KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Todd Haley has begun calling this part of the season a "grind." Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said it's important to "keep my head down" and press toward the finish line, whenever that might come.
These are the dog days of the NFL season, but for the Chiefs, it's their most important time.
The regular season is entering its twilight, and the Chiefs now have to determine whether that will be good or bad for their playoff chances. This part of the season is about mind control as much as anything, and Haley said this week that it's a good time to refocus and continue sharpening the team's mental toughness.
"The easy thing to do," Haley said, "would be to let up and pat them on the back and say, 'Hey, we're doing good.' I don't believe in that. I believe that you have to keep pushing and prying if you want greatness."
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Haley used to debate the importance of mental toughness with his father, former longtime personnel man Dick Haley, and legendary coach Bill Parcells. They thought the body could overpower the mind, but Todd Haley thought they had it backward.
"Mental toughness?" Haley remembered Parcells asking about a player. "How are his hands?"
But the young coach believed that a mentally tough wide receiver can catch a pass over the middle without fear. A blocker can get in the way of someone bigger because that was his assignment.
"A lot of that stuff takes care of itself," Haley said.
The Chiefs have shown a penchant for toughness at times this season, but there have been other times that they have looked unprepared or sluggish. The second half of road games were a roadblock before last Sunday's win at Seattle. A blowout loss at Denver three weeks ago appeared to be an example of the Chiefs, for one reason or several, being overmatched against a struggling team; the Broncos built a 35-10 lead by halftime.
The Chiefs can afford few mistakes as they enter a stretch run that, from week to week, could decide which team wins the AFC West. They will face immense pressure the next few weeks, and perhaps none more intense than a showdown with the second-place Chargers in San Diego on Dec. 12. Now is not the time for a young team to crack.
"I'm a big believer that you can bring that out of people," Haley said of mental fortitude, "and that it's in everybody. Sometimes it takes dire situations to get it out of human beings, but I think you build it just the way you coach them: by constantly pushing them."
The coaching staff began challenging players two weeks ago, after that 49-29 loss at Denver, to return to fundamentals. That meant abandoning a plan set in motion after another loss, at Houston in the Chiefs' fifth game. It centered on a belief that rested players are fast and strong players. Haley decided then that he would intersperse full-pads practices with workouts in which players wore lightweight pads and shorts. The idea was that burning out players during the week was frying them by Sundays, when players need as much energy as they can muster.
Then the Chiefs waltzed into Oakland and Denver, losing both times, and Haley changed things again. The full pads came back on. Six consecutive practices in heavy armor, because you practice how you play, and Haley figured the change might at least refocus his team.
Kansas City might be tired, but it hasn't lost since.
"There hasn't been a lot of whining and complaining about it," he said this week. "They get it. The guys are just getting it."
Other tests will come this season, and Haley knows that. But he said that this isn't a time to take it easy on his team, or to congratulate them on a fine season so far, or allow them to focus on anything other than what's next.
"This time of year," he said, "winning is the only cure for everybody feeling pretty crappy most of the time. That's how you become a good team, though: you find ways to slug it out."