Todd Haley’s bid to follow the successful path taken by John Harbaugh begins with an identical first step.
Harbaugh launched his NFL head coaching career a year ago by starting a new quarterback and initiating a plan to turn around a team coming off a losing season.
When he opens his second season as coach of the Baltimore Ravens today, Harbaugh will face a rookie head coach with a new quarterback and a team coming off a 2-14 season.
Haley left his job as offensive coordinator of the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals to take over the Kansas City Chiefs. He will be pressed to replicate the success enjoyed by Harbaugh and Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins, who transformed a couple of losers into playoff teams in 2008.
“I’m mad at coach Harbaugh, because he and coach Sparano, they set the bar a little high,” Haley said. “What Baltimore was able to do last year in the turnaround was a tremendous job by the whole organization. We’ve got a big job ahead of us, and we knew that coming in.”
The task begins against a confident team that expects to get back into the AFC championship game and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are a 121⁄2-point underdog, but the one thing they’ve got going for them is that Baltimore has no idea what to expect from an offense overseen by Haley and quarterback Matt Cassel, who hopes to make his Kansas City debut after hurting his knee in the preseason.
If Cassel can’t go, Brodie Croyle or Tyler Thigpen will run the offense. Regardless, the Ravens don’t have much of a scouting report to rely upon.
“There’s a lot of mystery to the Chiefs, X and O wise, and there’s a lot of mystery personnel-wise,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not sure who’s going to play various positions. Guys have played different positions than they’ve played sometimes in their career, and the scheme is completely different. So, we are in the dark as far as a lot of things they are going to do.”
Former New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel and first-round pick Tyson Jackson have been adjusting to Kansas City’s new 3-4 defense. But if the Chiefs are to pull off an upset, they’ll have to move the ball against a unit that excelled during the preseason under first-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
The Ravens haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since KC’s Larry Johnson did it in 2006, and they have no intention of letting Johnson end the streak at 35 games.
“He’s probably one of the best backs in the league, so something’s got to give,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We understand that as a defense, you don’t let anybody come run the ball on you. That’s all in your heart and in your will. We’ve been good at that around here.”
The Chiefs will likely try to establish the run, especially because Cassel is hurting. But is there a surefire way of generating offense against the Ravens?
“I don’t know that you can be more physical than they are, I really don’t,” Haley said. “So, you have to figure out ways to move the football against a defense that doesn’t want you moving it.”
Haley, who fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey during the preseason, expects to keep Baltimore guessing.
“Right now, all we can do is focus on us,” Ravens safety Ed Reed said. “First game of the season is all about what we’re doing right now. We can’t focus on what they’re doing because we really don’t know what they’re going to present. They’ve got new coaches going in, a couple different players, so it ought to be interesting.”
In his debut with the Ravens last year, Harbaugh led Baltimore to a 17-10 win over Cincinnati. The Ravens went 11-5, then 2-1 in the postseason before going 4-0 this summer.
For Haley, the transition hasn’t been nearly as smooth, as evidenced by the injury to Cassel and Kansas City’s 0-4 preseason record.
“I think that any time there’s change, it’s not always fun, it’s not always pleasant,” Haley said. “We’ve had to make a lot of changes, and that’s painful for a lot of people. What we’re going through right now is fighting through the change and trying to become the kind of football team we want to become.”
The Ravens are already there.
“I don’t think it’s a good way to begin it,” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said of the Chiefs’ first game under Haley. “We’re going to play well, and I don’t think they’re really going to want to play us by the end of the game.”