Kansas City, Mo. For this week, at least, postgame handshakes should be no problem for Todd Haley.
Peeling him and others away from a warm, tender embrace might be a bigger concern. When Kansas City hosts Arizona at noon today, there’ll be people on both sides of the field feeling a debt of gratitude to someone across the way.
Start with Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He credits Haley, the Cardinals’ former offensive coordinator, with nothing less than making him great.
“I would say he’s a great coach,” said Fitzgerald, considered by many the finest wide receiver in the NFL. “He wanted it so bad for us. He prepared us so much. He pushed us. I remember after the (2008) NFC championship game him being in tears and just embracing him. Those type of moments I’m always going to remember with him.
“He was a great coach. But more so, he was a friend.”
Fitzgerald’s friend has had a rough week personally. His Chiefs were blown out by Denver on Sunday, then he had to apologize for not shaking hands with Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. Then he had an injury or procedure which has caused him to wear a brace and walk with a decided limp on his right leg.
The Chiefs head coach refuses to discuss his injury and generally shies away from talking much about players not on his team. But he makes an exception with Fitzgerald.
“He’s one of the best in the league, if not the best,” Haley said. “I have a great amount of respect for Larry.”
Haley also says he might never have gotten a chance to be a head coach if not for opportunities given him by Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, his old friend and former boss.
In addition, Chiefs’ fullback Tim Castille used to play for the Cardinals and says some of his best friends are still there.
“When I first got there, the staff was just getting together,” said Castille. “And we ended up going to the Super Bowl. Our time there together was very good. Coach Haley and coach Whisenhunt had a great relationship. It was cool. I know I still have a lot of friends over there. They’re a bunch of really good guys.”
Haley and Whisenhunt go back to their days as assistants at the New York Jets. When Whisenhunt became head coach at Arizona, Haley was one of the first assistants he went after, giving him a promotion to offensive coordinator, and two years later they were in the Super Bowl.
Whisenhunt does not pretend that every minute was peaceful with the volatile Haley.
“He was always great to work with,” said Whisenhunt. “I think that’s part of it. It’s just like having a brother and sister that you fight with but a lot of good things come out of it. I know he made me a better coach and that was good for me.”
Like so many close friends around the league who’ve drifted off to other teams, Haley and Whisenhunt still visit frequently.
“When Kenny hired me as the offensive coordinator, we were pretty clear on how the setup was going to be, that he was going to call plays starting out and then when he felt comfortable enough with me doing it we were going to switch over, which occurred somewhere in that first year,” Haley said. “I think that as the head coach, you’ve got to have a feel and a trust and a bond formed with whoever is calling the plays.”
Stopping Fitzgerald may be priority No. 1 for the Chiefs (5-4), who have lost two in a row and dropped into a tie with Oakland in the AFC West. The four-time Pro Bowler, despite an unsettled look at quarterback, leads the Cardinals with 49 catches for 601 yards and four touchdowns.
The Cardinals (3-6) have lost four in a row and trail Seattle by two games in the NFC West, a division they’ve won the last two years. They took a big personnel blow this week when starting right tackle Brandon Keith was lost for the season with a torn right hamstring.
Haley, probably as competitive as anyone in the NFL, insists he’s not approaching this game any differently.
“Any time you have a lot of ties on an another team, I can’t say it changes how you prepare or do anything,” he said. “You just always want to win. And any time you can beat your friends it feels a little better. That’s what we’re trying to do every week. I just happen to know a lot of guys on this team.”
Whisenhunt would not expect anything less from Haley. Was he surprised that his passionate buddy would snub McDaniels after getting blown out by 20 points?
“After he made me walk back from the basketball court after we got into a fight when he drove over, no,” he said.
It seems lunchtime pickup games in New York could get heated.
“We used to play one-on-one basketball,” Whisenhunt said. “We had to drive over in the car because it was a little ways. There were a few times where we’d get into arguments on the court to maybe throwing the ball at each other, and one of us would end up walking back rather than riding in the car back with each other.”