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Chiefs' version of the Patriot Way no longer just an imitation

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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The Patriot Way is alive and well with the Kansas City Chiefs.

You see it in all of those familiar faces in the front office, the coaching staff, and on the field. You see it in their style of play on offense, defense, and special teams.

And now, you see it in the results.

Few would argue that the New England Patriots are synonymous with NFL success. Fewer still would dispute that, in losing a combined 38 games the previous three seasons, the Chiefs were on a non-stop fade pattern from NFL relevance.

That's why they made former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli their general manager last year, why Pioli brought along two key former Patriot players (linebacker Mike Vrabel and quarterback Matt Cassel) in 2009, and why former New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel were hired this year.

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And it is hardly a stretch to say that assembling a group that, except for Cassel, had plenty to do with the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories since 2001 is the main reason the 3-0 Chiefs are off to their best start in seven years.

"It matters big time, because it changes that negativity," said Rodney Harrison, a former Patriots safety and current analyst for NBC's Football Night in America. "It changes that whole mindset of selfishness. It brings in the team mode. It brings in all the little things, such as paying attention to detail, that make up a championship team."

Saying the Chiefs have duplicated what the Patriots assembled in the early part of the last decade is an overstatement, of course. They don't have Bill Belichick as their coach/king of all things football. Besides being chief architect of the game plan and a master at in-game adjustments, Belichick was every bit as responsible as Pioli (and even more so in some cases) for all of the talent acquired in New England. They also don't have Tom Brady, one of the greatest players in league history, as their quarterback.

What the Chiefs do have, however, is a thorough understanding of the principles and foundation of a winning football program handed down from Bill Parcells to Belichick and the rest of Parcells' disciples. That list includes Pioli, who also is Parcells' son-in-law, Crennel, Weis, and second-year Chiefs coach Todd Haley. They know how to teach and implement the Parcells Way, which, for all intents and purposes, is the Patriot Way.

"The analogy I've used is it's like going to church on Sunday, and we're all of the same denomination and when the priest gives the sermon, it's kind of what we all wanted to hear anyway," said Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh, another Parcells disciple. "That's what you have in (Kansas City). It's a real awareness, whether it's in personnel or in preparation or in tactics, of those things that make you win or cause you to lose."

Cynics attempt to poke holes in the Chiefs' 3-0 record. They say the season-opening victory against San Diego, viewed by many as a potential Super Bowl contender, was a fluke because the Chiefs took advantage of the Chargers' inability to handle a rain-soaked surface in primetime in ultra-noisy Arrowhead Stadium. They point out that Kansas City had to rely on rare occurrences such as Dexter McCluster's 94-yard punt return for a touchdown to come out on top. They note that the Chiefs barely got by the winless Cleveland Browns, who were without injured starting quarterback Jake Delhomme. And they point out that their latest victim, the winless San Francisco 49ers, were in chaos, proven by their recent firing of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.

Nevertheless, the Chiefs have been mostly sound in some key areas, starting with a defense that ranks 13th in the league and has allowed only 12.7 points per game. For that, Crennel merits ample credit. He has installed a tried-and-true 3-4 scheme and has managed to quickly get several young players familiar with his concepts and make it understandable to some veterans converting from the 4-3.

"I think everybody in the world of the NFL is surprised that the Chiefs are 3-0, but what I'm not surprised about is how they're playing defensively," said former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN studio analyst Tedy Bruschi. "I don't even want to say they're playing outstanding defensively, but they look fundamentally sound, like they know what they're doing. And that's what Romeo brings to the table."

Bruschi says a classic Crennel coaching moment came when he had Vrabel call timeout just before the Chargers' last-gasp attempt to score a tying touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Kansas City 6. That's what was known in New England as a "Kodak Timeout," because it allows the defense to get a good pre-snap picture of the offense's alignment and, if necessary, adjust accordingly.

Before the timeout, the Chiefs were in man coverage against a spread formation. But when play resumed, they assigned three defenders to tight end Antonio Gates and jammed him at the line of scrimmage. Rivers wound up holding the ball as he looked for Gates, who was well covered, and then unsuccessfully tried to connect with receiver Malcom Floyd in the end zone.

"That's pure coaching," Bruschi said. "That victory was because of that timeout, and they went and made those adjustments."

The Chiefs' defensive scheme is identical to the one long used by the Patriots in the sense that it has tremendous flexibility. With so many youthful players, Crennel might not be able to utilize as much variety as he did when his Patriots' defense had veterans such as Harrison, Bruschi, Vrabel, and Richard Seymour, who is now in Oakland.

But Crennel still adheres to the idea of doing what is best for a particular opponent, rather than mainly sticking to a single plan week to week.

"It adjusts each and every week to who you're playing," Harrison said of Crennel's scheme. "When we played against the Colts, we knew we weren't blitzing. And he told us: 'Guys, don't get upset, don't get impatient. The Colts are going to move the ball up and down the field, but that's what you want with the Colts. You want them to move the ball up and down the field, and when they get in the red zone, try to be patient and force Peyton (Manning) to make that mistake or hold them to a field goal.'

"His ability to adjust, each and every week, to the offensive game plan is just tremendous."

So, too, is his ability to communicate the importance of paying close attention to the smallest of details. Crennel is known for his kind and gentle demeanor, but, as Harrison pointed out, "he's not afraid to get in your face and let you know what you need to do to make that team better." One player Harrison thinks will benefit greatly from the fact that the Chiefs are entering a bye is safety Eric Berry, their first-round draft pick.

"When Berry took a couple of bad angles and blew a couple of coverages, they were able to recover," Harrison said. "Now, he's going to spend more time with Romeo and that secondary coach (Emmitt Thomas) to do things right. And Romeo will tell him, 'Eric, you have to do things the right way. You're a good, young athlete. But if you want to be a great player, you've got to do things the right way. It doesn't matter how good a player you are. If you're doing things the wrong way, you can't play in our defense.'"

The Chiefs have the NFL's 17th-ranked offense. Kansas City is No. 1 in rushing, and although it is 29th in passing, Cassel has made progress over a disappointing 2009 season. He threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns against San Francisco, and is showing improvement each week. Weis' influence, combined with Haley's background as the coordinator of an explosive offense in Arizona, appears to be taking hold.


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"One, it's (an offensive philosophy) based around making sure that the quarterback has the best opportunity to be successful, whether that's by protections, by use of the running game, or by how quickly the ball is thrown," Groh said. "And it brings an element of toughness. One thing that all of us heard Bill (Parcells) say many times is, 'Power football wins.' That doesn't mean that you run the ball on every play. It means that you have to have that element of power in your offense.

"I don't think there is any of us that came from that background and all worked together as part of that operation that would be described as 'finesse' coaches.'"

However, they would be described as coaches that not only know how to win, but how to sustain a winning atmosphere. Just ask any player who has witnessed it from the inside.

"When the ball gets rolling in a Parcells-Belichick-Weis-Crennel system, they do a great job of taking that momentum and transferring it to the players where you believe even more," Bruschi said. "Now, they're coaching with so much more confidence, they're a little bit looser. This is coming from two men (Weis and Crennel) who are usually very stern in the way they coach, but when you have a two-, three-game winning streak, they know how to coach players and get on a roll because they continue to emphasize the things that you've done well."

Said Harrison: "You can have a lot of talent, but if you don't have the coaches to bring out that talent or the coaches to direct that talent -- especially when you have a young, mid-tier team -- then you're not going to have success. They have leadership, they have a positive outlook, meaning they know it's about team. And that's what these guys preach -- it's about your team, it's not about one individual."

It's known as the Patriot Way... splattered with some Kansas City barbecue sauce.

» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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