Camp Confidential: Chiefs toughening up

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

RIVER FALLS, Wis. --- The Kansas City Chiefs are tired.

And they should be.

Camp Haley has been no pleasure cruise.

The Chiefs, who break camp Thursday, have undergone a harsh transition from the cushy Herm Edwards days to the no-breaks, harsh methods of new coach Todd Haley. Mimicking new general manager Scott Pioli's humorless ways, Haley has not been easy on his troops.

It's all about making the Chiefs -- who have won a total of six games the past two years -- "hard to beat," Haley said.

"I think this camp had to be tough," Haley said Wednesday. "We need a mental toughness .... I've been on teams that have turned it around and each of those teams needed to get tougher."

In the offseason, Haley stressed conditioning and made his team lose weight. Then, he held a conditioning test before the start of camp. Several well-known players didn't pass, thus delaying their camp starting date. Camp practices in this idyllic Wisconsin college town have been long and hard-hitting.

Haley is often heard barking his displeasure at his team and often his media briefings smack of an unsatisfied coach.

Further getting everyone's attention, Haley broke down standout receiver Dwayne Bowe. The team's best receiver was made a third stringer. But the tough love has worked. Bowe has responded and it's been a lesson learned for the entire team.

Haley knows he has a lot of work to do with this team. The Chiefs are being reconstructed. Haley knows it's not going to be easy, but he's bent on making it work.

"I've seen good progress," Haley said. "This team is much tougher than it was a few months ago. But we have to keep on improving."

Key questions

Can quarterback Matt Cassel cut it?

There is some concern about Cassel. He has been uneven in camp and struggled in both a scrimmage and the preseason opener. The Chiefs put their fortune in Cassel's hands. Pioli was with Cassel in New England and saw the career backup excel after Tom Brady's season-ending injury last season. Cassel has some skills and is very coachable. The Chiefs believe he will end up succeeding very nicely, but it may take Cassel a while. He isn't playing with the same talent as in New England and that may be one of the reasons why he has struggled so far in Kansas City.

Can the Chiefs find a pass rush?

The Chiefs have showed an improved pass rush in camp and the preseason under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who is transitioning the unit to a 3-4 front. The Chiefs need a boost in the pass rush. They set an NFL record for the fewest sacks in a season with 10 last year. The team didn't bring in any individual pass-rushing stars, but it hopes young defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey spark a resurgence.

Does Larry Johnson still have it?

The veteran running back has a renewed attitude this camp. The Chiefs like their running backs and think youngsters Dantrell Savage and Jamaal Charles will be solid contributors. But Johnson is showing he still can be a lead back. If Johnson can keep his mind right and stay healthy, the Chiefs can have a dynamic power rushing game -- one that makes life easier for Cassel. If the passing game isn't in high gear, I can see Haley running the ball 35-40 times a game as the Chiefs try to grind out wins. Haley implemented a high-scoring offense as the offensive coordinator in Arizona. But this year, at least, the Chiefs may try to win games by scores of 13-10 rather than 35-30.

Market watch

Pioli is following the Patriots' blueprint all the way, and so the Chiefs are putting a premium on leadership. One of the ways the Patriots transformed from an also-ran to a dynasty was to mix young talent with veterans.

The Chiefs have one of the youngest core groups in the NFL, but Pioli and Haley have brought in plenty of leadership. Linebacker Mike Vrabel was part of the Cassel trade and fellow linebacker Zach Thomas was signed in April. Both of these players, along with safety Mike Brown, will essentially serve as player-coaches on the field.

On offense, the team added veteran receiver Amani Toomer. These four new additions will teach the young Chiefs how to go about their business and, Pioli hopes, how to win.

Newcomer to watch

Let's face it: It all revolves around Cassel in Kansas City. Whether he succeeds or fails will define this franch
ise for the next half-decade. But here's another player to watch: Safety Mike Brown.

The Chiefs are thrilled with this former Pro Bowl player. Haley was on the Bears' staff a few years ago when Brown was one of the best defensive playmakers in the league. Injuries have derailed Brown's career. But he has been healthy and dynamic for the Chiefs. If he can stay healthy, Brown can be a major impact player.

Observation deck

Former starting quarterback Brodie Croyle has had a good camp and was impressive in the preseason opener against Houston. Croyle looks like a solid backup choice behind Cassel. The key for Croyle is his health. ... The Chiefs want to see more consistent play out of their offensive line. The unit appears to be a work in progress ... The team is happy with the progress of left tackle Branden Albert. The No. 15 overall pick in the 2008 draft is coming along fine. He still has some kinks to work out, but the Chiefs expect a big year from him. .... The team is excited about third-round pick Alex Magee. He has been very active in training camp and the first preseason game ... New receiver Ashley Lelie has to make the team because of his ability to stretch field. Lelie was signed Monday ... The team thinks Tamba Hali, who was converted from defensive end to linebacker, has a chance to make an impact ... Second-year cornerback Brandon Flowers looks primed for a another solid season.