Reporting from Kansas City, Mo. — The first-place Kansas City Chiefs have surged forward by moving back, coaching quarterback Matt Cassel to take deeper drops that allow him to better survey the field and find his open receivers.
"When you're back farther like that," Coach Todd Haley said, "you're not getting balls knocked down, your offensive line loves you because they don't have to be perfect, and it increases your margin for error."
That said, no one could have predicted the latest dropback.
Cassel, in the midst of a spectacular season, underwent an emergency appendectomy Wednesday and is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game at San Diego. His replacement is Brodie Croyle, who lost each of his nine starts for the Chiefs from 2007 to 2009, albeit surrounded by an inferior supporting cast.
Now comes the most challenging test for the Chiefs (8-4), who have built an NFL-best two-game lead over Oakland and San Diego in the AFC West with four games to play. Can a franchise that won a combined 10 games over the previous three seasons hang on to its division advantage and make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?
Regardless of what happens during the next month, however, there's no denying that Haley has over the first three-quarters of the season established himself as a legitimate coach-of-the-year candidate, along with colleagues such as New England's Bill Belichick, Atlanta's Mike Smith, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, Chicago's Lovie Smith and Rex Ryan of the New York Jets.
"It wasn't like we had bad players here before, but we didn't play as a team," Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. "Guys wanted to do their own thing. That's what Todd saw here. He saw the talent and the potential, but he knew that we didn't have a team.
"He came in here and changed the way we go about our business, gave us a sense of urgency. It was, 'If you don't want to do it, then you don't want to be here.'"
No one ever accused Haley of having a delicate touch. He was steeped in the hard-edged tradition of the Pittsburgh Steelers — his father, Dick Haley, was the personnel director who assembled the championship Steelers teams of the 1970s — and the younger Haley has shown no hesitation to speak his mind. That was obvious to millions of football fans during the 2008 season, the year before Haley was hired by Kansas City, when he was offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals and they were making a Super Bowl run.
In the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game between Arizona and Philadelphia — which the Cardinals wound up winning — cameras caught Haley and receiver Anquan Boldin angrily screaming at each other. Just another day at the office.
"[Haley] will push you every day and get up in your face, and that's his coaching style," former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "But he does that so you'll be the best you can be."
Warner said as much to the Chiefs' players last spring during a mini-camp. He accepted Haley's invitation to talk to the team and share his views on a coach they were only beginning to know.
Recalled Haley: "It was an amazing talk. He said, 'What do you think of this guy Todd? Kind of a jerk, mean, crazy, yells all the time.' They were all laughing and he said, 'That's what a lot of us thought. But more of us learned pretty quickly that all he wanted was for us to be the best. He was relentless in his pursuit of that.' "
That's something Haley learned from the two most meaningful football mentors in his life, his father and legendary coach Bill Parcells, who worked with both Haleys in the late 1990s as coach of the New York Jets. Dick was the team's director of player personnel, and Todd made the transition from personnel assistant to coaching, where he went from offensive quality-control assistant to receivers coach.
Parcells said he saw potential in Haley, whom he later hired as receivers coach in Dallas, and he concedes he might have given him an earful of pointed criticism from time to time.
"When you're a young coach, your sensitivity level is a little higher," Parcells said. "I can tell you that I was in that same position myself from time to time as a young coach, where there were a few people that were a little rough on me as well.
"But this game is about accountability. Nobody cares why you don't get the job done."
Kansas City's front office and coaching staff is replete with members of the Parcells Jets — coaches and players — who in 1998 were 12-4 and reached the AFC title game before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver. Among those Jets-turned-Chiefs are General Manager Scott Pioli, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive line coach Bill Muir, as well as former Jets players who are now coaches: Maurice Carthon, Richie Anderson, Bernie Parmalee, Otis Smith and Anthony Pleasant.