Summer is the perfect time for a good read, yet nobody seems to be getting one on new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
A Bill Parcells protégé known for adapting his play-calling to his personnel and being an innovative play caller, he is also a volatile sideline presence who inspires loyalty from some players but irritates others.
He is certainly not Bruce Arians, who was not-so-gently shoved out the door in January despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s unwavering support. But, according to those who know Haley best, he also isn’t a control freak who implements change just to show he’s the boss.
While the Steelers generally shy away from coaches with colorful pasts, Haley has that and more, as evidenced by his well-publicized clashes with players and an abrupt departure as the Kansas City Chiefs’ coach last year in which he reportedly suspected team offices and his cell phone were bugged.
Now, Haley’s assimilation into the Steelers’ way of life is the latest Mystery of Pittsburgh, a shadowy yet intriguing riddle that will begin to be solved when the Steelers — coming off successive 12-4 seasons — open camp Wednesday in Latrobe. It figures to be a can’t-miss page turner.
“I’ve heard a lot of Todd stories — some good, some bad,” said former Steelers star guard Alan Faneca, who played in Arizona after Haley was the offensive coordinator there. “He’s definitely a hard worker and demands a lot. He can be very excitable during practice. But sometimes change is good, to get people out of their comfort zone.”
That’s already happened with Roethlisberger, who thrived in a Ben-friendly Arians offense that permitted him to improvise at will. Upon first glance at Haley’s playbook, Roethlisberger jokingly called it a Rosetta Stone course in a brand new language.
“That (change) has a way of keeping guys on their toes and keeping their focus, understanding what their goal is, and that’s to win Super Bowls,” Haley said during minicamp last month. “Win one this year — that’s our goal.”
Haley, 45, is the first outsider in 13 years to run the offense. But he’s no stranger to Pittsburgh or the Steelers; as a youngster in Upper St. Clair, he broke down game film with father Dick Haley, the former Steelers personnel chief who played a major role in some of the best drafts in NFL history in the 1970s.
FOOTBALL NOT FIRST LOVE
Todd Haley’s story isn’t the sit-on-dad’s-knee-and-become-a-football genius tale of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. In his teens, Haley shifted his emphasis to golf, playing in high school and at Florida and Miami in college.
The PGA, not the NFL, appeared to be his calling.
“But there never was a time he wasn’t into football,” said Dick Haley, who at 75 remains plugged into the NFL. “Because of some back problems, he got diverted into golf, but he always wanted to know about the players, about football. How many kids wouldn’t want to after rooming next to Joe Greene at training camp?”
The elder Haley left the Steelers to become the Jets’ personnel director in 1991 and, four years later, Todd was hired in the scouting department. Within two years, he was on Parcells’ coaching staff.
“Todd is bright, demanding, persistent, and he came along pretty well,” Parcells said.
Parcells didn’t care Haley hadn’t played football.
“I know guys who didn’t play and did very well in coaching, and others who played that don’t have a clue what to do,” Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, said.
Haley was promoted to wide receivers coach in 1999 before switching to the Bears in 2001, only to rejoin Parcells in Dallas in 2004.
Haley’s profile rose with his next job as the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive coordinator from 2007-08. With quarterback Kurt Warner headlining an imaginative offense highlighted by former Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s big plays, the Cardinals were second in passing and third in scoring in 2008. They went 9-7 during the season, but scored at least 30 points during three consecutive playoff wins and rallied from a 13-point deficit to nearly upset the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
That deep throw to Fitz-gerald that nearly sent the Steelers home a loser from Tampa? Haley’s play call.
Haley was subsequently hired as the Chiefs coach by general manager Scott Pioli, the former Patriots executive who worked for the Jets when Haley did. But while Haley went from 4-12 in his first season in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010, finishing third in the coach of the year voting, he was fired with his injury-ruined team reeling with a 5-8 record on Dec. 12.
STORMY DAYS IN K.C.
Haley is derecho-like — always going straight ahead, in full-go mode, and in Kansas City, storm clouds often loomed on the horizon.
Chan Gailey, retained from Herm Edwards’ staff to be the offensive coordinator, didn’t make it through training camp. Larry Johnson, the two-time former 1,700-yard rusher, questioned Haley’s coaching credentials in a Twitter message and was cut in 2009. And tight end Tony Moeaki was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the final 2011 exhibition game, when many NFL regulars rest.
“The quarterback (Matt Cassel) was real average. … It didn’t surprise me what happened in Kansas City. I didn’t have any real confidence in the whole thing,” Dick Haley said.
After Todd Haley departed, the Kansas City Star published a devastating article in which a number of former team employees revealed what they called an intimidating, secretive and stifling work environment. According to the Star, Haley himself suspected bugging at the practice complex.
“I don’t know what happened in Kansas City. I don’t think it’s relevant in Pittsburgh,” Parcells said. “But he probably learned a lot there.”
TUTORING BIG BEN
Given Haley’s sideline spats with Warner, Anquan Boldin, Terrell Owens and Cassel, his relationship with Roethlisberger should prove intriguing. Haley once said, “If you’re sensitive, (the NFL) is not the best place to be.”
“You accept people for what they are and get past the sensitivity level, if there is any,” Parcells said. “Both guys are smart enough to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make it work.’ ”
Torry Holt, a NFL Network analyst and former Rams star receiver, can’t wait to see how this plays out.
“Coach Haley has a strong personality. Ben has a strong personality. I’m sure Todd wants him to hone in on this or hone in on that, and Ben will try,” Holt said. “But out there on the football field, your instincts kick in and your competitive nature kicks in, and you kind of resort back to what you’ve always done.”
Haley’s take on Roethlisberger? “He’s a guy that’s been a really good player, and we’re going to try to keep that going and get even better,” he said.
Haley believes an offense must be physical, smart and disciplined, and his system resembles that of his former boss, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, a Steelers assistant from 2001-06.
“Todd Haley represents the best of both worlds,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said. “With Kurt Warner, he threw it 45 times a game and didn’t blink. In Kansas City, he ran it 45 times a game. He’s got those three young wide receivers there in Pittsburgh, and Ben knows how to put the ball in the air. Todd will make the adjustments, and rather quickly.”
While Haley is an assistant again after being a head coach, his father insists he has never been happier now that he’s back home in Pittsburgh with his wife Chrissy and five children.
“He’s loving every second of this,” the elder Haley said. “He couldn’t be more excited.”
Dad Haley also realizes there is intense pressure to succeed as a high-profile coach in your hometown, even if former head coach Bill Cowher made it work.
“I don’t question he’ll do well. (But) there’s a lot of pressure to live up to what’s gone on there for a long time,” Dick Haley said. “And he’d better be good because there’s a lot of pressure on him right now.”