Tough, emotional coach leads Cardinals offense into Super Bowl
Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley is an emotional guy
His game plans are a big reason the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl
Haley successfully pushed wideout Larry Fitzgerald into becoming a better player
Like he does the night before each game, Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley gathered his players on the eve of their playoff game at highly-favored Carolina two weeks ago to dispense final instructions and words of encouragement. Only this time Haley couldn't get the words out. As he started to speak, he could feel his body warming, his heart racing and his eyes welling with tears.
"Todd's an emotional guy," Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald would say the next night, after the Cardinals spanked the Panthers 33-13. "He wears his heart on his sleeve. He really wants it as badly as any of the players. It's fun to play for a guy like that."
Last Sunday during the Cardinals' game-winning drive against the Eagles, Haley, 41, showed just how wide-ranging his emotions can be. A television camera caught him in a verbal dust-up with Arizona's other Pro Bowl receiver, Anquan Boldin, who was upset about being taken out of the game. The images have been replayed more than "Friends" re-runs, minus a laugh track.
So who is the real Haley: The softie who sometimes sheds tears before games, or the hard-ass who won't back down when challenged by his players? The short answer is, both. He's also a fabulous play-caller whose game plans are a big reason the Cardinals will play in their first Super Bowl on Feb. 1, against the Steelers in Tampa, Fla.
Haley, who joined the Cardinals in 2007, seemingly has been a step ahead of the opposition in each of Arizona's three postseason games, keeping defenses off balance by breaking perceived tendencies. He has run when opponents have expected pass, and passed when they've expected run. He has used tight-end screens, draws, flea-flickers and double-passes while scoring at least 30 points in every game.
Yet this week his beautiful football mind has taken a back seat to what is widely viewed as an ugly sideline incident. Such flare-ups occur nearly every week, in every game, with every team, but this one happened to take place in a conference final, where there are so many TV cameras that networks can devote one exclusively to the sideline.
"I only know one way to do it, and that's how I'm going to do it," Haley says. "I was taught by one of the best about how you coach and how you have success, and that person was Coach [Bill] Parcells. I take some heat from it sometimes in this day and age where people say you've got to be a player's coach and all this stuff. Well, that's not me. I'm wired a certain way, and that's not going to change."
Haley comes from a football background. His father, Dick, played cornerback for the Steelers from 1961 to '64 and later served as their director of player personnel, supplying building blocks such as Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth for the teams that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Haley was a ball boy on some of those clubs and calls it ironic that his first trip to the Super Bowl would be against the team he grew up idolizing.
The Steelers had barely concluded their win over the Ravens last Sunday when Haley's best friend from his boyhood days, George Russo, sent him a text message that left no doubt about which team Russo would be supporting on Super Bowl Sunday.
"He's backing the Steelers," Haley said, laughing. "I have friends who'll follow me from team to team and support whichever team I'm with. But not my friends from Pittsburgh. Those roots run deep."
So does Haley's respect for Parcells, now a vice president with the Dolphins. Parcells is a no-nonsense guy whom Haley worked under with the Jets and Cowboys, where he got a Master's in learning how to deal with temperamental wide receivers (see Keyshawn Johnson, Jets; Terrell Owens, Dallas). Those lessons remain with him today, which might explain why Haley reacted the way he did last Sunday with Boldin.
Haley knew he was inheriting Pro Bowl receivers in Boldin and Fitzgerald when he arrived in 2007, but he was not going to let them rest on their credentials -- particularly Fitzgerald. Entering this season he challenged Fitzgerald to be more than a guy who makes leaping catches along the sideline -- a "one-trick pony," as he Haley calls it. The coach pushed Fitzgerald to increase his yards after catch and to be more productive between the numbers.
Both of those things have been evident during the playoffs. Fitzgerald has done a lot of his damage on crossing routes and between the numbers. And his leaping grabs have come on corner and post routes rather than "go" routes outside the numbers.
As Fitzgerald and Haley stood on the podium following the win over the Eagles, Fitzgerald leaned over to his coach and thanked him for "keeping his foot on [Fitzgerald's] throat" the past two years.
"As a coach, that's why you do what you do, to see a guy like that improve," Haley said. "He was a phenomenal player when we got here, but he's a different guy now. Everybody can see it. These last three games, watching him play, he is a true monster. For a guy like that to say that to me, that's why you coach. I can't play. All I can be is an extension of the players. And when you get a player who says that to you, that's what you do it for. It's better than the Super Bowl. It really is. I mean that."
Haley got emotional as he spoke on the floor of University of Phoenix Stadium shortly after beating the Eagles 32-25. At times you wondered if he were wiping confetti or tears from his eyes. There was no such doubt on the eve of the Carolina game. The Cardinals were coming off an upset win over the Falcons and were being given virtually no chance of beating the Panthers, who were at least 10-point favorites.
But as Haley looked out at his players, he saw what outsiders could not: focus, determination, commitment, unselfishness -- intangibles that caused him to choke up.
"Your dream as a coach is to be able to coach guys and they want to be coached, they want to be pressed, they can take you getting on their butt," Haley said the next night. "It makes it so much more fulfilling when they rise up and play to their abilities. It's a special feeling to know you had something to do with it."
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