Chiefs appear headed for big turnaround
Todd Haley admits he had only glanced at the new hardback sitting on his office desk.
Not that Kansas City’s head coach could get much more out of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team than what he has already experienced firsthand.
The Chiefs were among the NFL’s most backward franchises before Haley and general manager Scott Pioli arrived in February 2009. The struggles continued last season with a 4-12 record and 16th consecutive year without a playoff victory.
Haley describes the difference in his team from this time last season as “night and day.” Quarterback Matt Cassel took it one step further.
“The sun has come out and there’s not a cloud in the sky,” he said.
The Chiefs are seeing the light in workouts where all but one player (safety and unsigned restricted free agent Jarrad Page) is participating. Wide receiver Chris Chambers and linebacker Mike Vrabel are valuable starters who were re-signed earlier in the offseason. Three veteran acquisitions -- running back Thomas Jones and offensive linemen Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Lilja – have already provided strong leadership and upgraded their respective positions. Free safety Eric Berry and wide receiver/returner Dexter McCluster should make an immediate impact as rookies. And the Chiefs added both coordinators from New England’s Super Bowl-winning teams in the mid-2000s -- Charlie Weis (offense) and Romeo Crennel (defense).
“On paper, we look pretty decent right now,” Chambers said.
This could never be said about the 2009 Chiefs.
“In the years before, it was a little bit more relaxed,” said guard Brian Waters, the longest-tenured Chiefs player at 11 seasons. “It’s definitely changed ... Everybody is more professional and taking things more seriously.”
Such accountability was one of the first goals Pioli set after being lured away from New England. Besides revamping the front office, Pioli also fired head coach Herm Edwards and replaced him with Haley, the offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals squad that had just reached Super Bowl XLIII.
It’s too early to call this a match made in heaven, but there’s no question Haley and Pioli experienced a hellish debut. Because he was hired so late after the 2008 season ended, Haley’s coaching staff options were limited. Haley fired his offensive coordinator (Chan Gailey) before the season began and canned his defensive coordinator (Clancy Pendergast) once it ended. Six other staff changes have followed.
Haley had assumed the offensive play-calling from Gailey, which the former allows “didn’t necessarily help us win any games last year. It might have cost us a game because it was a major change.” It also placed extra stress on someone who already was suffering the growing pains inherent in being a first-time head coach.
“You take over the offense, you have to dedicate so much time and energy,” said Cassel, who also was trying to learn a new system after being acquired in a trade with New England. “I could see it in his eyes last year. It was difficult for him.”
The roster didn’t make it any easier. The Chiefs weren’t just bereft of talent and depth. The players were out of shape, too.
Haley said the Chiefs collectively dropped more than 700 pounds in a six-month span once he took over. But by not being in good condition to begin with, Haley was limited in how much he could accomplish heading into the regular season.
“That’s unheard of and should only happen one time,” Haley said.
Chambers, who was claimed off waivers from San Diego when the Chiefs were 1-6, said Kansas City was in “disarray” upon his arrival.
“There was confusion, fussing and yelling,” he said. “The guys were humbled when I got here because of the losing.”
Public discontent was growing as well. Wiegmann, who started for Denver last season, said the atmosphere for the Broncos-Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium was markedly different than when he played in Kansas City from 2001 to 2007.
“When I was here the first time, the fans were crazy and the stadium was always packed,” Wiegmann said. “Last year, there were hardly any people in the stadium. I felt bad for the players here. That’s not what the Chiefs are all about in this city.”
Coincidentally, one reason for renewed optimism began in Denver. The Chiefs derailed the Broncos’ postseason hopes with a 44-24 win in the season finale. Not only did Jamaal Charles cap a strong December with a 259-yard rushing effort, Haley was thrilled with his squad’s overall approach. Haley fondly remembers players staying after every practice that week to run gassers even though the Chiefs were eliminated from playoff contention by Halloween.
As part of his season-ending message after the Denver game, Haley said he told Chiefs players, “I don’t know any great team that it started easy for. We’ll all be better players and coaches for this.”
The improvement started as soon as Weis and Crennel were hired. While both failed as head coaches with Notre Dame and the Cleveland Browns respectively, Weis and Crennel are sharp football minds who have a long history with Haley and Pioli.
Cassel said working with a taskmaster like Weis already has made him a better quarterback. Tom Brady’s former understudy also has further entrenched himself in a leadership role through his work ethic and outgoing personality.
“You come into a new environment and it’s all new people. A lot is expected out of you,” said Cassel, who completed 55 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 2009. “You don’t really know where you fit in just yet. I was coming from a place where I was for four years. They knew I worked hard and what they were going to get. When we went 11-5 (with the 2008 Patriots), it’s because everyone believed in me. Here, they knew about me but I had to earn that respect.”
So did Haley, whose demonstrative sideline demeanor takes some getting used to (Chambers laughed when remembering being “dog-cussed” during one of his first Chiefs games). Haley still pays close attention to the offense, especially the wide receiver position he once handled as an NFL assistant. But now that Weis is in the fold, a less-stressed Haley has taken a much broader coaching view of his team.
“I knew I wanted a guy who could run (the offense) for me and knew the system,” Haley said. “Charlie was the perfect guy. The changes I had to make this year have been seamless, which is huge. Now the players are able to benefit from it.”
Haley also raves about the addition of esteemed secondary coach Emmitt Thomas and strength coach Mike Clark, whose program is generating positive results. There won’t be a collection of overweight Chiefs held out of early training camp practices like in 2009.
But even with a favorable schedule – only four opponents reached last season’s playoffs and the final two games are at home – the Chiefs aren’t a lock for success. Kansas City still hasn’t found anyone close to a comparable replacement for tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was traded last offseason to Atlanta. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe must regain the trust of his teammates after talking about the alleged sexual exploits of the 2007 Chiefs in a recent ESPN the Magazine story. Branden Albert isn’t a sure thing at left tackle. Even a defensive guru like Crennel may struggle to generate more than the paltry 22 sacks produced last year from a suspect front seven.
Asked how close Kansas City is to becoming the New England of the Midwest, Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel bluntly said, “Three Super Bowls away.”
“I don’t think we’re really close at all,” said Vrabel, who won three Lombardi Trophies in eight seasons with the Patriots before being traded to Kansas City in 2009. “We need to look at what we did last year and improve on it. We should try to win our division and make the playoffs. If we’re able to do that, we’re headed in the right direction. But four wins like we did last year is not going to be acceptable.”
Cassel is confident that chapter in Chiefs history is closed.
“If we can survive what we went through last year, we can survive anything,” he said.