Worst to First.
Pretender to Contender.
4-12 to 10-5 (potentially 11-5?)
The Chiefs have turned their team around in a very big way and if we truly believe that success and failure should be credited and blamed from the top-down, then Todd Haley undoubtedly belongs in the Coach of the Year conversation. The question is, does he have a legitimate chance of winning the award? And, if so, does he deserve it? I will do my best to answer this question as objectively as I can.WHY HALEY DESERVES TO WIN
The Turnaround: The record speaks for itself. The Chiefs' 6-win turnaround was the best in franchise history (and they could potentially make that 7-wins after this Sunday). Not bad for a team that was only expected to win 6 or 7 games this season... period. It's one thing to make a good team win games they're supposed to win. Quite another to make a young, developing team start to believe they can win.
Player Improvement: It's easier to win football games when your team is locked and loaded with superior talent. In many cases, a head coach is given NFL-ready draft picks or free agent upgrades that better the team. The front office deserves more credit, in those instances, than the coach. Where the coach really comes into play is finding diamonds in the rough (you have to credit Bellichick for having the moxy to put a player like Danny Woodhead on the field). But to me, the true mark of a coach is his ability to coach up players to reach their potential.
Even coaching up players has two layers. On the one hand, you have young players who reach their peak a little faster through coaching. What really fascinates me, though, is when a coach can turn around a veteran who never before realized his potential. That signals to me that the coach is reaching out to a player in a way that previous coaches could not. The three biggest reasons Haley deserves Coach of the Year are Dwayne Bowe, Derrick Johnson, Matt Cassel.
Now, I understand that Coach of the Year isn't a two-year award, but in this case, it might be. What makes Bowe and DJ so compelling is that the effect of coaching is clear: Todd Haley made a public spectacle of these players--in 2009, both Bowe and DJ moved in and out from the first team. Haley was criticized by fans and analysts alike for not putting the best players on the field, but you can't deny the improvements and they are much better players for it. Derrick Johnson is having bar none the best season of his career (116 tackles, 15 passes defensed with one game to go) and Dwayne Bowe is heading to his first Pro Bowl. With Cassel, Haley did just the opposite. He gave his vote of confidence to the guy even when everybody else (myself included) would not. He stood by Cassel's side when he was struggling. Whereas Bowe and DJ might have suffered from some swagger issues, Cassel seemed to be trying a little too hard and was beating himself up for not being better. There's no doubt that Haley's commitment to Cassel was instrumental in building that confidence, which has led to a calmer pocket presence and him starting to step into his throws. Haley used a similar approach on Albert--while everyone criticized him last year when he was struggling, he continued to back him, suggesting that he was an example of hard work and dedication. Those above examples show that Haley recognizes that every player needs to be coached differently.
All in all, we have seen substantial improvements from Bowe, DJ, Cassel, and Hali. We have seen marked improvements in Branden Albert, Brandon Flowers, Glenn Dorsey, and Brandon Carr. And rookies like Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, Javier Arenas and Kendrick Lewis slid into the starting lineup without a hitch. Some of this was due to talented players being coached to do the right things fundamentally. But a lot of this was due to a head coach reaching out to his players in the appropriate way. Not bad for a coach many thought was one-dimensionally maniacal.
Leadership of Youth Without Leaders: The Holy Grail for a head coach is to have a player on your team that is both a leader and an impact player at a key position. Scott Pioli has done a terrific job of bringing born leaders into the franchise, which has made Haley's job easier. But still, the bulk of the team's talent is young and impressionable. Given how young the Chiefs are, it's easy to imagine the Chiefs falling apart in so many ways. What happens when a key player makes dicey comments in the offseason about importing women? How do you keep young players from staying focused amid expensive contracts and the fame that comes with winning? Haley has done a remarkable job of keeping a young team focused and hungry, and he has built a locker room that seems to really care about each other. Fostering that kind of chemistry seems easy, yet the majority of teams don't have it.
Adaptability: Unfortunately, many will credit Haley's success to his talented assistants. No doubt Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis have had a huge impact on the Chiefs' success, but you have to give a ton of credit to Haley for finding a way to make it work. Not too long ago, Jason Whitlock questioned how two "egos" like Todd Haley and Charlie Weis could ever coincide. The understated point is that Haley took a pretty big step by agreeing to relinquish power for the good of the team. In fact, we've seen Haley adapt in a lot of different ways. He seems to be much friendlier with his players this year and we're seeing the Chiefs take less foolish risks (e.g. going for it on 4th and long). You have to appreciate when a coach is strong enough to swallow his pride and learn from his mistakes.
WHY HALEY WON'T WIN COACH OF THE YEAR
He Coaches in Kansas City: Let's start this off by pulling a quick jab. Let's face it, if Haley was coaching in New York or Washington and engineered this kind of a turnaround, he'd be a sure thing for Coach of the Year. As it stands, he coaches for a team that flies under the media radar.
Strength of Schedule: The factor that gives me pause is both the Strength of Win and Strength of Loss. The same argument should apply to Raheem Morris as well. Both of these guys have benefited off of a very cooshy schedule. Bill Bellichick and Mike Smith are two coaches who have won big games against bigger opponents.
Are the Chiefs Just Good Enough? Here's an interesting debate. Should a coach get credit for making a team just good enough to make the playoffs? The Chiefs fall into that category. There are plenty of teams with better records despite playing significantly tougher schedules. Given that the Patriots have been downright unstoppable against top-level competition, is it sensible for a coach like Bill Bellichick to lose out on the Coach of the Year because he's won it before? Or because his team has been historically good? A win is a win is a win, but the Chiefs have been much less convincing and few would call them dominant. So is this award about coaching a team to be the best of the best? Or is it about getting the best out of limited talent or improvement?
Hiccups in Preparation: I know some Chiefs' fans might disagree with me here, but this team has been inconsistent in dealing with adversity. Against Oakland, the Chiefs dominated in every phase of the game but found every way to lose the game through sloppy play. In the Chiefs' most important stretch to make the playoffs, I felt like the Chiefs players gave up against San Diego before a snap was even played. Even early against St. Louis, the team didn't look like a team that was fighting for the playoffs. Everybody but Matt Cassel played sluggish to start the game. Thank goodness Matt Cassel played like a leader that game. Even in a win against Denver, the Chiefs barely squeezed by with a win because they repeatedly made mental mistakes. This is still a young team, so you can understand some of the inconsistencies, but going back to the strength of schedule, a lot of the Chiefs' deficiencies were hidden because they made those mistakes against inferior teams.
My assessment? Of course my vote would be for Todd Haley, but there is a strong enough case for why a coach like Bill Bellichick or Mike Smith might be more deserving. Either way, it's a great thing that he is deservingly in this conversation at all.