- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
Without hesitating, Haley jumped into the drill and raced across the field as an assistant lofted a pass. But when the ball sailed a little too far to Haley's right, he dove awkwardly to snare it and felt a sharp snap in his right leg. By the time he rose from the ground, he knew he was in trouble. The pain in his leg was so intense he couldn't even toss the ball back to the assistant.
But what happened next explains why Haley -- who tore his quadriceps from the bone that day seven weeks ago -- is the right man for a Chiefs team that won the AFC West after finishing 4-12 in 2009. He limped back to the sideline, calmly restarted practice and spent the next two hours standing on that shredded muscle, internalizing his pain.
Even after surgery a couple of days later, Haley was back at practice the next afternoon.
"He never really explained what happened," Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. "But that's just how he is. No matter what happens, he believes the show must go on."
Haley has given his team that same mix of toughness and pride, a combination that just might help the Chiefs become a sleeper in this season's playoffs.
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."
Some Chiefs qualities favoring a long playoff run
The 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.
Surprising sides to hot-blooded Haley
What's also underrated about the Chiefs is how much Haley and his assistants have gotten out of their talent.
"One of the best things about Todd is that he knows how to make players play to their strengths," said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who worked with Haley in Arizona. "When you look at them, you don't see a ton of talent, but they do their jobs well. And that's all you really need. You have to have guys who believe they can make plays when their number is called."
It won't be hard for Haley, 43, to keep finding unique ways to drive his team to loftier heights. Most outsiders know him for his risk taking (he loves going for it on fourth down) and his quick temper (he benched Cassel for a few plays in a win over Tennessee on Dec. 26 and famously refused to shake the hand of then-Broncos coach Josh McDaniels after a loss to Denver on Nov. 14). What people rarely see, however, is the way Haley has motivated this team behind the scenes.
When the Chiefs met the night before their season-opening win over San Diego, Haley pumped up his team with a video montage he had helped create, a film that included highlights, clips from the film "300," and music by Lil Wayne and Eminem. To this day, players still ask him how he put it together.
When the Chiefs didn't have a chance to enjoy their AFC title after that victory over Tennessee -- they clinched after San Diego lost to Cincinnati later that day -- Haley arranged for players to receive hats and T-shirts bearing championship logos in the locker room after practice the following Wednesday.
"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."
'Sixteen Lombardis' couldn't help the old Chiefs
Haley 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.
”-- Chiefs coach Todd Haley on his 4-12 team in 2009
"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."
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.
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Now the Chiefs have to show they're ready for the postseason pressure. That means emerging stars such as Bowe, Charles and outside linebacker Tamba Hali have to thrive.
"Every team that has gone on one of those playoff runs lately has had something they can hang their hat on," said former Cardinals quarterback Warner, who teamed with Haley and Boldin to drive Arizona to the brink of the Super Bowl XLIII title.
"In Arizona, we felt like we could outscore people. The Jets had their defense and a strong running game last year. You need guys to be difference-makers because it's hard to depend on a different group of players to step up for you over the course of three or four games. That's the question I have about the Chiefs. Who are those guys going to be?"
Added Cassel: "We just have to keep doing the things that we've been doing. When you get to the playoffs, everybody is good, so it comes down to situational football. It's taking care of the football, avoiding penalties and being efficient in the red zone. We've been good at those things all season, so it's not about trying to play better at this time of year. It's about trusting your preparation."
Haley also understands there will be more scrutiny on him as this weekend approaches.
Weis' impending departure (before turning his attention to Florida, he has agreed to stay throughout the Chiefs' playoff run) has created questions about Haley's ability to co-exist with his coordinators. Still, a team source said Haley hired Weis only after being denied a chance to interview Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson.
The Week 17 loss to Oakland also left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans, especially because Haley kept his starters in all game. But Haley has been here before. The Arizona Cardinals lost four of their last six games in 2008 (including three by margins of 21 points or more) before racing off to the Super Bowl.
If anything, Haley is more aware than ever of how far he has come as a coach.
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.