Chiefs camp report: Haley’s program turning the corner

Aug 8th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Just a hunch, but the Kansas City Chiefs emerge from their funk this season.

You heard me — the Kansas City Chiefs – a club that lost 35 of its last 41 games, produced no more than four victories in any of its last three seasons and ranked in the bottom third of most offensive and defensive departments last year.

Sooner or later they have to get better, and I say it’s sooner. In fact, I say it’s now, and some of that has to do with the players they have, some has to do with the coaches and most has to do with what happened last season.

And what happened is that the Chiefs bottomed out.

Nope, it wasn’t their worst season ever. Hey, they doubled their victories from the previous year. But they did it the hard way, with a new coaching staff and new regime struggling to push the operation in a different direction.

It was a renovation not unlike what was going on at Arrowhead Stadium, less costly but more demanding, only the teardown here didn’t involve cement and steel; it had everything to do with attitudes, practice habits and expectations.

“We had to lay the foundation,” coach Todd Haley said.

That’s one way of putting it. Another is: They had to kick some serious butt. Haley fired his offensive coordinator on the eve of the season, released his star running back mid-way through the year and, basically, put players on notice that if they didn’t change he’d make the changes for them.

“We knew it was going to be a big job and a tough job,” said Haley, “and it lived up to those expectations.”

Sacrifices were made, and I think back to the third game of the season when Haley ran the ball most of the second half in a blow-out loss in Philadelphia. In the third quarter he called 14 runs and two passes, infuriating Chiefs’ die-hards who wanted quick strikes. But Haley knew what was going on, and what was going on was this: The game was all but over. So why not attack the rest of the schedule instead?

That may need some explaining. It all goes back to what Haley said about laying “a foundation.” He knew his only chance to be competitive last season was to develop a rushing attack that, at least in Philadelphia, didn’t exist. So he would hammer it until he was successful, and by December he had what he wanted –- with Kansas City rushing for 114 or more yards in five of its last six starts, including a season-high 317 in the finale against Denver.

So the Chiefs finished 4-12. They found a springboard to the next season and maybe an element to future success.

“It was a change,” said Haley. “Like it or not, the result wasn’t going to be a lot different. We might have won one more [games]; we might have lost one more. But it was going to be what it was, and we just had to make progress through it.

“We were going to get that foundation laid so that this offseason we could start to build. Last year was a breakdown year. We had to break down all the thought processes, the attitudes, the way people thought things should go. That was the breakdown year.”

And now?

“Things are changing,” he said.

The evidence was there at practice late last week when, after two hours of working out in mid-day heat, Haley excused a group of veterans and told them to take their pads off. They did, but then hung around to run afterwards.

After another workout, this one on a 100-degree afternoon, Haley climbed the hill that leads from the playing fields to an indoor facility and found defensive backs Brandon Carr, Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers working on their releases.

“You can just see the change that’s taking place,” he said.

Changing habits is one thing; changing players is another. And the Chiefs have done that, too. A year ago they were limited on offense by, frankly, ordinary personnel. Now they’ve upgraded with the additions of free-agents Thomas Jones, Ryan Lilja and Jerheme Urban and rookie Dexter McCluster, a difference maker who can play virtually anywhere.

“When you’re looking at a guy like McCluster,” said Haley, “your mind is racing with possibilities.”

Jones is the key addition, not only because he was the third most productive back in the NFL last season but because he’s a polished veteran who can have an impact on young players. When you talk to teammates about him the word “leadership” always, always, always is mentioned immediately — with quarterback Matt Cassel going a step farther, saying that Jones’ work ethic “is matched by no person I’ve ever seen.”

The question, of course, is how he fits in with budding star Jamaal Charles, who gets the bulk of the carries? I wish I knew. I don’t. All I know is that a year ago Haley figured the Chiefs had to run to win, and now he has the backs to do it.

In Charles, he has someone who ran for 968 yards in his last eight games, averaged 5.9 a carry for the season and erupted for 259 yards in his last start. But he operated alone for most of last year. Now you team him with Jones, who had 14 TDs last year, and McCluster, and, suddenly, you have weapons to comprise the balanced attack that was missing in 2009.

“You look around at our skill guys,” said quarterback Matt Cassel, “and we have some people to do some things.”

Cassel should be the beneficiary of the roster improvement. A year ago, he tried to lead an offense that, frankly, was short of qualified players nearly everywhere. The offensive line wasn’t very good. Charles emerged only after Larry Johnson burned out. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was a disappointment. I think you get the idea. Cassel quickly learned he wasn’t in New England anymore.

“You have to take the peaks with the valleys,” he said. “There was definitely adversity, and I knew there would be coming into this situation. The hardest part was that everybody was looking at you. You get a contract, and they’re saying, ‘Come on in and help our team win now.’

“Well, that was my goal. Unfortunately, we didn’t play a lot of great football last year. That’s what it came down to. This year I’m a lot more comfortable, I’ve been here a year, I know my expectation level and I think we’re ready to go.”

So do I, and not just because the roster is different. The coaches are, too, with Haley firing himself as offensive coordinator and adding Charlie Weis, then picking up Romeo Crennel as his defensive coordinator. All have been together before, and all have been successful before. It’s hard to believe they won’t be again.

“Our hope,” said general manager Scott Pioli, “is that we’re going to be a better football team than we were last year.”

Trust me, the Kansas City Chiefs will.

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