NEW YORK — The Vince Lombardi trophy sits less than a first down away from Clark Hunt. You can’t miss it. Shiny, perfectly polished, a football on a tee and the symbol of NFL achievement that Hunt’s Chiefs haven’t sniffed for 44 years now.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This is Super Bowl week, which means it’s a time of chest-thumping and good vibes for the league but also a can’t-miss symbol for what teams like the Chiefs haven’t accomplished in far too long.
These are encouraging days for Hunt’s franchise, though. That’s something. The Chiefs went from NFL horror show to playoff team in 12 months, a remarkable achievement and one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in league history. Things are looking up. There is pride in the organization again, with a coach-of-the-year candidate and an executive-of-the-year winner and a talented roster ... if only we had a recent example of all the joy and success about to come Kansas City’s way and … what’s that?
Oh, right. Three years ago. Same thing. Like Andy Reid now, Todd Haley was a coach-of-the-year candidate. Like John Dorsey now, Scott Pioli was the executive-of-the-year winner. And a lot of guys on that talented roster are on this talented roster.
“I have thought a little bit about that parallel,” says Hunt, the Chiefs’ chairman.
This is the nightmare scenario for Chiefs fans. Their hopes have been popped more than they deserve. Their dreams have been mocked more than any fan base should have to put up with, and for all the blame that is commonly dumped on Haley’s paranoia and Pioli’s laughable micromanagement, it all happened under Hunt’s watch.
Which means it’s ultimately Hunt’s responsibility to avoid an organizational relapse. Some clues in his mind-set show themselves as Hunt answers a question about what’s different now compared to three years ago. He begins by noting the Chiefs have “a more mature roster,” with more players in what should be the peak of their careers.
Then the more interesting part.
“We have a very stable and outstanding leader in Andy Reid, who has shown he can be successful over a period of time,” Hunt says. “As hard as it is to be successful in any given year, I think being successful consistently is much more difficult. With Andy, we have somebody who has demonstrated that and somebody I would expect to be able to do that with the Chiefs.”
When Hunt said this, he emphasized the word “stable.” This has always been an important word for Hunt. He often references the Steelers as a model, which is ironic, since the first time he hired a new front office, it led to mass instability. So the emphasis on this word is personally important to Hunt, now more than ever.
“The stability throughout the organization, yeah, that Andy brings,” Hunt says. “He’s got an experienced coaching staff. We benefited from that in 2013 and we’ll benefit more in 2014.”
This is a point that Hunt kept coming back to. As important as it was to put some pride back in the organization and rebuild relationships with fans last season, it will be more important not to fall back again like the Chiefs did the last time they made it this far.
Hunt is right to point out the improvements. Players like Jamaal Charles and Derrick Johnson are established stars now. The middle and bottom of the roster are greatly enhanced. Reid does have a track record of sustained success in Philadelphia. Most importantly, Alex Smith is a competent quarterback.
“I’ll just give you an example,” Hunt says. “You saw the offense grow during the 2013 season, and that’s a part of the game that when you have a new coach, it takes a while to get everything working together and working in sync. So I think being in year two of the Andy Reid leadership cycle gives the team the chance to be that much better.”
That’s true, of course. The offense improved as the season went on — 23.8 points and 317 yards per game before the bye week; 32.4 points and 381.6 yards after the bye week — even as the schedule toughened.
Of course, a chunk of those good vibes are canceled out by the defense going soft and the team losing all but two games after the bye week — which is part of where the fear of a relapse comes from.
The schedule will be tougher this season than it was last season, and NFL history is full of teams that make dramatic rises one year and fall back the next.
This is where Hunt’s obsession with stability has to mean something, which means this is where the immediate future of the Chiefs will determine who’s right about Hunt.
His brain was in the right place the first time he changed the front office, hiring the best candidate available and getting out of the way. But his eyes and gut failed the franchise horribly, first being unable to see that particular match between general manager (Pioli) and head coach (Haley) could only result in disaster, and then being slow to catch on.
Hunt has recognized those mistakes and referenced them in changing the franchise’s power structure. He is more involved now, not necessarily in making football decisions but in filtering the process and thoughts behind those decisions. Inside the organization, employees in football operations and other departments say the improvement is stark.
That’s all good, for now. But Hunt’s Chiefs have been to this point before, only to let their fans down.
The mature roster and stable coach that Hunt talks about are legitimate points for optimism, but they also come with two uncomfortable consequences for the franchise chairman.
An aging roster means there is no time for a step back.
And if a step back happens, there won’t be a meddling general manager and unsteady head coach to take the blame.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.