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Personal loss in personnel

Belichick, Pioli had a special thing going

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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The band is breaking up.

Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick are both Bruce Springsteen fans, but now -- sort of like when Bruce split from the E Street Band -- they're leaving their glory days behind. Pioli is off to Kansas City, agreeing today to a contract to run the Chiefs' football operation.

Together more than nine years in New England, Pioli and Belichick created mostly sweet music, their pairing an integral part of the Patriots' dynastic rise this decade. Pioli and his scouts scoured the country to supply the players, Belichick and his staff coached them up, and the synergy just seemed to work.

Part of what made the arrangement so successful was the relationship.

Pioli knew what type of player Belichick wanted, and clearly communicated that to his scouts. A detailed scouting manual was created so everyone was working off the same script.

In turn, Belichick trusted and valued Pioli's work, which afforded the coach the luxury to focus solely on the here-and-now, the X's and O's to beat that week's opponent. He felt confident that Pioli had things covered long term with college prospects, and that he could be counted on to find the right veteran when the team needed an emergency replacement.

They thought as one, rarely in disagreement on a player.

Pioli also negotiated contracts, working within the "value" framework often cited by Belichick.

As news trickled out today that Pioli was headed to Kansas City, some of the buzz around the league centered on how Pioli would fare on his own, and how the Patriots would fill his void -- both in personnel evaluation and in contract negotiations. One question was if he'd be taking research director Richard Miller, a behind-the-scenes presence who often helped in negotiations, with him to the Midwest.

From the Patriots' perspective, the hope is that the system they have in place and the promotion of director of player personnel Nick Caserio leads to a rather seamless transition. But to suggest the Patriots won't miss a beat dismisses Pioli's role in the team's success, how he organized the schedule of all the scouts, was a strong negotiator, and helped in the evaluation process.

It helps that Caserio was moved from wide receivers coach to the front office earlier this year, a switch that one now wonders if Belichick and the Patriots made with Pioli's possible departure in mind.

Still, you don't just lose a key member of the band and keep producing the same quality music. Time will be needed to get everyone in tune.

Meanwhile, for Pioli, this is a chance to step out on his own and presumably to be compensated handsomely for doing so. In New England, he'd always be attached to Belichick -- not necessarily a bad thing, but also a situation that created a ceiling the 43-year-old Pioli had seemingly reached.

When former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff experienced instant success in his first season as Atlanta Falcons general manager this year, perhaps that sparked Pioli's desire -- and grew his confidence -- that he could do the same.

So Pioli talked with the Cleveland Browns immediately after the season ended about running their football operation, but Browns owner Randy Lerner prioritized the hiring of a head coach (Eric Mangini) over Pioli. That left Kansas City, a situation that some felt Pioli wouldn't jump to because of his desire for total control and a mega-contract, something the Chiefs weren't offering.

But that wasn't the case.

Pioli once said one of his favorite Springsteen songs is "Prove it all Night", which he felt he always had to do in his role as vice president of player personnel. In leaving the band after nine years, and heading to a promising situation in Kansas City, now he has a chance to prove it on his own.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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