Over the course of his 22 months as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Todd Haley has often crowned Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald “the best in the NFL.” It’s the ultimate compliment from a man who is openly critical of wide receivers.
Haley coached Fitzgerald for two seasons (2007-08) in Arizona and saw the wide receiver tally nearly 200 receptions, gain just under 3,000 yards and notch 22 TDs. Fitzgerald would also earn back-to-back Pro Bowl invitations under Haley, but the future Chiefs coach wasn’t always complimentary of the All-Pro receiver.
“(Haley) used to call me a one trick pony,” Fitzgerald said. “He would just play those little tricks with me every day. He’d say, ‘If you wanted to be a regular player in this league, that’s fine and you’ll be that. But if you want to be great, this is what you are going to have to do. You are going to have to buy into it every day, study film and do all the things that the Jerry Rice’s and the guys like that were doing.’ He motivated me every day.
Haley’s prods and challenges never wore thin on Fitzgerald. In fact, the All-Pro receiver credits Haley’s coaching tactics as a major factor in helping him reach elite status at his position. Fitzgerald was always a talented player, but he says that it took a coach like Haley to turn that talent into a complete package.
“I was a good player when he got here in 2007, but I was far from a complete player,” Fitzgerald said. “I never watched film. I didn’t study my opponent. I mean, (Haley) started at 8:00 AM and I was getting to the building at 7:55 AM. When we got done at 3:00 PM, I was out of the building at 3:05 PM. I was just coming to work and doing my job, but that’s about it.
“Todd made me understand that to be a leader to your teammates, to get them to respect you and to be a great player you have to do more,” Fitzgerald continued. “You have to do the extra. I’ve taken that to heart. Even since he’s left I’ve continued to do the things that he taught me.”
Fitzgerald was a guy that needed to be called names. He says that he needed to be pushed harder. He needed a coach like Haley to bring out the best in him.
Some will say that Haley’s coaching style isn’t for everyone. He’s an intense coach and he’s had his fair share of pushback throughout his coaching career. Haley had a very public conflict with Terrell Owens in Dallas, there were words with Anquan Boldin during Arizona’s game-winning drive during the 2008 NFC Championship and, of course, there was last week’s post-game interaction with Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels.
Fitzgerald agrees that Haley is a fiery coach, but he also makes sure to note that there is much more to Haley’s approach than the run-ins highlighted by the media.
“You see the clips like last week of him getting into a confrontation with Josh McDaniels and, over the years, having arguments with players on the sideline,” Fitzgerald said. “But at his core, Haley is an X and O guy that is a very intelligent, cerebral coach. He knows how to push his players, especially his wide receivers.
“He really did so much to help me when I was a young guy,” Fitzgerald continued. “I was a guy that just ran go’s. I would just go and catch deep footballs, pretty much. I couldn’t run routes intermediately. I couldn’t do anything besides run go’s and he was like, ‘You have a gift from God to be able to do that, but to be great you have to do a lot more. Defenses can take you away when you’re just doing one thing. When you’re a complete receiver, there is a lot more to scheme for and to take away.’”
During their time together in Arizona, Haley and Fitzgerald never had any confrontation. Fitzgerald embraced Haley’s message and took his challenges to heart.
“Me personally, I’ve never had a bad moment with Todd,” Fitzgerald said. “He told me what to do. He was my coach and I listened to him. If he told me that I needed to run faster, I tried to run fast. If he told me that I needed to lose weight, I lost weight. I did everything he asked me to do, because he told me that if I did it I could be special. So I bought into it and did everything that he told me to do.”
Witnessing Fitzgerald blossom in the desert no doubt was a factor in Haley riding Kansas City’s crop of wide receivers a little harder last season. Haley’s track record of working with receivers goes much further than the success of Fitzgerald.
In each stop of his coaching career, Haley has gotten results. It’s why Haley has earned a reputation around the league for getting maximum productivity out of his receivers. Marty Booker, Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson (twice), Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin and Fitzgerald all reached personal milestones while playing under Haley.
“He is able to motivate,” Fitzgerald said. “My personality is different than
“A lot of guys are motivated by different things: money, greatness, the fear of failure. I think that he understands what makes each guy tick on his team and he knows how to push their buttons.”
A path to greatness is what motivated Fitzgerald. He just needed some tough love to get it out of him.
“For me, I wanted to be great, but I didn’t want to pay the price for it when I was young,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Haley told me, ‘Fitz, you’re only going to be a mediocre guy. You might be a 10-year vet, but in five years nobody is going to remember your name.’ That stuck with me. I didn’t want to be that guy.”
He’s not that guy and, because of it, Haley isn’t just another assistant coach. The two have moved up their respective career ladders largely in part to one another. They almost reached the top together, but fell just a few plays short in Super Bowl XLIII.
Maybe the day will come where the two push towards the same goal, together, once again. But for now, Larry Fitzgerald and Todd Haley are simply connections of the past that share great memories with one another.
“I would love to go play for Coach Haley,” Fitzgerald said. “I will go play for him in Canada or if he was coaching high school. I would go and do whatever Coach Haley asked me to do, because that is just the respect and admiration I have for him. But I’m in contract in Arizona and have a job to do here. Until something changes that’s where I want be and that’s where my heart is.”
It’s not likely that a reunion will occur. Of course, much crazier things have happened in the NFL. Until that day does or doesn’t come, both Haley and Fitzgerald will pull for one another.
“There’s no question that I root for Todd every week,” Fitzgerald said.
That’s every week except this week, of course.