Kent Babb | Crennel can win, depending on what he’s learned from losses
BY KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
Kent Babb | Crennel can win, depending on what he’s learned from losses
ST. JOSEPH -- He’s backed into a corner now, behind the curtain you see on television, and the Chiefs’ coach is talking about what it’s like when the cameras are off and the charm is gone and his patience has rotted.
Romeo Crennel smiles as he says it. He smiles so often. That salt-and-pepper mustache stretches across his face, and even now, when he’s talking about getting mad and the things that get him there, and boy, you should see it when it happens. And it’s such a strange image that it’s not just Crennel who’s smiling.
“Boom,” Crennel says. “This mild-mannered guy becomes a different animal.”
This jolly, grandfatherly 65-year-old is the Chiefs’ third coach in five seasons, and if you think about it, he probably faces more pressure than either of his predecessors. For the first time in his career, and indeed a rarity in his profession, Crennel inherited not a mess but a gift from his fired predecessor. This is a talented team that doesn’t need building or, really, much maintenance.
It needs a man who will let it grow naturally; who’ll just keep the car from flying off the road.
Crennel is the opposite of Todd Haley, whose unusual mood swings and erratic behavior were as much responsible for getting him fired last December as the Chiefs’ 5-8 record. He was unorthodox and creative, and those things are cool and innovative unless they fail. Haley’s way worked for a while, and then it just stopped being effective. The problem was that he was raving so often, the townspeople became numb to his cries of wolf.
Crennel doesn’t get consumed by emotion. And that’s a good thing for this year’s Chiefs. Expectations have been lifted for a team with talent at most every position. The playoffs are a realistic possibility, and a defense Crennel oversaw in two years as coordinator has a chance to emerge as one of the league’s best.
And if those things happen, we will not trace it back to anything Crennel did in training camp, the preseason or once the games begin to count. It will be what he didn’t do that we’ll remember — that this even-tempered coach did his thing and just didn’t screw it up.
This time last year, Haley began implementing an idea. It was different, and he asked his assistant coaches to bear with him. Because players had missed offseason practices amid the NFL lockout, Haley decided to go easy on them during training camp and allow them to ease into regular-season conditioning.
Players sweated and ran, but they did neither as much as they had in previous Chiefs camps. The team went forward, and if coaches and players disagreed with Haley’s idea, no one said anything. Even now, Crennel smiles when asked whether he ever considered approaching his boss and asking whether he was sure he wanted to travel the path.
“Last year is last year,” he says, and that grin makes me think that Crennel was a good soldier a year ago but that, yes, he would’ve done things differently.
Of course, we know how that movie actually ended: Three key players suffered season-ending injuries, quarterback Matt Cassel couldn’t establish rhythm, and the Chiefs just looked bad in a winless preseason and an 0-3 start to the regular season.
Football is a revisionist history kind of game. Coaches try unusual things, and if they work, those coaches are geniuses. If they don’t, the same men are stooges who are late for the unemployment line. Coloring outside the lines brings additional attention, and when it doesn’t work often enough, the football gods are unkind. Few coaches attempted more fourth-down conversions, trick plays and unusual motivational tactics than Haley in his nearly three seasons. In 2010, maybe his aggressive approach helped the Chiefs go 10-6 and win the AFC West. A year later, it was difficult to not blame the same mindset for the team’s failings.
When it came time to find Haley’s replacement, the Chiefs found a steady and experienced man with an office in the same building.
After one practice last week, it was clear that Camp Romeo won’t contain the same wild story lines as last year’s experience. Crennel is going back to what works, what’s proven, what he knows. He says he wants the team to be organized, and he wants players to develop chemistry. And he wants them to work. That’s not groundbreaking or even all that interesting. But it is proven.
His face dripping sweat, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson says a little custom is just what these Chiefs need.
“He believes in what he believes in,” Johnson says. “He’s an old-school guy, and he’s definitely going to put the hammer down on us.”
So here’s the undeniable fact about Romeo Crennel: His first experience as an NFL head coach was his own failure. The Cleveland Browns were 24-40 in his four seasons, and maybe the reasons were beyond Crennel’s control.
The Browns’ general manager at the time, Phil Savage, drafted poorly and signed free agents that didn’t make an impact. Injuries to key players piled up at an almost laughable rate. Crennel’s teams had losing records in three of those seasons, and after a 4-12 finish, he was fired.
Still, some things were remembered fondly.
“I’ve never seen a team play harder at the end of a season that wasn’t going well,” says Chiefs backup quarterback Brady Quinn, who played for Crennel in Cleveland.
That’s nice and all, but as Haley learned last year, it doesn’t matter the reasons if the wins aren’t coming. The thing you can’t deny about Crennel is that he has the respect and admiration of his team. There’s no starting over, no getting-to-know-you period that so many other first-year coaches endure. The Chiefs know Crennel, and he knows the Chiefs, but with that comes an expectation that the team will succeed immediately. If that doesn’t happen, outsiders will begin whispering that Crennel goes too easy on his players; that he’s too much of a players’ coach and oversees a team that lacks discipline.
Other than the rare occasions he bares his teeth to players, Crennel says he’s going to try it his easygoing way.
“You have to be who you are,” he says.
Of what we know about Crennel, though, here’s what remains a mystery: how much he actually learned from his time in Cleveland. If this is truly going to work, he should now know that, sure, the GM has final say on draft picks, but the head coach has to build teams to fit his vision.
Crennel says he and Scott Pioli have a good relationship, and maybe Pioli even deferred to Crennel in the first round of this year’s draft, when the Chiefs drafted nose tackle Dontari Poe at No. 11 overall. It was a gamble, the kind Pioli doesn’t usually feel comfortable making, but Crennel is a former defensive-line coach who thinks the front seven is the nerve center of an elite team.
He also should have learned from Haley’s mistakes the last two years. In the NFL, gimmicks should be used in moderation, and really, coaches should turn to them only to shake up a team that lacks talent. The Chiefs no longer have that problem, and they no longer have a coach who’ll feel the need to leave his fingerprint on each game, just to prove that he deserves to wear the headset.
Crennel’s responsibilities in training camp and beyond are to keep things simple, to keep players together, to let them do what they do. If he has to do more than that, bad things will have happened. If he’s able to sit back, keep his voice low and maybe even smile, then we’ll know that Crennel has his job figured out — and that he understands precisely what this year’s team needs.
To reach Kent Babb, call 816-234-4386, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/kentbabb. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.
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Interesting when you actually take a coaches surroundings in part of his coaching situation. Romeo was dealt a very poor hand in Cleveland. The fact he had a winning season is astonishing in itself.