‘Risk-averse’ Pioli taking some chances this season

Scott Pioli says he has never been inside a casino. No kidding. Forget sitting at a blackjack table or feeling the leather chair in the sports book or the thrill of the roulette wheel.

The one time he was in Las Vegas, to scout UNLV linebacker Ryan Claridge before the 2005 NFL Draft, Pioli didn’t stop and take a peek or toss down a few bucks and see where the evening took him. There was nothing for him there, and the pull that gets so many wasn’t strong enough to lure in Pioli.

“I am risk-averse,” he says.

Heck, there used to be a restaurant Pioli liked when he worked for the New England Patriots. It was attached to a dog track, and in those days, he says, he found an alternate entrance that allowed him to go directly into the restaurant.

“Never gambled in my life,” he says, then jokingly blames it on his upbringing.

Looking at the team he has assembled this year as Chiefs general manager, though, it seems Pioli is breaking tradition. Coach Romeo Crennel, whose career record as a head coach is 26-41; offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who’s with his third team in as many seasons; quarterback Matt Cassel and running back Peyton Hillis and first-round draft pick Dontari Poe; and yeah, Pioli probably can’t say anymore that he’s never gambled, because it seems he’s going all-in with the 2012 Chiefs.

Then again

“I don’t see these as gambles or risks,” Pioli says.

Maybe they’re not. We won’t know how they’ll play out for a few months. Or maybe they’re huge gambles that Pioli just doesn’t want to label as such, knowing how that would sound to his boss, Clark Hunt, or the people working for Pioli.

Regardless, Pioli says that where others see risk, he feels comfort. Where others see uncertainty, he sees potential. For someone who’s never entered a casino, he’s got one thing down: No one who makes a bet ever does so thinking he will lose.

The biggest gamble in the locker room is sitting on a chair that seems too small for him, removing tape and pads after the Chiefs’ first preseason game.

This is the trailhead for Dontari Poe, the beginning of the road and a long and uncertain journey for the 11th overall pick in this year’s draft.

“I’m learning,” Poe says.

Which is what coaches want from Poe now. Even difficult lessons, such as the ones he experienced on this night — he was handled easily by the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive linemen — are meant to be good for this 350-pounder whose canvas is mostly blank now, but who the Chiefs believe can, if given time and patience, become a masterpiece.

The same patience will be expected of Poe himself, and that will become a challenge. It already is.

“I am a competitor and I do want to jump out there quickly,” he says. “But they know if I jump out there too fast, before I’m ready, it won’t be too good on my confidence.”

The Chiefs have an interesting project in Poe. He wasn’t particularly impressive at the University of Memphis. His best amateur performance came at the NFL scouting combine, where his seemingly supernatural quickness — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds, compared with a 5.23 that No. 6 overall pick, Packers star and 2011 Pro Bowler B.J. Raji ran three years earlier — made an impression good enough to skyrocket up draft boards.

Reality set in months later, when Chiefs coaches realized that Poe will need time to adjust to the NFL game and the techniques he’ll need to handle professional blockers. He might not crack the starting lineup as a rookie, playing behind Anthony Toribio, and might not even be a significant contributor until the season’s second half.

“We understand that this is going to be a player who’s not going to burst onto the scene,” Pioli says.

That’s not uncommon, even among first-round nose tackles. Vince Wilfork, seen nearly a decade later as the gold standard at his position, played only about half of the Patriots’ defensive snaps his rookie year. Raji started one game as a rookie in 2009 and participated in only 36 percent of the Packers’ snaps. In the two-gap 3-4 defense, even the most-hyped rookies need time to develop. And although Poe might have further to climb than those players, considering his inexperience — he played in 35 college games, compared with Raji’s 51 at Boston College — the Chiefs see a similar upside.

Crennel and Pioli were involved in drafting Wilfork in 2004, and Crennel says one reason Wilfork became a four-time Pro Bowler is because he remained mentally strong throughout a season in which Keith Traylor, of all players, was starting in front of him.

“To his credit,” Crennel says, “he decided that he was going to do everything he could to learn it. He came along and he was a pretty good player as a result of it. His mind-set and his attitude was the thing I think that made the difference for him.”

So far, Poe has demonstrated the right attitude for what’ll be expected of him. He says he’ll continue listening to Crennel and line coach Anthony Pleasant.

“For me to not listen,” Poe says, “would be stupid on my part.”

The organization, coaches and Poe won’t be the only ones who’ll be asked for patience. Fans already understand that sometimes a first-round pick isn’t a sure thing; now they’ll have to see that time is necessary to form an accurate reading of Poe’s future.

Years ago, Crennel was part of a New York Giants staff that drafted defensive lineman Eric Dorsey in the first round. Later, Crennel asked Dorsey how long it took him to simply understand what was being asked of him. Dorsey replied that he couldn’t speak the NFL language until three quarters of his first season was gone.

“Whether it takes that long for Dontari,” Crennel says, “I don’t know.”

That’s asking a lot of fans, who expect an instant impact from a first-rounder. But much like most of what you see inside a casino, that’s just not reality.

The best way to scout a gamble is to consider the loss potential. Can you live without that twenty that’s burning a hole in your pocket? Can you pay your electric bill if this hand goes sideways?

If the worst-case scenario happens for the Chiefs, and Crennel fails and Daboll’s offense doesn’t work and Cassel struggles and Poe never develops, then this team could finish last in the AFC West again. Cassel would likely be given up on, Poe would be given more time amid growing frustration, and Crennel and Daboll would each begin the 2013 season on the hot seat.

But the most pressure, if not the same job-security issues, lay on Pioli’s shoulders. All of these choices were ultimately his, and he says he’s aware of the stakes.

“There’s a lot of people,” he says, “depending on me making the right decisions.”

Pioli was hired in 2009, and he was seen as a miracle worker. He had three Super Bowl rings from his time in New England, had been selected executive of the decade by a magazine, and talked about changing a culture of losing in Kansas City.

Success has come far more slowly than expected, and many of Pioli’s decisions and management methods have been criticized. This is a season in which he needs a sure thing to curb the frustration of two losing seasons in his three years, one failed head coach in Todd Haley, and a quarterback in Cassel who in some circles is one of the most unpopular athletes in town.

That’s not life in the NFL, though, and in the GM’s office, there are always risks to take. Pioli might not like them or even acknowledge them as gambles, but that’s what they are.

“I’ve been right, and I’ve been wrong,” he says. “Just like all of us in life, sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. I believe in making the best decision based on the information. I believe in gathering the information.

“When you make those decisions, you definitely feel that you’re right, and then time will tell.”

Despite a few setbacks, Pioli is still playing with house money. But this season could show us a lot about whether Pioli will begin 2013 still in the black, or learn that feeling those of us who have been to casinos know so well: that you just wish you had that last play to do over.