Chiefs use locker room game to build unity
Todd Haley's team was floundering. The Kansas City Chiefs hadn't won a game, and even though players insisted morale was fine, it was awfully hard to believe them.
Their head coach got to thinking about ways to loosen them up, something that might create some team unity. His mind drifted to summer vacations along the beach in Ocean City, Md., and a simple game played at just about every bar and honky-tonk along the boardwalk.
It's called ''cornhole,'' or ''bags,'' depending on where you live.
The premise is simple: Two pieces of lumber are situated exactly 33 feet apart, with a hole drilled in each, and players try to lob four bean bags through the hole. You get three points for making it and one for landing the bag on the board, and the player with the most points wins.
''We bought one at an auction this summer for a kid who was in an accident, and it was just painted up really nice, it had the name of the place we go to eat all the time,'' Haley said. ''So when I started thinking about this, I called my wife. She called the people who owned the place and said, `Can we get one that says Chiefs?' He had it here like, three days later.
''We've been trying to figure out ways to create some togetherness,'' Haley said. ''It's been great, another way to keep guys hanging around and interacting with each other.''
Must be working, too.
Ever since the white playing boards with the Chiefs' logo showed up in the locker room, on the carpet right smack in the middle of it, Kansas City hasn't lost a game. True, the two wins were over struggling teams in Minnesota and Indianapolis, but that doesn't change the fact that the mood has changed dramatically the last couple of weeks as the Chiefs head into their bye week.
Tension is gone. Chins are held higher. Smiles flow a little more freely.
The defending AFC West champions lost their first two games by a combined 89-10, one of the most dismal starts the league has ever seen. But despite losing a constellation of star players to season-ending injuries, the Chiefs are once again playing with some swagger.
It's the same swagger that's showing up in the locker room after ever practice.
That's when the competitive juices really start flowing.
''When you want to beat the best, you come see me,'' said defensive back Travis Daniels, who has quite the cornhole rivalry going with wide receiver Steve Breaston.
''It's all in how you throw it. I sort of short-stroke it and it pops up there,'' rookie wide receiver Jon Baldwin said. ''We've been playing a few weeks now and we're getting pretty good at it.''
Just how seriously do the Chiefs take their cornhole? There's white athletic tape on the carpet to denote boundaries, the distance between the boards was measured exactly, and everything is done to the exact specifications of the American Cornhole Association - yes, it really does exist.
''We Googled it,'' Haley said.
The third-year head coach said he can hold his own, and Daniels admitted he's ''pretty good.''
''But he can't beat me,'' Daniels added.
The consensus is that long snapper Thomas Gafford or kicker Ryan Succop is the best.
Must be something about those special teams guys, always over on the adjacent practice field, with all that extra time to kill while the rest of the guys are hard at work.
''I don't know who's the best,'' linebacker Andy Studebaker said. ''Don't give it to Gafford. That'll puff his head up too much. He'll see your article and think he's the best.
''Give it to Succop,'' Studebaker said. ''He's pretty good.''
According to Succop, it's all in the motion.
Safety Sabby Piscitelli throws the bags end-over-end, and they tend to hit hard and slide off the board. Others toss them like they're shooting a jumpshot in basketball, and that makes it difficult to find some consistency. Still others throw them underhanded with sideways spin.
Succop takes a small step forward, drawing his arm back breezily, and then lets the bag fly with a gentle follow-through. It floats through the air with hardly any spin, and it falls with a thump on the board, sticking right where it lands.
''We've got some guys who are pretty good at it,'' Haley said. ''Gafford is good, Succop is pretty good. It's been a lot of fun. I'm actually going to get two more. The lines get too big.''
Of course, the game won't be considered such a novel, team-building diversion if the Chiefs start losing. Then it'll be blamed for being a mindless distraction.
''Winning helps that,'' Haley said with a smile. ''Had we not been winning, I think they might be being used as firewood already.''