In writing this column, I know exactly what I want to write. The problem is, I don't. On the one hand, some of Todd Haley's personnel decisions have been really confusing. There have been plenty of surprise cuts throughout the year and some players have started in the place of others who seemed more deserving. On the other hand, Haley's been right on several occasions. The good news is, as time passes by, more and more of his personnel decisions appear to be pretty good ones.
This may sound like a pretty small issue, but there are many that would argue that New England's success in the past was largely due to a partnership between Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick. It will be immensely helpful if Haley can help Pioli make good personnel decisions.
Let's start with the bad and then look into the good:
The Bad: Win Now? Or Build Through Youth:
I understand that there is a delicate balance between winning for now, and rebuilding for later. For as much as Herm Edwards has been mocked for his comment: "You play to win the game," the answer isn't always that obvious. Sometimes you have to play the lesser player that gives you less of a chance to win today, in the hopes that he will put your team in better shape to win tomorrow. Sometimes you don't play to win the game. Helloooo.
For the most part, Haley doesn't seem to mind playing young guys. That doesn't mean he's been perfect. Jamaal Charles is playing better and better and better every week. Let me ask the obvious question: why wasn't he playing all along? I understand that LJ was the Chiefs' primary back and that the Chiefs were committed to his contract and ultimately his playing time. But I think in looking at Charles' success right now, there are more than a few people who wonder why he wasn't seeing more carries earlier in the season, if only as a change-of-pace back. Charles was barely getting about five carries a game and his role was largely limited to return and receiving duties. Had LJ not made a few stupid comments on Twitter, we'd still be wondering today if Charles had anything to offer in this league. Judging by his recent success, that would have been an outrageous oversight.
How about another classic example: Andy Studebaker. I really liked what I saw out of this kid on Sunday. I'm not sure that he can be an every-down OLB and he still has a lot to prove as a pass rusher, but I was really impressed with his play on run defense. There were several plays where I saw him trail an outside runner and slip between two blockers to influence the play. Now, this isn't as clear-cut of a case because Vrabel didn't play that poorly and because Studebaker wasn't exactly a prospect that made people do cartwheels. But it goes back to the idea that Haley needs to let his young guys play. Studebaker should have gotten more reps earlier in the season.
I wonder if the same situation is developing with their Safeties. John McGraw and Mike Brown are not answers at Safety. I like the idea of McGraw as a depth guy, but as a long-term starter, he's not a guy you can continually depend on. And don't let Brown's recent Defensive Player of the Year accolades fool you---he's still not a very good player. Two games ago, he benefitted from a few tipped passes where he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Last game, he got credit for making a nice sack at the right time. That doesn't change the fact that he is not a playmaker. As I said in an earlier column, he lets plays come to him; playmakers like Polamalu anticipate plays and blow them up before they get to them.
Hopefully, you see where I'm going with this. Neither McGraw or Brown have anything to offer this team in the long-term. And it's not like they're offering anything much in the short-term. They're in there because they don't make a lot of mistakes. I want the Chiefs to win now, but I would much rather watch Morgan make mistakes and see if he improves over time than watch two Safeties with zero upside play mistakeless football at an average level. If this was a 5-4 team, I can understand what Haley's doing. But this is a 3-6 football team. You have to give the young player with upside some in-game reps. Even if you don't start him the whole game, you do not keep him inactive on the roster or let him rot on your bench. McGraw or Brown are not going to be starters two years from now. Morgan could be. I don't know if Morgan will shine as Charles has, but it's hopefully a lesson to Haley that his young guys might surprise him.
Haley got lucky on Charles and Studebaker. The problem is, he only found out what they're made out of because he had no other choice. When LJ mouthed his way off of the team and Vrabel fell to injury, Haley didn't have much choice but to go with youth. I want to see Haley become more proactive about evaluating young players during the rebuild. It's time to see what Morgan is made of. If he fails, he fails. At least you know he isn't the answer. If he succeeds, well, then suddenly you have one less need to fill in the upcoming offseason.
The Good: Haley's Smarter Than We Give Him Credit For
I've been critical about a lot of moves Haley has made so far this season. And you know what? In many cases, I've been flat-out wrong.
The most glaring example is Derrick Johnson. I couldn't understand why DJ was in Haley's doghouse. As he's gotten more and more playing time, I'm beginning to understand why. He's not really that good. I know some people will point to his "improved" play on Sunday against Pittsburgh as a validation that he's getting better and should have been getting more playing time in the first place. I would have to disagree. DJ made a lot of big, flashy plays. Some of them came at key moments. But if you actually watch him snap for snap, you'll find that he still makes way too many mistakes for a player of his experience level. I don't like the angles he takes to make tackles. In many cases he overruns his gap. In other cases he whiffs on his assignment. The commentators on Sunday very aptly pointed out that DJ's missed assignment led to a receiver waltzing into the end zone untouched. I sense that Haley doesn't like DJ because he freestyles too much. Like a Lavar Arrington, he'll make a few big plays, but he'll make some headscratchingly bad ones too. Haley wants consistency. DJ doesn't give him that. I get that.
The other glaring example is Dwayne Bowe. There were some who wondered if maybe his struggles were due to the fact that he's getting separation but Cassel isn't hitting him quick enough. I'm starting to understand now why Haley has been so tough on Bowe. Thusfar this season, he hasn't been very good. Maybe some of that is on the quarterback, but given Cassel's recent success with Chris Chambers in the lineup, you have to think it's not all on Cassel. I don't agree with Haley's decision to play musical chairs with his receiver corps in the offseason and strip Cassel/Bowe from quality reps. But I do agree more and more with his decision to be tough on Bowe.
Tough Decisions Ahead:
Haley's going to have some very tough decisions to make. His job will actually be much tougher next year than it was this year. In many instances, Haley had to choose between crap and crap. And in many of those instances, it seemed pretty clear that Haley chose to scrap certain players because they weren't "Haley guys." Yet in other instances, as with Charles and Studebaker, he lucked into the right decisions by players getting injured. Arguably, the only position where he's installed a ton of accountability is at the Wide Receiver position, a position that he knows very well from his assistant coaching days.
Next year, he'll need to make much tougher decisions. He'll have to decide whether to play a late-round rookie or to bench one of the veteran Haley guys. It was easy for Haley to bench a Derrick Johnson or a Tank Tyler or a Bernard Pollard who either didn't fit his system or didn't fit his player profile. I wonder if he'll find it nearly as easy to bench a guy like Lance Long or Mike Vrabel. The same applies to guys he likes a lot because they bought into the program---what if Branden Albert doesn't get much better? When do you pull the plug on him? What if Matt Cassel doesn't improve with a better supporting cast? What if Tyson Jackson doesn't improve over time? How do you justify starting a 7th round rookie over a player who's playing average,
Remember, Dick Vermeil made a lot of sweeping changes after his first season as a head coach for Kansas City. Once he got his guys in the door, he was loyal probably to an extreme. It's easy to push a guy like Tyson Jackson onto the starting roster, given his draft credentials, but is it going to be nearly as easy to put in a raw 4th round guy with upside to replace an average veteran who doesn't make mistakes? That's going to depend heavily on Haley's ability to see things in practice that he believes will translate onto the field. His inability to see potential in Charles or Studebaker make me pause at this question. They don't make me panic, but they do make me hesitate to answer that question with any kind of certainty.
If Haley can get the personnel side right, that is going to go a very long way to shaping the Chiefs into a team that has a chance to go places.