Undefeated Chiefs exceed expectations
Gifted GM Scott Pioli orchestrates overhaul of team, NFL's only unbeaten
Clark Hunt, chairman and CEO of the Kansas City Chiefs and son of the late, great founder of the franchise Lamar Hunt, figured the Chiefs were going to be better this year after an encouraging preseason.
"I don't think you can ever anticipate that you'll be undefeated after the first three games," he told ESPN.com earlier this week, "We're very excited."
Not the Super Bowl champion Saints nor the super-hyped Jets nor the offseason favorites the Colts and the Cowboys, it's the Chiefs that are the NFL's only undefeated team. That lofty position will be challenged Sunday when Kansas City visits wounded (and dangerous) Indianapolis.
Head coach Todd Haley, following in the time-honored tradition of the NFL, downplayed the Chiefs' 3-0 surprising start.
"I am focused on us getting a little better this week," Haley said on Monday. "That is going to take every day we have. We are playing the fourth game in the first quarter of the season, and that is what it is."
No one -- probably not even Haley -- saw this coming, especially not after Kansas City won six of its previous 41 games, which included a 12-game losing streak and the worst record in franchise history, 2-14 in 2008.
That is what sent longtime general manager Carl Peterson into retirement and ultimately brought gifted general manager Scott Pioli, 45, to the Chiefs. Teamed with Bill Belichick in New England, Pioli helped orchestrate a 102-42 (.708) record and three Super Bowl victories from 2000-08.
"The No. 1 thing was Scott's ability as a pro personnel evaluator," Hunt said. "The teams with the best players usually succeed in this league. It happens on the field. In New England, Scott partnered with Bill Belichick, and that team is still playing incredibly well."
Pioli, a student of personnel, hired Haley to be his head coach. Haley's father, Dick, helped build the Steelers' dynasty, choosing future Hall of Famers Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster in a single draft in 1974. Haley is one of six current head coaches in the NFL who served as an assistant under Bill Parcells, who of course mentored Belichick.
Haley and Pioli's choice of quarterback? Naturally, it was the Patriots' Matt Cassel, who filled in so well when Tom Brady was injured in 2008. In the NFL, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But what to be made of the Chiefs' decision in January to hire Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as offensive and defensive coordinators, reprising their roles in New England when the team was in its glory years? Call them Patriots Midwest.
Actually, the larger coaching staff has more of a green history than red, white and blue.
After the Jets went 1-15 in 1996, Parcells and Belichick were brought in to turn things around. Two seasons later, they were in the AFC title game. Their staff included Weis (offensive coordinator), Crennel (defensive line), Maurice Carthon (running backs), Bill Muir (offensive line) and Haley, who began in the Jets' personnel office, but worked closely with Weis. Not only are all five coaches now with the Chiefs, four players from the 1997-98 Jets are on staff, too: Richie Anderson (wide receivers), Bernie Parmalee (tight ends), Anthony Pleasant (defensive line) and Otis Smith (defensive quality control).
Pioli, it should be mentioned, is Parcells' son-in-law after marrying his daughter, Dallas.
The 2009 Chiefs weren't terribly good. They won four games, but showed some dramatic statistical improvement in the second half. The most notable stat was Jamaal Charles ran for an astonishing 968 yards in the final eight games, after gaining all of 152 in the first eight.
While Pioli's first draft produced one player with an instant impact (kicker Ryan Succop), the 2010 draft is already considered one of the league's best. Like Parcells and Belichick, Pioli likes athletes with intelligence, versatility and leadership skills. All seven of this year's draftees were captains at one point in their college careers.
"Scott's thought process was different from anyone else we talked with," Hunt said. "Everybody wants bigger, faster, stronger players, but Scott believes in players with a team-first mentality. Intelligence, toughness, team first, leadership -- those are the things he's looking for.
"I believe that successful teams are built through the draft, and this year's group is very special. Maybe in a few years we'll look back and say that was a cornerstone for what our franchise can become."
The first three choices -- safety Eric Berry (No. 5, from Tennessee), wide receiver and returner Dexter McCluster (No. 36, Mississippi), cornerback and returner Javier Arenas (No. 50, Alabama) -- are contributing. Third-round tight end Tony Moeaki (Iowa) leads Kansas City with 12 catches, 123 yards and two touchdowns. His spectacular 18-yard one-hander versus the 49ers is a YouTube hit. That catch carried him to the NFL Pepsi Rookie of the Week title, giving the Chiefs two in three weeks. McCluster won for his Week 1 effort, which featured a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Charles has gained 238 yards and averaged a ludicrous 7.0 yards per carry. Thomas Jones (217 yards, two touchdowns) is one of three free-agent acquisitions -- joining center Casey Wiegmann (Broncos) and right guard Ryan Lilja (Colts) -- that have lifted the rushing game (160.7 yards per game) to third in the NFL.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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