In my May 6 article (Post-Draft Musings, Part 1: In the Kitchen with Scott Pioli and Todd Haley) I warned that rookie coaches and General Managers often come into their first assignment believing they have all of the answers. Newcomers come from successful organizations, and they’ve learned their trade from watching successful role models. Successful role models execute unsuccessful maneuvers from time to time, however, and sometimes even the best pupil lacks the discernment to understand which of those maneuvers flopped the hardest. They mimic the good, but sometimes they mimic the bad too.
It is from the latter that Todd Haley culled his mid-practice stunt last Friday, wherein he pulled his coaching staff from the field, leaving the players to guide their own final gameday preparations. That move was taken from the Bill Parcells playbook. Specifically, Parcells walked out of a New York Jets practice on October 15, 1998. Haley was one of his assistants at the time. Prior to the walkout, the Jets were 2-3. They finished the season 10-1. Haley undoubtedly viewed the move as a turning point for the team, and he hoped that mimicking the maneuver would produce similar results for his struggling Kansas City team.
As evidenced by Sunday’s game, it didn’t. Here’s why:
1. Haley walked out on a Friday practice for a Sunday game. Parcells walked out on a Thursday practice for a Monday game. It seems like a subtle difference, but it isn’t. Friday’s practice is the final preparation for a Sunday game. Walking out of a Friday practice could potentially render a team unprepared. That might explain to some degree why, on Sunday, the team looked… (wait for it)… unprepared.
2. When Parcells walked out of that 1998 practice, he left it in the hands of 34-year old Pro Bowl quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Haley’s quarterback doesn’t have Vinny’s experience or his pedigree. That’s why it wasn’t Matt Cassel, but rather Brian Waters and journeyman tight end Sean Ryan that ran the offense in Haley’s absence. Waters’ role as a team leader is well established, but Ryan shouldn’t be taking a leadership role over Cassel. Cassel shouldn’t have afforded him the opportunity. It’s a clear indication that Cassel isn’t this team’s field general right now. He’s just the guy who takes the snaps.
3. In 1998, Parcells had been a head coach for 18 years. When an 18 year veteran coach with two Super Bowl rings walks out of a practice, he’s eccentric. When a rookie head coach does the same, eccentric is not the word that will likely be used.
4. Bill Parcells is Bill Parcells. Todd Haley is not.
I won’t mince words here. Todd Haley’s ego is getting in the way of the Chiefs winning games. The team suffers from an obvious dearth of talent, but not to an extent that justifies this past Sunday’s loss or the loss to Oakland two weeks prior. Would the tutelage of Clancy Pendergast on Friday have helped Maurice Leggett make better decisions on the field on Sunday? Maybe. Maybe not. It couldn’t have hurt. Likewise, would a dedicated offensive coordinator have been better able to identify that certain plays (namely the draw to flat-footed tailback Larry Johnson) just aren’t effective? Maybe. Maybe not. It couldn’t have hurt. More guidance won’t hurt a young team, but at every step Haley has opted for less guidance. Even in trading away Tony Gonzalez, the team’s only consistent skill position player, Haley opted for less.
It’s not working.
Then again, a lot of other things aren’t working for the Chiefs right now. Like Larry Johnson. His 2.4 yards per carry can be partially attributed to Haley’s ineffective (and sometimes bizarrely repetitious) play-calling, but mostly it’s just Larry. His body is broken. Larry is one of five backs to eclipse 400 carries in a single season. The other four were Eddie George, Jamal Anderson, James Wilder, and Eric Dickerson. Only Dickerson remained productive after his 400-carry season. Johnson has all of Dickerson’s whining skills, but none of his vision or longevity. He has nothing left in the tank, and he will continue to cripple the team as long as he remains their starter.
Then there’s offensive line coach Bill Muir. I began my campaign for Muir’s dismissal two weeks ago, and I think it’s apropos to resume that campaign now. Branden Albert remains mired in his sophomore slump. Brian Waters has developed into a penalty machine. Mike Goff is presently on pace for 14 sacks allowed. Ryan O’Callaghan doesn’t look to be appreciably better than Ikechuku Ndukwe, who was ultimately a rather regrettable and unanticipated downgrade from Damion McIntosh. Muir has taken what should have been a respectable unit and coached them down to the lowest common denominator. It’s never too early to fix a mistake, and by all measures it appears that Muir is exactly that.
Having said that, the greatest travesty yet on this offensive line isn’t Muir’s fault. It’s Haley’s. Haley elected to enter the season without a backup left tackle. With Ndukwe injured, he elected to enter Sunday’s game with two guards as his only reserves. Thus, when Albert was injured in the 2nd half, it fell on the team’s worst player to play the most difficult position. Smith, who is a bottom five player in the league at any position, readily demonstrated why Miami was pleased to relieve him of his left tackle duties five years ago, and why he’s struggled to find work anywhere in the interim. There is no feasible excuse to have Wade Smith on the active roster, let alone actually in the game. I would complain less had Haley and Pioli not dismissed no fewer than five better linemen prior to the start of the season, but they made their bed, and now Matt Cassel must lie in it.
Maybe he can get Damon Huard to teach him to lay in the fetal position.
As in the Dick Vermeil era, the Chiefs’ defense is back to making superstars out of the opposing team’s scrubs. As in the Marty Schottenheimer era, the Chiefs’ offense is back to providing setups for kicking and punting seminars. The threshold for tailbacks is 400 carries. I don’t know if a similar threshold exists for punters, but my guess is that the Chiefs will find out in relatively short order. Meanwhile, Ryan Succop is the only bright spot from a, as of present, miserable draft. That, combined with a poor showing in free agency, has shaped a team that very well might rival latter year Detroit rosters.
Still, I don’t think the Chiefs are the worst team in the league. That honor belongs to the Cleveland Browns. They’re not the worst coached team in the league either. That honor also belongs to the Browns. What they are is a team that sorely lacks leadership at the top and talent in the middle, but one that shows growth potential in both. Todd Haley can still right this ship, but he must overcome his inner Me. In that aforementioned article, I likened Haley to a chef trying to make apple pie from scratch (from the Carl Sagan quote: “if you want to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe”). Good chefs rely on their assistants. Haley must learn to rely on his. He and Pendergast cannot run this team alone, no matter how hard they try. They will only fail, and with each failure they’ll demoralize this team a little more.
But the Redskins will be hosting next week. The Redskins are a beatable team. This is a winnable game, but only if Haley and his team get their gameplan right.
Time to get cooking.