On Sunday, in a matchup between two winless teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints will showcase one of the NFL’s elusive truths: That one man — one man who does not compete on the field — can shape the destiny of an entire organization.
For the Chiefs, the 0-2 record can be traced directly to the presence and so-called leadership of general manager Scott Pioli. His failures run the gamut — paying more than $10 million a year for Matt Cassel, a $10 quarterback; hiring as his first head coach the ill-prepared Todd Haley and immediately undermining him at every turn; and in draft moves, ego and handling of issues ranging from the media to players from the last regime to leadership proving again that fruit that falls from the Bill Belichick tree usually spoils faster than most.
For the Saints, the 0-2 record can be traced directly to the absence of suspended head coach Sean Payton. With Payton’s offensive genius, intense leadership and winning culture banished by Roger Goodell to a year in NFL purgatory, the Saints are experiencing their own damning days.
A team that under Payton won 10 or more games in four of his six seasons as head coach looks floundering, middling and on the decline.
They’re still putting put up points (29.5 a game), but the magic that Payton brought has vanished, and the fear that they would run you right out of the dome with high-scoring efficiency has turned to mild worry.
They’re running Payton’s system, sure, but without him running it, quarterback Drew Brees has seemed too often dazed and confused. His four interceptions have underscored just what Payton meant to his preparation and game planning, and his 71.6 QB rating is reminiscent of some of his San Diego days, not his glittering years in New Orleans.
So far, without Payton, this is not the Brees who threw for a whopping 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns last year. So these are not the Saints we’ve come to know.
There’s no more pretending, for either city. In New Orleans, get used to the idea the Saints will not be the same without Sean Payton. In Kansas City, accept that Scott Pioli is and will not be up to the task given to him by owner Clark Hunt to build a consistent winner in the NFL’s weakest division, to say nothing of a Super Bowl-caliber competitor.
An NFL team is a complicated organism functioning in a highly competitive and brutal society, with a 53-man roster, head coach, assistant coaches, scouts, a GM and an owner all helping drive many, many moving parts. This controlled chaos — and the distractions, difficulties and razor-thin turning points that propel it — can lead to the idea one person alone cannot turn a loser into a winner, a winner into a loser or a playoff team into a perennial champion.
That’s simply wrong.
All highly structured groups — governments, universities, sports teams, military units, science endeavors, everything — can be shaped and directed by the will of one extraordinary man or woman. It’s rare, yes, but it’s also often what turns history.
That’s absolutely true in football, where brains matter as much as brawn, where strategy is as critical as instinct, and therefore where an extraordinary person occasionally can come along and shape a plan and change a culture and leave a lasting mark on a team’s future.
Sean Payton, whether guilty or not of the bounty scandal that has banished him for a year, is such a man. He inspires leadership, he breathed new and record-setting life in Brees’ career, he brought a Super Bowl victory to the bayou and he changed a perennial loser into a force to be reckoned with.
Scott Pioli is such a man, too, just in a different way. He brought his glitzy resume to the heartland but couldn’t be more than a paper tiger, he let his outsized ego shape a culture that pushed an over-his-head coach out of his mind, and he has allowed an often talented team to be dragged down by so many of the forces he brought in — Cassel on the field, fear in the front office, coaches who look as discombobulated as the replacement refs and mounting frustration in the stands.
Yes, one man can change much in an NFL organization’s history. Which is why on Sunday a rare thing will happen. Two teams, each with 0-2 records, will provide a deep glimpse into the game.
Sean Payton and Scott Pioli, in vastly different ways, will remind us how much impact one person can have despite not setting a foot on the sideline all game.