When Todd Haley leads this season's most surprising playoff qualifier into battle against the Ravens on Sunday, the Chiefs' second-year coach will charge onto the Arrowhead Stadium field with a cocksure sneer that suggests he's looking for a fight.
If Ray Lewis(notes) is the fierce, ferocious face of the Ravens, the Chiefs' commander-in-chief is the All-Pro middle linebacker's K.C. counterpart – a man whose brash attitude has helped transform a flailing franchise. Rex Ryan may lead all NFL coaches in audacious public proclamations. But he has nothing on Haley, a strong candidate for coach of the year, in terms of swagger.
"I'm not afraid of a little confrontation now and then – and that's not a bad thing," Haley said Tuesday. "And for me, a lot of it goes back to having coached wide receivers all those years. If you can survive in that room, with those personalities, you have a chance."
Haley has a point. His career as an assistant included associations with Keyshawn Johnson (who reveres him); Terrell Owens(notes) (with whom he clashed constantly); and Terry Glenn(notes) (whose career he rejuvenated), and he'd be justified in putting Diva Whisperer on his résumé. OK, the "whisperer" part would be inaccurate. Remember Haley's conspicuous sideline shouting match with wideout Anquan Boldin(notes) two years ago during the NFC championship game that sent the Cardinals, for whom Haley served as offensive coordinator, to their first-ever Super Bowl?
That's the fire the 43-year-old coach brings to his job, and I believe it's a major reason the Chiefs won as many games this season (10) as they had in the previous three combined.
In Haley's words: "I'm not there to have them like me. I'm here to use the players I have to the best of my ability to give us the best chance to win. Sometimes, you have to get a little animated, and I think it's very, very important that you be yourself."
It's not surprising that one of Haley's most striking reclamation projects in Kansas City has been Dwayne Bowe(notes), a supremely talented receiver who had a pair of productive seasons before struggling through a highly disappointing '09 campaign during which his work ethic, attitude and focus were called into question. Bowe, who served a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy regarding anabolic steroids and related substances – his agent said he took a diuretic for weight loss – caught 47 passes for 589 yards and four touchdowns last season. He also dropped 11 balls in 11 games, ranking him among the league leaders.
Though he still has an occasional Edward Scissorhands moment, Bowe has been a beast in 2010. His 72 catches for 1,162 yards and NFL-high 15 receiving touchdowns earned him a Pro Bowl berth – and Haley's admiration.
"I've coached enough receivers to know that the transformation isn't always instantaneous," Haley said. "He was out of shape when he reported to camp [in '09] and he tried to get into shape, which led to pulled muscles and to the suspension, which resulted because he was trying to lose weight.
"The key thing for Dwayne was how he approached his second offseason. This year, he reported at 212 pounds instead of 238. And he also went to work out with Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and his group in Minnesota, which he said he was going to do the first year but didn't. Larry was kind of put off by that, but I talked to him and helped persuade him to give [Bowe] another shot – and I think it paid dividends.
"Now I'm watching Dwayne intently, just like I watched Larry."
That last line was classic Haley sarcasm. In a scathing column Tuesday by FoxSports.com's Jason Whitlock, Haley was described as a "fraud" who deserves no credit for the Chiefs' turnaround. Among other things, Whitlock mocked Haley as a faux "offensive guru," saying he "bickered with Anquan Boldin, annoyed Kurt Warner(notes) and watched Larry Fitzgerald as the Cardinals made an improbable run to the Super Bowl."
Whitlock and I go way back, but we're Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann on this subject. Though Haley has certainly benefited from the shrewd moves made by the man who hired him, general manager Scott Pioli – and by this year's presence of renowned coordinators Charlie Weis (who last weekend accepted a job as Florida's offensive coordinator but will stay with K.C. through the postseason) and Romeo Crennel – I believe his leadership has helped prod the Chiefs into becoming a physical, assertive team.
From quarterback Matt Cassel's(notes) stunning rebound from a brutal first season in Kansas City to breakout performers such as halfback Jamaal Charles(notes) and linebacker Tamba Hali(notes) to the contributions of numerous lesser-known players, Haley has helped coax a lot of positive things out of the Chiefs.
The son of longtime NFL personnel man Dick Haley, a low-key, highly respected talent evaluator who helped build the great Steelers teams of the '70s, Todd absorbed numerous lessons about team-building and believes his adaptability has served him well.
"I'm not here to be a guru and have a system," he insisted. "My dad's philosophy in Pittsburgh was always, 'Just draft good football players and hire good coaches that take those players and put them in the best possible position to succeed. Don't draft players to fit your system – make your system flexible and use the players that you have.'
Haley's probably best remembered for chastising Josh McDaniels after a loss to the Broncos in November.
(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
"I think we've done a real good job of getting great football players since we arrived. And my job is to try to get them to play to the best of their ability, to put them in a position to succeed – to get them to do something they can do and not to do something they can't do."
Haley regards the Chiefs as a work in progress and was pleasantly surprised by the jump they made this season, dethroning the Chargers as AFC West champions. I'm convinced that one of the reasons they accomplished this is that they adopted their coach's brazen personality and dared to defy expectations. Swagger can be infectious, and one of Haley's most obvious signs of such a mentality is his willingness to go for it on fourth down, even in his own territory or when conventional wisdom calls for a punt.
"The fourth-down thing is huge," Haley told me earlier this year. "People don't realize how much goes into that. Yes, we've studied the percentages, but it also has to do with how we call plays on third down and what our mentality is as an offense.
"When I was a play-caller, and the head coach would decide to go for it on fourth down, I always felt, 'Boy, it would have been nice to have known that the play before because I might have called it differently.' So there are many times when we decide at the start of a drive, 'We're going for it on fourth down no matter what,' and it impacts our whole approach. People have no idea how many times we've been in that mode because if we keep converting before fourth down, you never find out. But we've done it a lot."
It's not a perfect strategy, and it's one that certainly leaves a coach open to criticism when it fails. (Trust me – I might be the one bringing down the hammer.) Yet I like the fact that Haley isn't afraid to put his reputation on the line at this stage of his career, and I can tell from the way the Chiefs play for him that it rubs off.
Now, after rubbing out our 20 non-playoff qualifiers, I present the 12 queries whose swagger knows no bounds:
3. Baltimore Ravens: Are the football gods trying to tell Ed Reed(notes) something about lateraling – and am I the only one who's convinced that he'll end up with at least one of Matt Cassel's passes on Sunday?
Reid's staff is reportedly concerned with Vick's ability to handle blitzes.
(Al Bello/Getty Images)
6. Philadelphia Eagles: Am I the only one who thinks the prospect of Andy Reid benching Michael Vick(notes) in the Eagles' first playoff game is about as plausible as Vick making a cameo in a "Marley and Me" sequel?
10. Kansas City Chiefs: If a player caused the type of distraction that Coach Weis did by accepting a job as Florida's offensive coordinator just before K.C.'s playoff run, how quickly would the team's head coach (and people in my business) jump down the guy's throat?
12. Seattle Seahawks: If they reach the NFC championship game and lose to finish 9-10, will Pete Carroll's 'Hawks be considered the best under-.500 team in professional sports history?