KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Todd Haley could feel the mood shifting. Players seemed more optimistic at Chiefs headquarters. They seemed more willing to listen. More willing to work.
It was about a month ago that things began to change. The Chiefs' attitude had been sour for most of the past three seasons. After most games and many practices, the locker room had the enthusiasm of a funeral. Players sulked or waited out reporters in back-corner hideaways. When your team is 1-6, answers are sometimes painful, and delivering them hurts.
A month ago, the Chiefs had just been blown out at home by the San Diego Chargers. The team seemed to be on the verge of looking toward another offseason, when thoughts might wander anywhere but toward the next unrewarded practice, meeting or game. Then, inexplicably, something happened. Haley noticed that the mood began veering toward a productive path.
"You feel little subtle changes as the leader of the team," Haley says now. "Subtle changes in the guys.
"Whatever it is."
It was a month ago that the Chiefs began distancing themselves from running back Larry Johnson. They suspended and later released him. Since Johnson was let go, the Chiefs are 2-0. Whatever has motivated one of the NFL's most depressing teams to suddenly find success, one thing is clear: The Chiefs have put together their best run in years without Larry Johnson.
Players don't want to touch the topic. Johnson, for his talent and those two Pro Bowls, was a polarizing figure. Now that he's gone, his former teammates don't even like the idea of discussing the phenomenon of "addition by subtraction," the notion that a team might improve even without one of its most skilled players.
"Too many traps," center Rudy Niswanger says with a smile, and that's before Johnson's name ever comes up.
Traps always were Johnson's problem, and who could blame the Chiefs for being wary before stepping into them? His most recent outburst was enough for the team. The Chiefs have enough problems without dealing with Johnson's moods — and the fallout that often followed when his temper boiled over. Last month, he was suspended after insulting Haley and the gay population. The Chiefs told him to go away. Told him that, until they figured out their next move, he wouldn't be part of a team that was nothing if not fragile.
On Johnson's last day in the Chiefs' locker room, the team's mood seemed to echo that of its starting running back. Players were reserved and distant. Most had scattered, and the ones who hadn't were staring into their lockers or trying to go unnoticed. Three days later, Johnson was gone. With him out of the locker room, the mood had changed. Players were laughing, joking and treating their jobs as if each Sunday were not the next kamikaze mission. Wide receiver Bobby Wade was playful in a meeting with reporters, and running back Jamaal Charles laughed and socialized with teammates.
On Nov. 9, Johnson was released. The Chiefs had options, and they'd had enough of Johnson's act. Kansas City needed no such distraction. So Johnson was let go. The mood seemed to improve overnight.
"I really love it right now," Charles says now, when asked about the team's recent attitude adjustment.
Haley says a team's chemistry is as prized as it is difficult to achieve. Whether Johnson's departure somehow brought the Chiefs closer to success or simply cut out another unnecessary distraction, the team seems better, happier and more productive.
Haley wouldn't say whether cutting ties with Johnson helped boost the Chiefs' brotherhood or improve players' attention spans. But he did say that he believes a team can improve by eliminating certain players, just as it can improve by adding certain players. Regardless, the Chiefs seem to have progressed in the past month. It might have been just the time of year, an improved message, a bye week in which the offense was simplified, or a locker room that just grew tired of feeling sorry for itself.
"You just felt something happening positive," Haley says. "The guys were working really hard, and they were into it. Until you actually see those results and have that validation, that's when you can start taking a little bigger steps. We were taking baby steps.
"There's no doubt that the guys, there's a little more bonding that goes on. Guys want to hang around a little more."
Charles admits now that he began preparing for Johnson's departure long before last month. The Chiefs' second-year running back was listening when Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, said after last season's final game that he wanted out of Kansas City. Charles was listening again when Johnson reiterated his desire on a Kansas City radio show.
"He said he didn't want to be here," Charles says.
The young rusher wanted to be ready if and when his ticket was drawn to become the Chiefs' starting running back. He says he lifted weights more often and with more intensity than ever. He reshaped his attitude and approach, making plans to state his case when the Chiefs finally had enough of Johnson. Charles wanted to be ready when the time came.
"I worked out so much," he says.
If the Chiefs once took on Johnson's personality — sullen, unpredictable and potentially self-destructive — they have now moved more toward Charles' more lighthearted character. Charles, 22, admits he has been taken off guard by the increased attention since becoming the featured back three weeks ago, but this is the chance he wanted since the Chiefs drafted him in the third round last year.
This week, Charles entered the locker room with a smile, talking about hard work and fantasy football — he says he doesn't play but has been told he has become a popular pickup — and how different the future looks when a group of strangers closes the gap that once divided them.
"We want to win," Charles says. "I don't know if you see me out there running hard. But I'm going to do that every week, every time I step on the field. I just love standing on the field and competing. It's about your will, your wants, and if you love this — and you don't know when your last play is going to be.
"I see the way we're playing. The defense is playing real good, and if we play like that, it's going to be hard for us to be stopped."
He keeps going. Before Charles heads toward the shower, he stops to laugh with a teammate. It's a more easygoing place these days, whatever the reasons might be.
"Winning does so much for you," Haley says.
The coach said this week that the Chiefs' tallest challenge now is to continue building on the advances of this past month. Whatever led them to a new attitude, led to winning, and that winning, Haley says, led to a level of camaraderie and confidence that the Chiefs hadn't seen in Haley's time.
Perhaps they hadn't seen that in Johnson's time, either, at least since things started going poorly for the Chiefs and their awkward marriage with the former star running back.
"I don't know what it is," Charles says. "But somebody has got to come in and do the job somebody else wasn't doing. Somebody has to come up here and play a role and help the team out. If not, they're going to get rid of you, too."