SAM MELLINGER

Scott Pioli’s new job with Atlanta Falcons could be good fit

Updated: 2014-01-23T16:57:25Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

So Scott Pioli is on the other side of the microphone again, back working for an NFL team and not a television network, and this is the place where the sports columnist from Kansas City who was so critical of him is supposed to make jokes about candy wrappers and wonder how long it will take Pioli to run the Atlanta Falcons into a 2-14 mess.

Except I don’t think that is going to happen.

I actually think he can be good there.

I actually think it’s a great fit for Pioli.

He was hired Wednesday as the Falcons’ assistant general manager, not the GM, which means he can’t bully or intimidate or control the message the way he did in a disastrous four-year run with the Chiefs. He is back to being more of a grunt worker than organization leader, a better fit for his personality and occasionally debilitating insecurities — not to mention a much better situation for his new co-workers.

The Falcons are set up much differently than the Chiefs when Pioli was here, too. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff knows what he’s getting into. He and Pioli worked together in New England and are longtime friends even as they have very different views of how a franchise should be run.

Dimitroff is secure in himself, with the courage to break away from the so-called Patriot Way. Dimitroff used a high draft pick on a quarterback, and the organization is known as relatively open and media friendly, for instance. Pioli’s biggest football mistake was binding himself and his organization to Matt Cassel; finding a quarterback will not be a priority with Matt Ryan in Atlanta.

If Pioli has designs on being a GM again someday — and there are major questions he’d have to answer for that to happen — it will be good for him to see the inside of an organization that thinks on its feet and isn’t bound by a Bill Belichick playbook that doesn’t work without Belichick and Tom Brady.

Also, the Falcons have an active and experienced owner in Arthur Blank. For all of the reasons Pioli’s time in Kansas City turned into such a train wreck, Clark Hunt’s role is often overlooked. Hunt was still very new to the role as chairman. He wanted to hire the best people and get out of their way, which is admirable, but he was far too slow to understand what was bubbling underneath the football operations status reports he got almost exclusively from Pioli.

Hunt has learned from that four-year mistake, which is why the Chiefs are now set up with the general manager, head coach and team president all on the same line of the hierarchy (and why it was important that coach Andy Reid had a strong previous relationship both with president Mark Donovan and GM John Dorsey).

But it takes more than safeguards to make this a potentially good hire. It takes more than some institutional controls.

The most important part of Pioli’s new setup is that he will be concerned only with football. Among his fundamental failure in Kansas City were all the wasted hours and energy on tiny details that had nothing to do with football (ironic, since he talked constantly of how he cared only about football). So no more hoarding used pens, no more monitoring who is making how many color copies, and no more spreadsheets detailing a few thousand dollars saved in office expenses.

The Falcons would be smart to put Pioli’s focus on scouting and contract negotiations. He’s shown those to be his strengths (the Jamaal Charles’ contract is the NFL’s version of the Royals’ Sal Perez contract). He also drafted some very good defensive players — Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe.

If the Falcons’ organizational checks and balances can serve as something like bumper guards at the bowling alley against the football weaknesses Pioli couldn’t control in Kansas City — specifically, a fear of risk-taking and an unwillingness to pay anything if it’s not a huge bargain — then the Falcons have improved their football operations department with an experienced and hard-working foot soldier.

By the first few games of the 2012 season, it was obvious how Pioli’s time in Kansas City would end. He was too inflexible, too insecure, too untrusting. He spent too much time privately bashing the Chiefs’ past and not nearly enough building its future. He was too concerned with office supplies and not concerned enough about the defensive line.

His career path going forward is up to him. It will require a certain humility to view past mistakes honestly and plan future changes. There is still a lot in Pioli’s background and personal experience that could make for a very good football executive, but only if he can see his time in Kansas City and New England without insecurity, to filter out what he was responsible for and what he was not. He must own both sides of the scale.

Pioli’s friend Dimitroff has hired him because he thinks it will benefit the Falcons, but Dimitroff is also doing Pioli a significant favor. This is a great opportunity, one that sets up to maximize Pioli’s strengths and cover up or correct his failures.

It’s up to Pioli to take advantage, of course. Doing so will require a level of clear-headed self-evaluation that he was incapable of in Kansas City until the very end.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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