Super Bowl Week commences with amazing Cards-Steelers connection
Arizona's Todd Haley once turned down a job with his beloved Steelers
Breaking down players' chances of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Brett Favre's future, a former GM scouts the Senior Bowl and much more
TAMPA -- I'm dizzy from all the connections between the Cardinals and Pittsburgh. There's Ken Whisenhunt, who didn't get the Steelers head-coaching job two years ago, now coaching the Cards. Ditto Arizona line coach Russ Grimm. The new Cards coaches basically created Steeler West in Sun City.
Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald cut his football teeth at Pitt; a huge poster of the biggest star of this year's playoffs is 25 feet from the front door of the Steelers facility on the South Side of Pittsburgh -- in the Pitt Panther practice facility, walled off from the Steelers' practice home.
But the best story is Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Partly because his dad was a prime architect of the great Steelers teams of the '70s. Partly because young Todd, a training-camp ballboy, roomed across the hall from Terry Bradshaw in late-'70s summers, and because he worked the chain gang on Three Rivers home games through his high school years. Partly because he's been in the lab for the past week, trying to figure a way to stop the team he loved so much as a kid from winning its NFL-record sixth Super Bowl on Sunday.
The best story is Haley, and mostly because of a story that's been hidden pretty well over the last five years, a story about getting pulled between two conflicting and powerful feelings. What wins when you want to please the man who birthed you in coaching, and you want to work for the team you've loved almost since birth?
And, oh my gawd, the team he loved was the Steelers, and the coach he felt loyal to worked for the despised Cowboys, the team all of western Pennsylvania called the Cryboys back in the Super Bowl heyday.
Pittsburgh or Dallas? Bradshaw or Staubach? Terrible Towel or Cowboys Cheerleaders?
Cowher or Parcells?
More money and home? Or less money, another new city and loyalty?
That's the reason Haley's story is so compelling this morning, as we begin the national holiday known as Super Bowl Week.
In 1974, Todd Haley had just turned 7, and his dad, Dick Haley, the director of player personnel for the Steelers, had the enviable task with scouting czar Art Rooney Jr. of adding the final few pieces to a great puzzle. One day, Dick Haley brought a few reels of film home and put them on the projector in his office. Young Todd watched his dad dissect how USC wide receiver Lynn Swann moved and jumped and caught the football. He remembers his dad saying to him: "If we can get this guy, boy, he'd be something special.''
"He'd turn the film on and go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth -- and it'd be driving me crazy,'' Todd said. "He'd be watching how Swann moved, and I'd be sitting there, dying, waiting to see if he caught the ball.''
That year, Dick Haley and the Steelers hit the all-time draft jackpot. They didn't hit four home runs. They hit four Grand Slams: Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster ... in rounds 1, 2, 4 and 5, respectively. A couple of years later, Todd was old enough to stay in his dad's room at training camp, across the hall from Bradshaw's room, being a ballboy, washing the players' cars, doing their laundry and getting the education of a football lifetime. One day, before practice, Bradshaw and his strong-armed backup, Joe Gilliam, stood on the camp field in Latrobe, playing catch. They kept moving back, a couple of steps at a time, until they were 90 yards apart. Playing catch, 90 yards apart! "That's the kind of stuff I saw every day,'' he said. "I loved being around those guys.''
In high school, with the Steelers trying to win one for the thumb, Todd graduated to the Sunday chain gang at Three Rivers. Before the games, he'd walk through the Steelers' locker room and see all his heroes. One stood out: the ferocious Lambert. "He'd sit in his locker, smoking cigarettes, getting ready for the game, giving off this don't-come-near-me aura,'' Todd recalled. "It's like there was a force field around him. You didn't get within 10 feet of him. There was such a live-or-die feel around that team. I just loved it.''
"Imagine seeing that as a kid, and the effect it'd have on you,'' Dick Haley said from his Florida home Saturday.
In 1991, Dick Haley and the Steelers parted. Pittsburgh was looking for some new personnel blood, so Haley went to work for the New York Jets. In 1997, Todd was helping his dad in personnel and told him he might want to see if the new coach, Bill Parcells, had some work for him to do on the coaching side. Parcells did. Todd became an offensive assistant, then a receivers coach. Parcells liked how he wouldn't take any guff from the famous Keyshawn Johnson, or from anyone. He paid his dues, Parcells thought he had a future, and when Parcells quit after the 2000 season, Todd had the coaching bug. He migrated to Chicago to coach receivers with the Bears under Dick Jauron, thinking Parcells was finished with coaching.
Parcells wanted to get Haley on his staff in Dallas in 2003, but Haley still had a year left on his Chicago contract, and the Bears wouldn't let him out of it. Parcells filled the job, so when Haley's contract expired after the '03 season, he went looking for work, and there was nothing, immediately, in Dallas. But there was a receivers' coach job open in Pittsburgh -- under Bill Cowher, with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
"I can get you this job,'' Whisenhunt told Haley, and he was fired up. Then Cowher called, and said he wanted to meet Haley. "You're getting this job,'' Cowher said, "but I just want to get to know you.''
Haley couldn't believe his good fortune. It could have been any of the NFL's 32 teams that wooed him, but the Steelers. His Steelers.
Then Parcells called. Haley was a day or two away -- max -- from taking the Steelers job. But this was his godfather in coaching calling, offering to create a job (receivers coach/passing-game coordinator) for Haley.
"The Steelers offered me more money,'' said Haley. "My best friend was in Pittsburgh, it was a dream job, and on the other side was the hated Cowboys. What an incredible situation. But I thought long and hard. My first loyalty was to Bill. It had to be. He gave me my shot. I told Cowher, and he said he understood. I think Kenny [Whisenhunt] was more mad than Cowher because he pushed me for the job.''
Haley went to Dallas. "So,'' Haley said, "the year I don't go, the Steelers went 15-1. Then they win the Super Bowl the next year. They'd show the Steelers highlights at night, and I'd be there almost crying, and my wife would say, 'Get over it! You're not there! You're here!'
"And now,'' Haley said the other day, "to be here, to be coaching in the Super Bowl, against the Steelers, after all those years of rooting for one for the thumb ... It's amazing. Just amazing.''
"Here'' is the Super Bowl, and "here'' is Arizona, where Whisenhunt finally got his man 24 months ago. He hired Haley to be the Cards' offensive coordinator. And now Haley, who could have been a Steelers coach in their Super Bowl run three years ago, and could even have stayed on when Mike Tomlin took the job two years ago (doubtful, but who knows?) is here, with very big weapons, trying to break the hearts of everyone he grew up with.
And it's Haley who has played a major role in the professional refinement of Fitzgerald, who stands a very good chance of being the difference-maker in Super Bowl 43.
"Larry had tremendous ability when we got here,'' Haley said. "The thing that was missing to me last year was the run after the catch. He was a big golden retriever who wants to cuddle up with you on the couch. He drove me crazy. He'd catch the ball and stop, or just fall down. I told him after the season he left 500 yards on the field. We showed him video where he just fell down, and we'd say, 'Hey, there's 30 yards right there.' Pound for pound, he's one of the strongest guys in our weight room, and that was the frustrating thing. I told him, 'You're making their job easy on the defense.'''
Last week it was a duel with the NFC's wise old owl, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Arizona built a 24-6 lead and survived. This week, it's 71-year-old Dick LeBeau, the highly respected Pittsburgh defensive boss. "I have the utmost respect for these guys,'' Haley said. "It's so exciting going up against their teams. Matching wits, whatever, for a rare time against the best, and to score 32 on a coach like Jim Johnson is what it's all about. This next one, against coach LeBeau, it definitely amps you up. It is the highest thing you can do in this business.''
Even if it's going to feel very strange to be on the other side of the field from his old team.