Behind his desk in Kansas City, placed at just the right angle so you always saw them from the chairs he had set up, Scott Pioli kept replica trophies of the three Super Bowls he helped win back in New England.
They were reminders. Most obviously, they were reminders to whoever sat in those chairs that the man on the other side of the desk had more championship rings than ring fingers.
But they were also reminders for Pioli. He became caricatured for arrogance in Kansas City, but if you watched closely you saw much more insecurity. He wanted to remember the success he had. Wanted to believe he could do it again.
Here, beneath the reality TV headlines of Goodell vs. Brady, is one of the more fascinating subplots of Super Bowl week:
After an epic failure as the No. 1 guy with the Chiefs, Pioli is working for a fourth trophy as a No. 2 against the dynasty he helped build.
It is, if we’re all being honest, an unnecessary slap to those who rooted for the Chiefs on both sides of Pioli’s disastrous run in Kansas City.
Pioli is silent. That’s always been his way. He subscribes to the consensus NFL belief of “one voice.” Learned it in New England, practiced it in Kansas City, and now is part of it again in Atlanta as the Falcons’ director of scouting.
He didn’t go to media night on Monday, and the Falcons’ PR department has been turning down requests to talk with him all week, including from The Star.
He did talk recently to the New York Daily News, however, in an interview specifically approved by Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff.
“I will not root against them,” Pioli said of the Patriots. “I am going to be pulling for us to do all the right things. I don’t like the whole idea of ever rooting against someone. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to any of those people. It’s just not how I’m built.”
One of Pioli’s problems in Kansas City was his inability to handle pressure. He’d become tense. Second-guess himself. Get paranoid. Lose himself in isolating every single problem that might come up, to the point of counter-production, and become lost. This insecurity drove him to a stunning level of micromanagement.
It’s striking, then, how awkward this week must be for him. Pioli adores Patriots coach Bill Belichick like an older brother. Drove two hours each way to Giants practices in the 1980s just to impress him. Now, he’s trying to beat Belichick for football’s ultimate prize.
Pioli was in charge of the Patriots’ 2000 draft, in which they selected Tom Brady in the sixth round. Still talks to him frequently. Once, when he was trying to get things going in Kansas City, he arranged for Brady to call The Star for a story on Matt Cassel. When the story was published, someone from the Boston Globe joked that The Star had now had more one-on-one interviews with Brady than the Globe.
Pioli’s time in Kansas City is one of the worst stretches of leadership in modern NFL history. You don’t need to be reminded of that. He was justifiably fired, spent a year doing TV, and then was hired by Dimitroff in 2014.
Pioli is to Dimitroff as Belichick is to Pioli. In much the same way Pioli made those long drives to practice and back to impress Belichick, Dimitroff took a groundskeeping job to catch Pioli’s eye in Cleveland. He’d wander into the office after his shift, smelling like mud and sweat, to watch film.
The track record of people leaving the Patriots is famously weak. Pioli’s time in Kansas City is an extreme, but he has company. Romeo Crennel. Josh McDaniels. Matt Cassel. Phil Savage. George Kokinis.
Dimitroff is the exception. He took over the Falcons in 2008, and they immediately went from 4-12 to 11-5. He drafted Matt Ryan, most significantly, but also Devonta Freeman, Vic Beasley, Desmond Trufant and others. He traded up to draft Julio Jones, a move many criticized at the time.
Dimitroff has also provided a bit of a rehabilitation for Pioli. An opportunity to make a difference. The Falcons went from the NFC Championship Game in 2012 to 4-12 the next year. With Pioli’s help, the Falcons have improved each of the last three seasons, including this breakthrough to their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.
It is impossible to know how much credit Pioli deserves for this. Maybe a lot. Maybe none. Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ second-year coach, has final say on personnel decisions. Pioli doesn’t talk much publicly, and when he does, he knows better than to take any credit.
He could be one of the NFL’s great assistant executives, a man smart and diligent enough to do his own job exceptionally but not equipped to make the ultimate call. He could be one of the NFL’s great GM candidates, a brilliant football mind who will learn from his mistakes in Kansas City.
Or, he could be repetitively fortunate, simply aligned with two superior leaders and riding their drag to success.
Either way, if the Falcons win on Sunday, there is reason to be happy for Pioli.
We all hope we can change. Isn’t that the point? We are not perfect, or particularly close, but if we pay enough attention and give enough of a damn to try, we can at least get better.
This is actually a bedrock of the Chiefs, particularly the current Chiefs. Andy Reid is famous for his ability to see the best in players. Guys who’ve needed second chances for football reasons (Alex Smith, most notably) and legal reasons (Tyreek Hill and Michael Vick) have flourished under his coaching.
Reid, himself, learned from the problems that ended with his being fired in Philadelphia. That’s why the Chiefs hired John Dorsey as general manager: to take on the personnel responsibilities that distracted Reid with the Eagles.
I have no idea if Pioli could be a successful general manager with another shot. Fired GMs don’t typically get second chances in the NFL, but Pioli’s success in New England and now Atlanta could make for a unique case.
Only Pioli knows what changes he’s made, or how he’d approach another chance to lead an NFL franchise. But going to work for someone you used to supervise takes a certain level of humility, and if Pioli is able to see how Dimitroff transitioned from being an assistant in New England to the GM in Atlanta it could help with his own insecurity.
So, in that way, I’ll be happy for Pioli if the Falcons win. Good for him. We’d all like to follow our greatest professional failures with success.
Of course, that doesn’t ease the harsh truth that Pioli is in the Super Bowl before the Chiefs. Sports can’t give us everything, I guess.