He had never been a general manager before and he had called this a dream job, despite everything, so now that he was here he had some rules to put in place.
No. 1: no food in the Chiefs’ draft room.
John Dorsey knew this might be taken as micromanaging. He was talking to grown men. Fathers and husbands and proud professionals. They worked long days, and if a man wants some pretzels or an apple while he puts in an extra hour, who was Dorsey to tell him no?
Besides, the Chiefs just fired a GM who embarrassed a proud franchise with, among other things, micromanagement of epic proportions. Fans responded with anger and dropped season tickets and even a plane flying over the stadium on gamedays demanding that people be fired.
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But Dorsey had thought about this. He believed in this. The draft room should be a place for work, not leisure, and he didn’t need a bunch of potato chip crumbs messing up the place. He was in charge of the first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history. They had to get this right. So, no food. Dorsey even put a sign on the door to remind people.
Then came draft day, and chairman Clark Hunt — everyone’s boss — carried a plate of grub with one hand and opened that door with the other and sat down and started chewing.
The room went silent.
Andy Reid, the new coach but also a friend for 20 years, patted ol’ Dorse on the shoulder.
“Hey big boy,” Reid said. “What are you going to say about that?”
Laughter crashed the room, and Reid took a Sharpie to update the sign on the door — No Food In The Draft Room (except for Clark Hunt). It’s a funny story, one that Reid and Dorsey and even Hunt will tell from time to time. But it’s more than that.
It’s also a pretty good way of explaining how the Chiefs went from a miserable, infighting, losing mess to AFC West champions and host of a divisional playoff game in just four years.
Hunt has always craved consistency. More than anything else, he’s wanted the Chiefs to resist the NFL’s gravitational pull and sustain success. The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been his model.
This is an easily missed part of what infuriated him when the calendar turned from 2012 to 2013. It’s not just that the team finished 2-14 for the second time in five years after never being quite that terrible once in the franchise’s first 48 seasons. Losing is bad enough. But the Chiefs were even worse behind closed doors.
Many employees had come to describe the work environment in soul-crushing terms. In football operations, conversations often alternated between passive-aggressive, behind someone’s back, or all-out screaming matches. That attitude flooded other parts of the organization. Men and women who planned on staying forever quit.
So, Hunt talked about consistency. Continuity. Stability. He hired a coach who worked in the same place for 14 years, and a general manager who worked in the same place for 21 of the previous 22 years, and together they’ve helped push the Chiefs to their strongest position since the 1990s.
Before Reid and Dorsey arrived, the Chiefs had just four winning seasons in the previous 13. Now, they’ve had four in a row, a 43-21 run that’s better than every team in football except the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks.
What was then the league’s most volatile franchise is now one of its most secure.
In Kansas City, it’s easy to take this for granted. You can get lost in the rhythm. On Monday, Andy Reid is going to look forward to the challenge of playing a good football team. On Wednesday, Alex Smith is going to wear a Chiefs cap in front of the cameras and compliment his teammates. On Thursday, the coordinators are going to be vague about their strategy. And on Sunday, the Chiefs are probably going to win.
But this is a path without direct precedent in recent NFL history.
From 1990 to 2012, teams went 2-14 or worse 25 times. The Chiefs are one of only three to make the playoffs the next year, and the only one to immediately have four straight winning seasons. Only nine won a division title in the next four years.
The Chiefs did all of those things without the benefit of their terrible season at least providing a star quarterback. The Panthers (three straight division titles after 2010) and Colts (three straight playoffs after 2011) are the closest comparisons to the Chiefs’ path, and both selected franchise defining quarterbacks with their No. 1 draft picks. The Chiefs took Eric Fisher, a fine left tackle and even in hindsight the right pick. But he is not Cam Newton or Andrew Luck.
Dorsey and Reid inherited more talent than most 2-14 teams employ. Six players from that wretched 2012 season were selected to the Pro Bowl.
But the difference isn’t those holdover stars, such as Justin Houston and Eric Berry. The difference is the rest of the roster, and a remarkable change in morale.
You can argue the Chiefs are good now because they have good players, and that would be true.
Or, you could argue the Chiefs have good players now because of that change in morale, and that would also be true.
Two springs ago, the Chiefs were in desperate need of a cornerback. Washington had a talented prospect, but the kid was a bit, well, rough. He screamed at coaches, and teammates. Was a regular with personal fouls. Even got kicked off the team his last year.
Chris Ballard, the Chiefs’ director of player personnel, flew to the prospect’s hometown. He spent a few days there. Talked with everyone he could find, including some who wouldn’t be biased toward the positive.
Ballard liked what he heard. Reid knew some of the prospect’s college coaches. Together, they led the push to draft Marcus Peters, and the point isn’t who gets the credit — it’s that nobody was taking the credit. Dorsey is the one who tells the story of Ballard’s work, and he always leaves out any influence he had on the process.
Ballard recently declined to interview for San Francisco’s GM job to stay in Kansas City, despite a reported belief that he was a strong favorite. Maybe he’d have done that anyway — the 49ers are a mess — but it’s easier to stay where you’re happy.
“You all will call these my draft picks but they’re not my draft picks,” Dorsey has said. “They’re the Chiefs’ draft picks.”
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Pioli would often claim credit for picking Justin Houston, or signing Derrick Johnson’s contract, but find ways to blame others or circumstance for picking Jonathan Baldwin, or making the Matt Cassel trade. There was a concentrated campaign to disparage the previous leadership. From the day Pioli was fired, no one from the Chiefs has said a negative word about him.
Dorsey will point out Ryne Nutt was the lead scout on drafting Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill, always leaving out whatever part he played. Those things matter.
Five years ago, some in the locker room believed the coaches limited Houston’s pass rushes because the front office wanted to limit the value of his second contract.
Now, Tamba Hali takes a smaller role and fewer snaps without complaint, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West signed identical contract extensions, Houston and others visited Eric Berry during his cancer recovery, and Dee Ford does not even hint at disappointment from moving positions after he was so productive when Houston was injured.
Winning masks a lot, of course. For instance, Jeremy Maclin might be frustrated about his lack of production, but he would never verbalize that in a 12-4 season.
The Chiefs have not been perfect. They waited too long to sign Houston to an extension, costing millions in cap space. The drafts have been good, but far from perfect. The goal is win a Super Bowl, and the Chiefs are still two wins away from being there.
But they’ve been pretty good. Four drafts have brought 12 players currently listed first on the offensive and defensive depth charts. That doesn’t include waiver and practice-squad pickups Spencer Ware, Ron Parker, and Terrance Mitchell.
Some of this is luck. A lot of it is good scouts and personnel men who would find talent no matter where they worked. But at least some of it — and the development of that talent once they’re on the roster — is because of a productive environment where scouts and players want something more than a resume line or a negotiating point for their next contract.
And there’s a story behind the food-in-the-draft-room joke that helps show this.
The tale of Hunt eating in the draft room spread through the organization like the best kind of gossip and the Chiefs wanted to tell the world. So one day, Chiefs president Mark Donovan went into Reid’s office with a request.
“I know you’re busy,” Donovan said. “But I need you.”
Donovan wanted Reid to tell the story, on camera, and in the tightly-wound, ego-infused world of professional football this could’ve gone wrong a hundred ways. Reid could’ve told Donovan to get lost. He’s a football coach and surely he had football things to work on. Telling some dumb story on camera doesn’t help his football team.
Or, Reid could’ve been afraid Dorsey would take it wrong. Nobody likes being shown up by the boss, or called out on it by a colleague, and Dorsey could’ve seen it that way. The draft is Dorsey’s baby. That’s where he makes his money, and provides his value, so of course he takes it seriously. Why would he want that presented in the form of a punchline?
Thing is, by then, Dorsey was telling the story himself. He’s entirely comfortable making himself the butt of jokes. He sometimes tells a great story about not drafting Ray Lewis, so of course he was OK with it.
“That story is all about digging Dorse,” Donovan said. “It’s a little bit of, ‘Dorse’s first time, and we’re going to lock this down,’ and it’s Andy making fun of that.”
A lot had to exist for Reid to have said that, for Dorsey to be OK with it, and for the story to be retold so often the team made a video of it. Reid and Dorsey had to have the comfort that comes from knowing each other for decades, from always telling each other they wanted to eventually work together as coach and GM somewhere.
And Dorsey had to be secure enough — in both his relationship with Reid, and stature with Hunt — to see this is as a thing to laugh at instead of a slam on his authority.
The rest of the work environment follows — relationships closer and more important than professional, with enough confidence and perspective to put ego to the side. That’s hard to find between two men at the top of an NFL franchise. No place knows that better than Kansas City.
When it happens, it can sometimes help fuel one of the great franchise turnarounds in modern NFL history.