Haley's Handshake Gamble

Two weeks ago, after his Chiefs were on the wrong end of a 49-29 beating in Denver, Todd Haley snubbed Broncos' coach Josh McDaniels during the traditional postgame handshake.

Haley made the customary walk to midfield, but when McDaniels extended his hand, he was greeted by Haley's wagging finger and a message that "a lot people are talking (expletive) about you".

After that incident, the logical assumption was that the handshake (or lack thereof) would be the entire focal point of the Chiefs-Broncos rematch. It was supposed to be the main topic of discussion for an entire week. It was going to boil the blood of people on both sides, re-stoking the flames of the already heated rivalry.

In reality, though, just a few days away from the game, the whole issue barely seems like a minor subplot. Why? Well, as it turns out, Haley was right: a lot of people are talking (expletive) about McDaniels.

The recent turmoil in Denver over "McSpygate" – the revelation that a Broncos employee filmed a walkthrough of a 49ers practice session – has succeeded in pushing the handshake story to the back burner.

Given that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen made a statement in support of his coach earlier in the week, only to quickly retract it a few hours later, it seems safe to say that McDaniels' future in Denver is a little bit shaky. Perhaps worst of all for the embattled coach, people within the Broncos organization seem to be working against him.

A whistleblower from inside the team is believed to have informed the league about the videotaping that went on while the Broncos and 49ers were in London. Then someone – perhaps the same person – leaked information to Fox's Jay Glazer about a staff-only meeting McDaniels had with his coaches. To top it all off, a separate source inside the team spoke to Yahoo's Michael Silver this week and further threw McDaniels under the bus.

The events happening on the field haven't been much better for the Broncos. They quickly fell back to earth after their win over the Chiefs, getting pummeled 35-14 by the Chargers on Monday Night Football. Then they lost at home to the St. Louis Rams, who hadn't won a single road game all season.

Denver comes to Arrowhead this weekend with a record of 3-8, their playoff dreams all but dead, and their season basically over. That their organization is ripe with inner turmoil is just the cherry on their pitiful sundae.

The Broncos' 30th ranked rush defense will surely get a strong dose of the league's best ground game, led by Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and maybe even "The Deep Freeze" Shaun Smith. Playing stout defense against the run, particularly on the road, takes a certain amount of fire and determination. After everything that's gone on the last few weeks, it's difficult to see where Denver will find any.

If it works, ‘The Snub' could prove to be the catalyst for the Chiefs turnaround the second half of the season.
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It's difficult, but not impossible. Because there may be a source the Broncos can pull some extra motivation from.

Haley never explained his reasons for refusing to shake McDaniels' hand. Naturally, that led to endless amounts of speculation as to what exactly got under his skin. The reason cited most often in the immediate aftermath was that Haley was upset about the Broncos "running up the score", although of all the potential reasons, that actually seems the least likely.

Denver only scored 14 points in the second half, with just seven coming in the final quarter. They didn't do anything particularly egregious on offense near the end of the game. And it's not like Haley hasn't been on the end of some lopsided defeats in his short tenure as Chiefs' coach. That one just doesn't add up.

Another potential reason stems from a report that the Broncos' defense blitzed the Chiefs upwards of 25 times in the fourth quarter. Not only was the game out of reach by that point, but Matt Cassel was clearly favoring his ankle, making him less mobile and less able to avoid the pressure. Something like that could certainly have set Haley off.

There have been other claims about McDaniels' sideline behavior – that he continued his infamously boisterous celebrations well after the game was in-hand, and was allegedly whooping it up with players after a failed onside kick that saw rookie Tony Moeaki suffer an obvious head injury. But none of that has been confirmed.

The latest rationale is that, even though the story hadn't broken publicly, Haley was making reference to the Broncos' taping controversy. But since a criticism of that situation would also be an indirect shot at Scott Pioli, Charlie Weis, and Romeo Crennel, who were all present for the original "Spygate" activities in New England, it's hard to imagine that's what Haley was getting at.

Whatever action or actions Haley took offense to that day, the Chiefs' coach had to know what he was doing when he walked out to midfield. If he didn't intend to shake McDaniels' hand, he could have simply headed for the locker room. But walking up to McDaniels and scolding him became an event for public consumption.

Haley's not a fool. He obviously had to know that would happen. And if Haley knew his snub would create a talking point, then it's not a leap to assume that he intended it to become one.

The only question is why? Was Haley trying to send a message to his players? Some kind of "That's all I can stands and I can't stands no more" type of thing? It's the only explanation that makes any sense, but we'll never know – it's not like Haley's gonna tell us.

What we do know is that ever since the blowout in Denver – the finale of a rather woeful three-game stretch for the Chiefs – Haley's team has looked reborn. Granted, it's come against teams from the NFC West, but the Chiefs have been playing some of their best football of the season.

Certain factors have been raised as possible explanations, namely some changes at practice. But along with that, perhaps the Chiefs' players saw their coach put himself on the line with his actions in Denver and took it to heart. If that's true then we should see it for ourselves on Sunday, because after what happened the last time they met, the Chiefs should be looking to bury the Broncos six feet under the Arrowhead turf.

But that blade can cut both ways. What if the players in Denver took offense to Haley's public show of disrespect towards their coach? As the sun rapidly sets on their season, something like that could be the spark they need to walk into K.C. and give the Chiefs more of a game than they were expecting.

Naturally, though, that assumes the Broncos actually care enough about McDaniels to get worked up over what happened. His players have supported him in their public comments, but after their hideous 59-14 home loss to the Raiders, a local report in Denver claimed the players had essentially quit on their coach in that game because he'd spent the week criticizing them after a hard-fought loss to the New York Jets.

McDaniels finds himself on the firing line. He has to hope his players don't quit on him altogether.
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But considering how Denver rebounded from all that when they played the Chiefs, it doesn't look like the players have given up on their coach just yet. And if the Broncos, in the sorry state they're currently in, come out on Sunday with unexpected fire and motivation, what explanation will there be other than the team wanting to stick it to Haley?

A loss to the Broncos on Sunday would be an unmitigated disaster for the Chiefs. It would almost surely cost them the AFC West, unless they could somehow rebound and beat the Chargers. It would be particularly embarrassing given both Denver's struggles and all the motivation the Chiefs should have for this game. And it would be downright humiliating for Haley, who would have to walk out to midfield with his tail between his legs to finally shake McDaniels' hand.

All year long, people have discussed Haley's gambling nature when it comes to things like trick plays and fourth downs. But if he meant his snub of McDaniels to be some sort of intentional button-pushing gesture, then his biggest gamble of the season was the decision he made after the final whistle blew in Denver.

If it works and the Chiefs ride a three game winning streak into the showdown in San Diego, then Haley will deserve all the credit in the world. But if it backfires and brings a determined Broncos squad to Arrowhead, the handshake snub will be second-guessed ad nauseum for the foreseeable future.

Let's just hope he made the right bet.

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