Super Chiefs? Haley's fuel for thought
A key to Arizona's recent Super Bowl run, coach likes chances to repeat feat leading KC
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley just couldn't let it go.He had watched some of his defensive backs drop pass after pass in a drill designed to improve their hands. He had talked smack every time a ball hit the ground. Finally, the players had tired of his jawing. If you think it's so easy, they told him, come on out and give it a shot.We've seen it happen in each of the past five years -- a team enters the postseason flying under the radar and suddenly discovers its mojo in the wild-card round. Three of the past five Super Bowl champions (Pittsburgh after the 2005 season, Indianapolis after 2006 and the New York Giants after 2007) enjoyed that kind of surprising run. The Arizona Cardinals won the NFC in 2008 (with Haley working as their offensive coordinator), and the New York Jets reached last season's AFC Championship Game. The one common denominator: the same underdog status the Chiefs now face in their first postseason appearance since the 2006 campaign. After going 10-6 on a soft schedule -- they had one victory against a team with a winning record -- they'll play host to the 12-4 Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. "The key is to win one game," Haley said. "As we showed in Arizona, if you win one game, you've got a chance to do anything. The other factor is having these guys understand that the regular season yesterday means nothing. We've all seen it. "History has proven it doesn't matter whether you've won nine games as we did in Arizona and ended up being two minutes away from a Super Bowl title or New England winning 17 and then losing the same as we did. It doesn't matter what you've done. It's what you're going to do now."[+] EnlargeDavid Drapkin/Getty ImagesHaley would love to have another chance to be excited on a Super Bowl sideline, even without former boss Ken Whisenhunt restraining him.
Some Chiefs qualities favoring a long playoff runThe Chiefs have plenty of qualities that can lead to success in the postseason. They have the confidence that comes when a young team enjoys a dramatic turnaround in one year. They have the league's best rushing attack, a blossoming quarterback in Cassel and a defense that has been solid all season. Most importantly, the Chiefs don't scare easy. When they've faced stiffer competition -- as they did in a 19-9 road loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 10 -- they haven't wilted under the pressure. Although Baltimore is the stronger team this weekend, Kansas City does have the advantage of playing in Arrowhead Stadium, where it has lost just once this season. It also helps that the Chiefs will meet a Ravens team that has struggled on offense lately (scoring 33 total points in wins over Cleveland and Cincinnati) and has had issues at cornerback that Chiefs Pro Bowl wide receiver Dwayne Bowe could exploit.As Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "This is going to be a tough football game. There's a reason these guys have the record they have. There's a reason they won their division. There's a reason they got a home game. [Arrowhead Stadium] is really a tough place to play." If Kansas City advances to face Pittsburgh or New England in the divisional round, it will have a few more reasons to be optimistic. The Chiefs beat Pittsburgh last season, when Kansas City had far less talent and experience on the roster than it has today. As for New England, there are plenty of people around Kansas City who have worked for the Patriots. They're in the front office (general manager Scott Pioli), on the coaching staff (coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel) and in the locker room (Cassel and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel). Those ex-Pats are likely to know whatever flaws exist in New England coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.[+] EnlargeGreg Bartram/US PresswireIn his second year as Chiefs coach, Haley is learning how to relate to his players better.
Surprising sides to hot-blooded HaleyWhat's also underrated about the Chiefs is how much Haley and his assistants have gotten out of their talent."They needed to see what that felt like," Haley said. "People can say it's just a hat or a T-shirt, but guys like [running back] Thomas Jones couldn't wait to get them. He said he's kept every one he's ever gotten." Along with pulling out the motivational tactics, Haley has become far more comfortable in his job. Last season, he rode his players so hard that former Chief and current Houston Texans strong safety Bernard Pollard said the team was "likely going to have a mutiny by season's end." Among other things, Haley offended Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters during an offseason visit, benched linebacker Derrick Johnson, played head games with Bowe and fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey in the preseason. The vibe around the Chiefs was so funky that when Haley friend and pupil Kurt Warner addressed the team this past offseason, the former Arizona Cardinals quarterback spent most of his time explaining that Haley's grating style was based solely on a desire to achieve greatness. This season, Haley has been slightly more relaxed as his team has prospered. He has seen Bowe develop into a Pro Bowl player, Johnson into a consistent defender and Cassel into a confident leader. The offseason additions of Weis (who recently became Florida's offensive coordinator) and Crennel especially have helped Haley avoid the temptation of doing too much. "Todd is a second-year coach who learned a lot in his first year," said Crennel, the Cleveland Browns' coach from 2005 through 2008. "He's letting his coordinators do their jobs, and that's allowed him to focus on other things. He's become more well-rounded as a coach, and it's showing." Said Cassel: "His approach hasn't changed. I wouldn't say he rules with an iron fist, but it's definitely a firm hand. And he holds us accountable. He'll call you out in meetings if you've made a bad play, but he also has a young, energetic personality."[+] EnlargeJamie Squire/Getty ImagesShould the Chiefs meet the Patriots this postseason, Haley can pick the brain of former New England assistant Romeo Crennel (left), among others.
'Sixteen Lombardis' couldn't help the old ChiefsHaley added that last season helped his entire team grow. "The key thing was that we knew last year wasn't going to matter," Haley said. "We could've won two games or we could've won eight, but I'm now glad we didn't do well. It would've created a false impression.
“"We were a four-win team, and having 16 Vince Lombardis on the staff wouldn't have changed that. It was painful, but it had to be like that because we were taking grown men out of their comfort zones." Ask Haley, and he can pinpoint the various moments in the Chiefs' maturation process. One came in the 2009 season-ending win over Denver. Haley had spent the entire week telling players the Chiefs could gain 200 rushing yards against the Broncos (Jamaal Charles actually went for a team-record 259 yards that day). Another appeared when the offseason program started. Suddenly, inconsistent Bowe was showing up early (instead of two hours late), left tackle Branden Albert was reporting at a slimmer 306 pounds (instead of hovering at more than 350) and Waters was eager to be a regular attendee (instead of demanding a trade or release, as the five-time Pro Bowler had a year earlier). It was in the spring and summer that the same players who had endured last season's misery began to see the improvement in talent. Free agents such as Jones, guard Ryan Lilja and center Casey Wiegmann brought valuable leadership to the locker room. Rookies such as safety Eric Berry, receiver/returner Dexter McCluster and tight end Tony Moeaki added speed and athleticism to the roster. By the time the Chiefs jumped out to a 3-0 start, the confidence was building. Their losses became harder to stomach because the players sensed they were letting games slip away. That was especially true in close defeats at Indianapolis, Houston and Oakland. "When we lost those games, we saw that we were killing ourselves with little mistakes," Albert said. "And we realized we could be a good team if we just got rid of them."
We were a four-win team, and having 16 Vince Lombardis on the staff wouldn't have changed that.” -- Chiefs coach Todd Haley on his 4-12 team in 2009
Ready for the spotlight?The Chiefs have managed to reach that goal for most of the second half of this season. Despite losses to San Diego in Week 14 (when Cassel was sidelined while recovering from an appendectomy) and Oakland in Week 17 (in a game that had no effect on the playoff race), Kansas City has been trending in the right direction.
Stamp your Passport
It's the playoffs, football fans, and now you can chronicle the experience with ESPN Passport, a free resource to keep your personal sports history. Log all the venues and games you've witnessed. See how your attendance record stacks up versus others. Click here to learn more then declare you're there!He still laughs at how ambitious he was back in 1997, when he was a New York Jets scout trying to convince Bill Parcells that he could be a good assistant. Haley was so hungry that he slept in his parents' basement and gave up a $70,000 personnel job to make half as much as Parcells' offensive quality control coach. Even before offering the position, Parcells thought the guy was nuts to take such a gamble. These days, Haley enjoys receiving congratulatory calls from former players and fellow coaches, as well as frequent advice from his father, Dick, who was the director of player personnel for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets. But two of the most rewarding phone conversations Haley has had recently involved his two first-time Pro Bowlers, Bowe and Charles. They both called the coach after learning of their nominations, and they both uttered a message that bodes well for a team looking to catch people sleeping in the playoffs. "They both said we still have work to do," Haley said. "That tells me these guys are really coming together." Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.[+] EnlargeJohn Rieger/US PresswireMatt Cassel is the only starting quarterback in the AFC field who has no playoff experience.
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