(notes) lumber to the line as the clock ran out.
Loved: Seeing the Falcons put up a 19-play, 72-yard touchdown drive against New Orleans, including a pair of converted fourth downs. If the Falcons are going to come of age and compete with the Saints and Packers for NFC supremacy, those commanding drives are a must.
Loathed: The fact that Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles(notes) is still on a pitch count in terms of his touches. No offense to Thomas Jones(notes), but it should be a crime for Charles to see the ball fewer than 20 times a game.
- Bill Belichick