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Haley leads culture change in K.C.
Kansas City, Mo.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Even for the Kansas City Chiefs.
One of the NFL’s worst squads the past three years is the biggest early-season surprise. The Chiefs (3-0) enter Sunday’s game in Indianapolis as the league’s only undefeated team.
Todd Haley couldn’t have asked for more after introducing “Chiefs Will” as the club’s 2010 motto. Created by the head coach and his wife Chrissy, the slogan was used in an offseason letter sent to players, printed on T-shirts and painted at the bottom of the field entrance tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium. Haley offered further reinforcement through an inspirational video he showed at the start of training camp.
“I saw that as meaning us winning and doing successful things,” Haley told FOXSports.com after Friday’s practice at team headquarters. “It’s something now that guys say and use.”
It’s also further proof that Chiefs players are bending to the will of Haley and a support group that general manager Scott Pioli affectionately refers to as “The Tribe”: Assistant coaches and front-office personnel whose football roots can be traced to Bill Parcells’ NFL tree.
Like Haley himself, most of his staff – including new coordinators Charlie Weis (offense) and Romeo Crennel (defense) – have either worked or played under Parcells. While not sharing that same background, strength coach Mike Clark and secondary coach Emmitt Thomas have earned strong praise for their contributions. Haley and Pioli also have developed a strong working relationship while spending the past two seasons overhauling what was a talent-barren roster.
All of this has helped the 43-year-old Haley forge his head-coaching identity – something that was a struggle during a tumultuous 2009 campaign.
“A lot of us were evolving last year, myself included,” Pioli said. “There’s a lot of new responsibilities (as a head coach) and you’re trying to juggle a lot of things at once.”
Not even a circus clown could keep as many balls in the air as Haley did. An admitted micromanager, Haley assumed the offensive coordinator role after relieving Chan Gailey of his duties during the preseason. The unit struggled much of the year until finding late-season success in the running game.
That still wasn’t enough to keep the Chiefs from finishing 4-12.
The problem with Gailey was one Haley encountered with the other assistants Kansas City released in the offseason – a lack of shared vision.
“I didn’t want to be the coordinator,” Haley said. “I tried to go with somebody who was here because I felt it was the best option. It clearly became not the best option, no disrespect. It was no different for me than talking about the players. I need certain types of guys coaching for me or it will not work.”
This also explains Kansas City’s substantial player turnover. Almost two-thirds of the players on the current roster (34 of 53) were added during the Haley-Pioli era.
“This is a team atmosphere-type deal,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “When you have star players or an older team, that can get lost a little bit.”
Those Chiefs who did stick found life much different under Haley than predecessor Herm Edwards. For one, the demonstrative Haley isn’t afraid to give an earful to players who make mistakes. Haley’s outbursts led to some Chiefs fans nicknaming him “Road Rage.”
Haley bristles at criticism of his sideline demeanor. As a former wide receivers coach dealing with such stars as Keyshawn Johnson and a “prima donna guy like (Terrell) Owens,” Haley considers verbal exchanges par for the course when needed.
“There are times where the gauntlet had to be laid down,” Haley said. “You just coach the way you have to coach and don’t let people get away with stuff. That’s what I was taught and believe. When you hold that line, there’s going to be some resistance and confrontations.
“You’re dealing with highly competitive guys. They’re used to dominating the conversation.”
While attending the University of Florida, Haley said a sports psychologist diagnosed him as having a “crisis personality. The more chaos there is, the better for you.”
He didn’t disagree.
There’s no better example of Haley’s work under pressure than the 2008 NFC Championship. As Arizona’s offensive coordinator, Haley orchestrated the game-winning drive against Philadelphia even after getting involved in a shouting match with Anquan Boldin when the star wide receiver was benched.
“Here we are having to go 80 yards and Anquan makes a mental error three out of the first four plays,” Haley said. “The receivers coach is up in the box screaming in my ear, ‘He messed up! Get him out!’ Then Boldin goes off the reservation and I’m calling plays the whole way down. We score, we go for two (points) and get it. I didn’t even know any of that happened until I watched it.”
The Boldin incident has overshadowed the strong relationship Haley forged with other Cardinals offensive players. For example, Larry Fitzgerald has thanked Haley for helping his development into one of the NFL’s top receivers.
“Don’t believe what you see on TV,” said Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope, who followed Haley from Arizona to Kansas City. “You may see him yelling at a referee or player or whatnot, but Todd is a great guy. With him, you’ve got to have thick skin. You might not like what you hear or some of the changes he makes. You’ve just got to be strong and roll with it. He will bring the best out of you.”
Haley is just as demanding of his staff. Haley jokes that Kansas City coaches “hate me right now” because he is forcing every offensive and defensive assistant to spend time with special teams coach Steve Hoffman and list snaps from those units on their playtime reports. This makes it easier for Haley to decide how to allocate playing time.
No longer saddled with coordinator duties, Haley is a regular in both offensive and defensive meetings. He also has more time to design motivational ploys. One of them was having rookie Dexter McCluster deliver an impromptu freestyle rap about the offense’s potential in front of his teammates. Haley said he got the idea after watching a public-service announcement in which McCluster warns against texting and driving (something that Haley also is passionately against).
“I was in so many meetings trying to do the other stuff I wouldn’t have had time to even think of that (last year),” Haley admits.
Haley also is making sure the Chiefs haven’t become complacent after a strong start, especially with upcoming games at Indianapolis and Houston that could bring the team back to Earth. All three of Kansas City’s practices heading into the Colts game were conducted in full pads, a far cry from the lighter work that other teams do during the regular season.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Pope, whose team’s victories have come against opponents (San Diego, Cleveland and San Francisco) with a combined 3-9 record. “Day in and day out, he’s still harping on, ‘A good team does this. A good team does that.’ We still have to find our way. Right now, we’re nowhere near as good as what we’re going to be.”
If Haley has his way, the Chiefs will get there.