Kansas City, Mo. Romeo Crennel stepped to the podium inside the Chiefs’ practice facility, gripping both sides of it with his meaty hands, and promptly named Kyle Orton his starting quarterback.
Let the changes in Kansas City begin.
In just a shade over 48 hours since he was appointed the interim coach in place of the fired Todd Haley, Crennel has already put his stamp on the franchise. Tyler Palko is out and Orton is in as the starting quarterback, the daily schedule of weight lifting and practice has been reworked, and tension that coursed through the Chiefs over the past several weeks seems to have lifted.
Perhaps the biggest change is Crennel himself, who cracked jokes and answered every question he was posed Wednesday with the kind of direct honesty that Haley lacked during his tenure.
“In meeting with the players today, I think they were attentive, they were excited about getting started, they know it’s a big challenge to face, and I think they’re ready to face the challenge,” said Crennel, whose first game couldn’t be more daunting: the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
“I talked to the about the challenge,” Crennel said, “and what we have to do, how we have to play the game. I talked to them about change, and distractions, and when there’s change there’s some uncertainty because you really don’t know what to expect sometimes. We’re going to try to stay as much on schedule as we can, but then I told them we’re going to change some things.”
That starts with the quarterback situation.
Palko was bumped from the starter to the third team after leading the Chiefs to only two touchdowns in four games since taking over for the injured Matt Cassel. Orton will start against the Packers unless an injury to the index finger on his throwing hand causes him problems.
In that case, fifth-round draft pick Ricky Stanzi will make his first career start.
“We made the change and we’ll see how it plays out,” Crennel said. “If it works out with more points on the board, then it’ll be a good change.”
Orton took snaps under center with the first-team offense Wednesday during the brief portion of practice the media was allowed to observe. He was wearing a sleeve to protect the finger, which he dislocated on his only play as a member of the Chiefs two weeks ago at Chicago.
Crennel said he made the decision Wednesday morning to switch quarterbacks, let Palko know and then informed general manager Scott Pioli. Crennel said he didn’t want the situation to become much of a distraction during a week of pronounced change within the organization.
“I’m feeling very comfortable with the offense,” said Orton, who was claimed off waivers from the Denver Broncos a few weeks ago. “I do what I’m told and do it to the best of my ability.”
Crennel said he considered waiting until later in the week to make the announcement because he wanted every possible advantage over the Packers, who at 13-0 are chasing a perfect season.
Then it occurred to Crennel that the Packers probably don’t care who is starting.
“When you look at our guys,” Crennel said, “they look at Tyler and what he’s done the last couple weeks, they look at Orton and know he has a finger, they look at a rookie, so I don’t think they’re shaking in their boots about those choices.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said that was precisely the case.
“We’re just trying to lock down on their offense,” McCarthy said, “and be prepared whether it’s Ricky Stanzi or Kyle Orton.”
Haley earned a reputation during his first NFL head coaching job of being evasive, difficult to please and often overly intense. Crennel couldn’t be much more opposite.
While the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator can be demanding, linebacker Derrick Johnson said he also has a soft side that allows him to relate well to players. Johnson said that’s part of the reason the pall in the locker room had lifted — players were generally upbeat on Wednesday, despite having lost five of their last six games and falling out of playoff contention.
“You’d think there would be a lot of distractions going on right now, but there’s really not,” Johnson said. “We know this business is about change all the time, so as players you have to be professional about what goes on.”
Defensive back Brandon Flowers said the decision to fire Haley before the end of the season caught him by surprise, but then Flowers reasoned that he’s on his third head coach in four years and that perhaps nothing should surprise him.
“I wasn’t expecting it, but you have to roll with the punches. That’s not our call — that’s upper management’s call,” Flowers said. “Everybody’s going to pack their bags. I’m going to pack my bags, Romeo Crennel, Scott Pioli. Everybody’s going to pack their bags, it’s just a matter of when. Nobody is going to be here forever. With Coach Haley, it was a couple days ago.
“We can’t keep thinking about that coaching change,” Flowers said, “we just have to go out there and win games.”
As far as Flowers is concerned, that would be the best change of all.