The conclusion that had been so painfully obvious to Chiefs fans for weeks finally struck Clark Hunt and Scott Pioli on Sunday as they watched a lost season deteriorate further with a blowout defeat against the New York Jets.
Head coach Todd Haley had to go.
“This decision,” Pioli said, “was going to be made at some point.”
That point arrived on Monday, with Hunt and Pioli figuring it was better to fire Haley now, with the 5-8 Chiefs stuck in last place in the AFC West, than wait until the end of the season.
It’s just the second time in the history of the franchise that the Chiefs have ousted a head coach partway through a season. Paul Wiggin was fired after a 1-6 start in 1977 and replaced by Tom Bettis.
Sunday’s 37-10 loss at New York was the final straw for Hunt, the team’s chairman, and Pioli, its general manager. Both men indicated Haley was largely to blame for the Chiefs’ five blowouts by 27 or more points this season.
“Timing in this situation is always difficult,” Hunt said. “There never seems to be a right time. We just felt the inconsistent play the team had experienced really throughout the season, including (Sunday’s) game, made today the right day to do it.”
Haley released a five-paragraph statement Monday night in which he thanked the organization, its fans and his assistant coaches for their support during his tenure.
“NFL football is extremely competitive,” Haley said. “Being hired and fired is part of this business. I want to thank everyone for their support and I look forward to my next opportunity in this great league.”
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who had a 24-40 record coaching the Cleveland Browns from 2005-08, will take Haley’s place for the final three games of the year. The Crennel era will begin with Sunday’s game against 13-0 Green Bay at Arrowhead Stadium.
“We want to give the guys a chance to finish the season on a high note,” Hunt said. “Mathematically, we’re still alive for the playoffs. We want the guys to go out and face the Green Bay Packers and play to the best of their ability, and we felt a change was important at this time.”
Haley’s dismissal came as a shock to some of his players. Linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Jackie Battle said Haley hadn’t lost the support of those inside the locker room.
“We believed in his system and believed in what he was telling us,” Johnson said. “He was a guy that was very passionate about what he does on the field and in the meeting room.”
Battle indicated that Monday’s news simply underscored the high expectations in the NFL.
“I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but that’s part of the business,” Battle said. “We’re judged and it all comes down to wins.”
The Chiefs can still defend the division title they won last year, but one more loss — or one more Denver victory — over the final three games of the season will eliminate them from playoff contention.
“Our goal is to build a team that can consistently compete for championships and one that our fans can be proud of,” Hunt said. “While there have been some bright spots throughout the season, it is clear to me we are not making enough progress toward that goal.”
The Chiefs are 19-26 in the regular season since Haley was hired to replace Herm Edwards in 2009. They finished 10-6 last season and won their first AFC West championship since 2003, but even then, some of the trends that disturbed Hunt and Pioli enough to fire Haley were beginning to show.
The 2010 Chiefs also suffered several blowout losses, including in their final regular-season game, against Oakland, and their playoff game against Baltimore.
“It’s never one thing,” Pioli said. “It was an accumulation of information and thoughts, and we finally got down to talking about where things were and thought this was the best decision in order to create more consistency and progress.”
The Chiefs have been wildly inconsistent this season. They started 0-3, won their next four games and now have lost five of their last six. Season-ending injuries to key players like running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry, quarterback Matt Cassel and tight end Tony Moeaki certainly contributed to the problem.
But Hunt indicated those injuries were not reason enough to give Haley a pass.
“Most years, that’s typical in the National Football League, and as a team you have to find a way to overcome that,” Hunt said. “We just weren’t able to do that this year. Our play was up and down at times during a given game. Those really contributed to our decision, the fact that our play was not consistent at all.”
Pioli dismissed suggestions that his relationship with Haley was strained and contributed to the firing.
“We had a good working relationship,” Pioli said. “We really did. We communicated as we needed to communicate, just as we did in the beginning years. We talked about work as we always do.”
Crennel will be a candidate for the permanent coaching position. Other potential candidates could include University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a longtime friend of Pioli’s; former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher; and St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels worked with Pioli when both were with the Patriots.
Asked what qualities the Chiefs will look for in their next head coach, Hunt said, “In a lot of ways, some of the qualities that Todd brought to the job, in terms of being a competitor, somebody who’s passionate and a good leader. Somebody who’s very smart, somebody who can work well with Scott and has a shared vision of the type of players we’re looking for.”
Pioli didn’t dodge a share of the blame for the Chiefs’ predicament. As the team’s general manager, he has had the final say on decisions the Chiefs have made in the NFL draft and free agency. They’ve been unable to adequately replace Charles, Cassel and Moeaki, for instance, because the players backing them up have proven far less effective.
Pioli also hired Haley, who had never been a head coach before joining the Chiefs.
“There is accountability on my part as well,” Pioli said. “I made the decision. Clark gave me the ability to make the decision on a head coach. We’re at a place where this didn’t work out. I need to be held accountable. I will be held accountable.
“Ultimately, (building the roster) is my job, and we’re clearly not at a spot where we need to be with our record being what it is and with us being in the position we’re in. Clearly, I need to do my job better as well.”
Hunt was clear that Pioli will continue to be a key part of the Chiefs’ management team.
“I have a lot of confidence in Scott, and I do believe he’s going to help us be successful over the long run,” Hunt said. “Probably no one is harder on himself, or holds himself more accountable, than Scott. As hard working as he is, I know he’ll double his efforts to make sure that we’re better next year than we were this year, and better the year after that.”