PITTSBURGH — Todd Haley will pull out the video during the occasional meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers as a gag yeah, but also to prove a point.
The screen flickers and there the Steelers offensive coordinator is nearly a decade ago, working in the same job with the Arizona Cardinals and running pass routes every Friday against strength coach John Lott. Quarterback Kurt Warner throwing spiral after spiral. Haley meticulously — if admittedly a bit slowly — making sure to get the steps right.
During the sessions Haley would go through every conceivable option. The competitor in him wanting to get open. The coach in him wanting to get a feel for what he’s asking his players to do.
Then on Saturdays the Arizona wide receivers — Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin among them — would pop in the film and grade Haley’s performance, laughing all the while.
All these years later, the image of Haley churning down field is still a hit. Only these days it’s Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown leading the judging panel, reveling in his long-held belief that Haley is a pass catcher at heart.
“Todd thinks he’s one of us,” Brown said earlier this season.
And in some ways maybe Brown isn’t far off.
There’s more than a bit of ego in the 49-year-old Haley to be sure, who molded the dynamic offense that helped the Cardinals to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season and has created a football hydra in Pittsburgh, where Brown, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell have the Steelers (12-5) within two games of a shot at a seventh title.
The next hurdle comes in Kansas City on Sunday against the AFC West champion Chiefs (12-4). The showdown marks Kansas City’s first home game since the wild-card round in 2010, when Haley – who turned his coordinator gig with the Cardinals into the head coaching job with the Chiefs in 2009 – saw a promising season end with a lopsided 30-7 loss to Baltimore.
Less than a year later Haley was fired with the team floundering at 5-8 and his fiery approach wearing thin both in the locker room and the front office.
“I don’t really have much to say about that,” safety Eric Berry said this week when asked by The Associated Press about Haley’s 45-game tenure, the final one a lopsided loss to the New York Jets in which Haley was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Neither does Haley, who has spent the last five seasons overseeing an offense that has evolved into one of the league’s most electric. The Steelers (12-5) have finished in the top 10 in yards in three straight years for the first time since Terry Bradshaw was flinging it John Stallworth and Lynn Swann in the 1970s. They’ve done it with Haley brainstorming with head coach Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger to find creative ways to get Brown and Bell the ball.
“He’s a good listener,” Tomlin said. “And more than anything, he doesn’t subscribe to any conceived notion or any hardcore personality that might limit him.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like the guy who famously feared his office was bugged while working for the Chiefs or appeared to be at odds with Roethlisberger early in his tenure in Pittsburgh even though evidence about any rift was hard to come by.
Aided by a vastly improved offensive line, Brown’s development into arguably the best receiver in the league and Bell’s evolution into one of the most versatile players in the world, Roethlisberger has put up some of the best numbers of his career while guiding the Steelers to three consecutive playoff berths.
Pittsburgh’s offense can go five-wide one play and line up three tight ends the next . Haley’s playbook looks your Netflix queue. A little bit of everything.
“I’m always quick to snap when guys say, ‘You’re a system guy,'” Haley said. “A lot of system coaches do what they do and that’s it, I’m not that guy.”
And he’s done it while taking fewer hits than ever, proof of the trust between coach and franchise quarterback. Roethlisberger doesn’t freelance as much as he used to, getting the ball out quickly and letting his playmakers do the rest. In return Haley gives Roethlisberger plenty of freedom in the no huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
Call it the byproduct of a relationship that’s more democracy than dictatorship.
“He’ll ask a lot, ‘What do you guys want to do? What do you think about this?'” Roethlisberger said. “(He) comes to players and talks to them about what they’re comfortable with.”
Roethlisberger endorsed the idea of Haley getting another crack at being a head coach again “if that’s what he wants.” Haley has been quiet on the subject, stressing he’s focused on the gig he has. With open jobs starting to be filled and his name not on anyone’s interview sheet, it appears he’s not headed anywhere. He insists that’s fine.
Considering the talent at his disposal — particularly with Brown in his prime and Bell on the cusp of it — and his very Pittsburgh-centric affinity for wearing shorts regardless of the weather. Haley certainly seems at peace. Things didn’t work out in Kansas City. The Chiefs are great. He’s great (though he regrettably once wrote “Chiefs suck” on a napkin as an ill-conceived joke). There will be no wistful “what ifs” at kickoff on Sunday.
Just a chance to chase the inner perfectionist both within himself and the X’s in his heads he’s determined to turn into “whoas” on the field.
NOTES: Tight end Ladarius Green (concussion) did not practice Thursday. … Roethlisberger (foot) and S Sean Davis (shoulder) were full participants.