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Chiefs living on a prayer

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Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Todd Haley knows that success in the NFL is fleeting. It's an undeniable reality for a young coach tasked with delivering the Vince Lombardi Trophy to title-starved Kansas City, where history usually shines brighter than the future.

For four decades, the Chiefs have been buoyed by a storied past -- including an upset of the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The Chiefs last advanced to the AFC title game in 1994, but they are more aptly identified with the 70s - a stylish era defined by disco and Elmo Wright's flashy touchdown dance.

Still, a year ago, Haley appeared to usher in a new era in Kansas City. The Chiefs parlayed a favorable schedule and a downtrodden AFC West division into a playoff appearance with a surprising 10-6 record.

So far, this has been an uneven season for a Kansas City team ravaged by injuries.

They began the season with three straight losses, but a season-ending injury to running back Jamaal Charles was a dash of salt in the wound. The Chiefs won four in a row before dropping their past three, mainly because their anemic offense tallied only 16 points.

Haley reluctantly admits it, but injuries are crippling his team's chance of repeating as division champs. The Chiefs are two games behind the Oakland Raiders (6-4), but a challenging schedule - including tonight's matchup against the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium - leaves them with a faint playoff pulse.

"You must go on," Haley said earlier this week. "They aren't going to cancel the game. So you have to be ready.

"We had been moving in the right direction, and we felt really good about where we were going. Then we lose a couple of core guys that you are kind of shaping your team around. That's a jolt and a shock to reality."

In reality, the Chiefs are a flawed team. They are near the bottom of the NFL in both offense and defense.

Haley is hoping the signing of quarterback Kyle Orton can pump life into an offense that generated only a field goal in two of the past three games. Orton lost his job to Tim Tebow in Denver, but he'll try to unseat Pitt and West Allegheny product Tyler Palko -- who stepped in when Matt Cassel went down with a hand injury two weeks ago.

"We are trying to become more consistent across the board, knowing that if we do things the right way, we have a chance to be competitive against a lot of teams," Haley added. "It's just that we don't have much margin for error."

Haley could legitimately offer an excuse. But his father, Dick Haley, who as director of player personnel helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls, concedes his son faces an uphill climb in trying to turn around a preseason playoff contender.

"It's hard to progress when your top guys go down," the elder Haley said. "Obviously, very few people have backups who can play as well as the starters. If he can get some of those guys back, then it's a matter of hitting on all cylinders, catching a few breaks and winning some games you shouldn't win."

If the betting line is right, the underdog Chiefs aren't likely to recover against the Steelers, who are trying to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. The road to recovery looks more uncertain with three straight games against playoff contenders - Chicago, the New York Jets and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

"Right now, he has his hands full," Dick Haley said. "All people are worried about is winning and losing. When you lose good players, it's hard to perform. I dealt with that for a long time in Pittsburgh.

"He has to fight his way through it. It's part of the business - and people aren't going to be kind to you. He's got to find a way to win. He knew that the moment he got into coaching."

Last Tuesday morning, Todd Haley called his father in search of answers after the New England Patriots embarrassed the Chiefs, 34-3, on Monday. There were some hard truths amid words of encouragement.

Dick Haley reminded Kansas City's third-year coach that every Super Bowl victory in Pittsburgh was hard-earned. And that sometimes, the ball bounces your way - say, like the Immaculate Reception.

"We (Steelers) won some games we shouldn't have," he recalled. "I reminded Todd that there were some games last year they were fortunate to win. Right now, they aren't deep enough to overcome all the injuries."

The Chiefs, of course, are in a similar situation as the Steelers were during the first half of the season. So they aren't without hope.

"I think we are in the mode of do whatever we need to do to try and win games to stay in the mix," Haley said. "We're by no means out of it."

Haley faces perhaps the most challenging time of his short tenure in Kansas City. It's one thing to lose games, but losing control of the locker room is potentially damaging for a young coach.

Steelers linebacker James Farrior got to know Haley while they were with the New York Jets. He said Haley, a former Jets assistant, must lean on his veterans to overcome another rough patch.

"It's all about your locker room and the guys you have around," Farrior said. "The veterans set the tone for the team. If a coach is worrying about all that stuff, then he's not doing his job. He just needs to focus on the Xs and Os.

"I don't know what the situation was when he took over there, but I don't know if they had the same kind of relationship in the locker room that we have with Mike (Tomlin). It's a big difference."

Farrior and Haley haven't talked much since Farrior left the Jets after the 2001 season. But they were on opposite sides of the field when the Steelers defeated Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.

"We were always cool," Farrior said. "I knew him a little better when he went to Arizona, because I have a lot of friends out there. I talked to him a little at the Super Bowl.

"I think it was the trend to hire young coaches when he came in. He came along at the right time, and everyone thought he was ready because he had a couple of good years as an offensive coordinator with Arizona."

Haley has tapped the Western Pennsylvania pool for talent he hopes will give the Chiefs a chance to reel in the Raiders down the stretch. The Chiefs' passing game is fueled by former Pitt flanker Jon Baldwin and Woodland Hills graduate Steve Breaston.

"I was so excited to get Steve Breaston here, because he's one of my favorite players of all time," Haley said. "He's tough, gritty and truly a Western Pennsylvania guy."

Dick Haley, though, is hoping Palko can hold on to the starting job and that his son can turn things around in Kansas City.

"Palko is a Pitt guy, so I'm kind of on his side," he said. "Obviously, I'm rooting for Todd. I think they both understand that it's hard to win in the NFL, but they're willing to put in the hard work that's required to be successful."

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