KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Every day he wakes up, Dwayne Bowe(notes) thinks about it. The Kansas City Chiefs wideout drives to the practice facility in anticipation. He parks his SUV and ponders it. And when he finally sees coach Todd Haley, maybe in a corridor or coming around a corner, he knows how every minute of his day will play out.
"[Tuesday] when he saw me, he smiled," Bowe said. "I knew it was going to be one of those days where he was [encouraging] me and not yelling so much. It was all positive. But if he doesn't look at you, or he's not smiling or talking, you know it's going to be a [tough] day. Each day, you just never know."
Asked if he ever thought about such a thing a year ago – reading the facial expression of former coach Herm Edwards – Bowe lets out a telling laugh and shakes his head.
"Never," he said.
All regime changes come with uneasiness. New coaches bring new ideas, develop new favorites, and thrust veterans into situations where they are once again reading the landscape, trying to figure what it all means for them. But maybe no place this offseason has brought a more palpable shift than Kansas City, a franchise that saw a roster go through much of 2008 on autopilot, concluding with a 2-14 crash and a total purge of the team's leadership structure. Gone are Edwards and former general manager Carl Peterson, a duo whose final days were defined by a roster filled with viral habits and elitism.
Enter Haley and general manager Scott Pioli, two men who have seemingly gone to work on the franchise's psyche with a blowtorch and a chainsaw. With that in mind, you need only look at the Chiefs for one afternoon to realize that the blood-letting has just begun. And by the time it's over, there may not be a player on the roster who hasn't had the buttons inside his head re-programmed – if he can survive long enough.
That latter point is significant. Since the start of training camp on July 31, the Chiefs have made more roster moves than any other team – signing, cutting or trading 14 players. And that's a tally that doesn't include the inking of draft picks. While at their training site in River Falls, Wis., the Chiefs released five players. The previous regime had cut three players while in River Falls … in three years.
The message couldn't be less ambiguous: Just because a player gets on the plane to go to camp doesn't mean he's getting on the plane to come back. No matter the price, Pioli and Haley have shown their dedication to churning the roster and creating endless competition.
"A day won't go by here that Scott Pioli isn't trying to make this team better through other players," said Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes), whom Pioli acquired from New England in the offseason. "I came to expect that from eight years with the Patriots. Guys are going to come and go, and there are going to be guys constantly brought in to challenge you at your position. That's just the way it has been. … You're going to get an opportunity, and if you make the most of it, chances are you'll get a second opportunity. But if you don't, you can bet they'll be looking for somebody else."
The new regime wasted no time making that apparent. When Pioli took over in January, he inherited a roster that had become utterly complacent in losing. Even more, the group had developed such poor conditioning habits that a trained personnel eye could look at film from last season and see the team gaining weight from Week 1 to Week 16.
Discipline was in shambles, chemistry was largely nonexistent, and a dysfunctional star system had developed. The disjointed elitism was even apparent in the structure of the parking lot, where players were allowed to buy the best spots for their cars, rather than earn them on the field.
And it festered into the offseason, where players arrived to the beginnings of the training program grossly overweight. That included three key players – defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey(notes), offensive tackle Branden Albert(notes), and guard Brian Waters(notes) – who were all more than 340 pounds at one point during the offseason.
Those digits made weight and conditioning one of the highest priorities, to the point that Haley and Pioli have fined players for coming in too heavy. Ideally, Haley believes teams should never be so overweight that a roster sheds more than 150 pounds in offseason training. But the Chiefs' last total was a staggering 767 pounds lost – a digit that screams just how poor discipline had become under Edwards' watch.
"If that kind of weight loss ever happens again, I won't be here," Haley said. "Because that means I let the team get fat on my watch. It's a shocking number – shocking even to me."
And yet, it remains only one shocking fact in an ugly reality that has spoken just how far the Chiefs have left to go. While some of the chemistry issues have been removed from the roster (namely Tony Gonzalez(notes), who badly needed a change of scenery), Haley is still wrenching on the remaining talent. None more publicly than Bowe, who had earned a reputation for coasting in practice and lacking intensity.
Haley made it painfully clear he wasn't going to tolerate it, demoting Bowe to the third-string offense less than two weeks into training camp. Only this week did Bowe start taking reps with the first-team offense again – not before realizing that Haley's mental and verbal jousting was just beginning.
"If we start off slow in practice, he'll be like 'OK, Bowe, I see you guys don't want to come out here and practice, so we'll start it all over again,' " Bowe said. "A good play is never good enough. … When they put me on third string, I didn't think 'OK, I'm going to go into a hole now.' I just had to make more plays. The plays I was making weren't good enough for them. I started making plays in the running game, and even in the passing game, I was running hard on dummy routes to get another guy open. I had to become a full team player instead of just worrying about me."
Added quarterback Matt Cassel, "He doesn't mess around. He's to the point. Personally, I like that. I kind of experienced that a little bit with [Bill] Belichick in New England. He tells you how he feels – blunt and to the point. You always know where you stand. There's no crap in the middle."
That blunt approach isn't likely to change anytime soon. Pioli and Haley both admit the roster is far from meeting their expectations. Thanks to dead drafts at the end of the Dick Vermeil era, the Chiefs lack the instrumental homegrown four- and five-year veterans that often comprise the core of a winning team. That means the next few offseasons will be rooted in procuring and developing talent around pieces like Bowe, Albert, Dorsey, and Cassel.
Until then, Haley and his staff will oversee a defense that needs to manufacture a pass rush, an offense that will have to scheme to protect Cassel, and a franchise that will have to toughen up and take lumps before it gets over some significant hurdles.
"We're going to have to scrap to figure out ways to win games," Haley said. "We've got some work to do. … There's not a lot of room for sensitivity. That's what I said at the beginning. I don't want sensitive guys. I want guys that understand what's happening – why someone is MF'ing them or why someone is screaming. It's not about respect. It's about having high expectations."
While it could take some time for the Chiefs to build and meet those expectations, just establishing them might be the truest step this franchise has taken in the last two years.
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- Todd Haley
- Scott Pioli