Indianapolis — Chiefs coach Todd Haley and Colts coach Jim Caldwell have followed the same path into this week’s game.
Both became NFL head coaches in 2009. Both won division titles in 2010. Both have seen their teams struggle so badly the first month of 2011, they’re now being lumped into talk about the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes. Both have had to contend with an array of debilitating injuries, and neither expects to be earn sympathy on any given Sunday.
The cold, hard truth is that they’re still measured by victories.
“You feel for the players that go down because these guys invest so much in their teams,” Haley said. “As far as the outside, nobody really does care. You don’t get a ‘pass-go card.’ You have to figure out a way to get results in a result business.”
That mission has become increasingly more complicated this season.
Kansas City (1-3) has already lost running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki with season-ending injuries, and six players are on injured reserve. That’s derailed expectations of being a contender this year. Hey, at least the Chiefs broke out of the NFL’s winless pack with five field goals and a touchdown in a 22-17 victory over winless Minnesota.
Caldwell empathizes because things have been even worse for Indy (0-4).
Peyton Manning hasn’t played a down since undergoing neck surgery in May. The Colts have lost two defensive starters with season-ending shoulder injuries, a defensive tackle with an ankle injury, and will likely be missing their top two left tackles today.
The coaching staff is playing musical chairs with what was already a young offensive line that must protect Curtis Painter from big hits because Kerry Collins is still recovering from a concussion.
And the usually fast-starting Colts hope to avoid their first five-game losing streak since 2001 and their first 0-5 start since 1997.
It’s a major change.
“The feeling in the locker room being 0-4 is obviously different,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “Does it mean the season is over? No, but it’s definitely not a great feeling.”
For more than a decade, the Colts were the NFL’s poster child for success and stability.
Manning never missed a start. Indy won at least 10 games in nine straight seasons and made the playoffs a record-tying nine consecutive times — streaks now in serious jeopardy. Changes on the coaching staff and in the front office were rare, and controversy was virtually nonexistent.
Even now, with losses mounting, the exasperation expressed by fans has yet to impact the Colts’ locker room.
“The only way to get back to winning is to work hard,” longtime center Jeff Saturday said. “You can’t fold up or back down. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, and nobody cares who doesn’t play on your team. The message I tell the guys? Show up ready to work and play hard. Give yourself a chance to win the fourth quarter.”
The losing has taken its toll in Kansas City.
Haley and quarterback Matt Cassel have downplayed last week’s sideline confrontation. It’s not the first time they’ve dealt with infighting this season.
Receiver Jon Baldwin, the Chiefs’ first-round pick, could finally get a chance to make his NFL debut. He’s been out since hurting his right thumb in an altercation with a teammate during training camp.
He finally made it back for his first full practice Wednesday.
His return comes just in time to make the trip to Indy, the only current NFL city that the Chiefs are winless.
But Cassel figures it will take more than an attitude adjustment or good fortune to beat the reeling Colts on their home turf.
The Chiefs haven’t done that since 1980 when the Colts franchise was still located in Baltimore, and there is good reason for Cassel to be concerned — namely Indy’s pass rushers.
“Those guys are truly the best in the game at what they do,” he said of Pro Bowl defensive ends Robert Mathis and Freeney. “Our offensive line did a great job of blocking those guys and giving me time to throw, and it’ll be another big challenge for them this week.”
Indy faces the same kind of obstacles.
Its inexperienced, makeshift line must contend with one of the league’s elite pass rushers in Tamba Hali, a defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel) who knows how to stop the Colts from his years in New England, and an offense still trying to get in sync without Manning.
But Caldwell, like Haley, insists the season is not lost, no matter what outsiders think.
“We’re very close and the guys are fighting and scratching,” Caldwell said. “I think we’re doing a lot of things well, but not consistently enough. There is a very thin line between winning and losing and we have to tip that scale.”