In August, Todd Haley had no idea his second season in Kansas City would be so delightfully better than his first season.
Still, he sensed he was on the right track -- even though it likely wouldn’t be the fast track to NFL riches.
“I knew last year wasn’t going to be easy or fun or smooth or comfortable,” Haley said on one of the final days of the Chiefs’ training camp in August. “And it lived up to expectations. ... But we were building a program and trying to change things. We’re doing it our way.”
Four months later, it is evident Haley did it his way better than any other NFL coach in 2010.
The Chiefs (10-5) are the surprise division winner in the AFC West and one of the biggest turnaround stories in the NFL. Kansas City was 4-12 in 2009 in Haley's first season after new Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli hired him away from Arizona, where he was the Cardinals' offensive coordinator. Haley’s final game with Arizona was a Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. After accepting the task in Kansas City, it seemed like that game would be Haley's last postseason experience for a while. The Chiefs, who last won the AFC West seven years ago, won only 10 games the three previous seasons.
Yet, Haley’s Chiefs -- who are 7-0 at home heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Oakland -- are preparing to face either New York, Baltimore or Pittsburgh on Jan. 8 or Jan. 9 in the wild-card round.
Haley’s work with this team has been stunning, and he's the easy choice for NFL Coach of the Year.
Who else could it be?
Sure, St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo could get consideration if his 7-8 Rams beat Seattle to win the NFC West. It would be a huge improvement for the Rams, who went 1-15 last season. But Haley’s work this season isn’t less impressive. Here’s a tiebreaker: Haley’s Chiefs beat Spagnuolo’s Rams in St. Louis easily in Week 15.
Other candidates include Philadelphia’s Andy Reid, Chicago’s Lovie Smith, Atlanta’s Mike Smith, New England’s Bill Belichick and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. No one has done the job Haley has done this season.
Not much was expected this season in Kansas City -- even in Kansas City. The Chiefs were just hoping to be more competitive in 2010 than they were in 2009 and continue to build the program on both sides of the ball. Instead, Haley has orchestrated the biggest one-season turnaround in Kansas City history.
“Through experience I have learned that you can get things going at least in the right direction,” Haley told reporters this week. “For us to get to this spot, this quick, is really great. I can’t say that it was necessarily expected.’’
Haley has overseen a major reconstruction on offense and defense. Offensively, the Chiefs are one of the more efficient and hard-nosed teams in the league. Quarterback Matt Cassel has made great strides this season. The running tandem of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones leads the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run offense. Kansas City has committed only 12 turnovers, three behind New England, which leads the league with nine. The NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season is 12 by the Chiefs in the nine-game strike-shortened 1982 season. (The Dolphins and Giants each had 13 turnovers in the 2008 season.)
On defense, Kansas City is aggressive and timely. In 2008 and ’09, Kansas City combined for 32 sacks, including an NFL record-low 10 in ’08. Kansas City has 34 sacks this season.
There’s no doubt Kansas City has benefited from the additions of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Haley said as early as the NFL combine in February that the hiring of the former key New England assistants would help free him to do more of what he wanted to as the CEO of the staff.
Haley, who is fourth in the league in going for it on fourth down (21 times), is not afraid of being different. Who can forget when assistant coach Maurice Carthon brought a portable toilet onto the field for players to catch passes out of to improve their concentration during training camp? During a minicamp, Haley had select veterans dress as coaches and instruct their teammates in an exercise to build team chemistry. Haley had the same thing in mind on a hot day in training camp when he suddenly blew the whistle on practice and sent his team to the movies.
Still, Haley has a reputation for having a hard edge. He argued with Terrell Owens in Dallas and Anquan Boldin in Arizona as an assistant coach. In his first year in Kansas City, Brian Waters, Dwayne Bowe and Derrick Johnson spent time in Haley’s doghouse.
To his credit, Haley doesn’t believe in burying players. This summer, Haley said he was thrilled that players persevered through the culture change from the Herm Edwards era to his program. Edwards was known as a player-friendly coach. Haley was not interested in adding to his Facebook friend collection when he came to Kansas City. Haley said in August he felt like his players were all “buying into” his program.
This year, Waters and Bowe made the Pro Bowl. Johnson had a career year and was awarded a contract extension.
It’s clear that Haley’s master plan is working in Kansas City and it is clear he was the right choice by Pioli. Haley has now won a division title with five different teams as an NFL coach, either as an assistant or head coach. No other active head coach can say that.
There’s no doubt Haley deserves to be the coach of the year. Still, he’s sticking to his preseason mantra. The job is not done.
“I know we have a lot of work to do, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Haley said. “We still have our issues and things we have to continue to work on, and I don’t think anything has changed for us as a team. We just have to get a little better every day and that will give us our best chance.”