Clark Hunt and Scott Pioli were on center stage last Monday, answering questions related to the firing of coach Todd Haley. The Kansas City Chiefs were a team in turmoil, and the owner and general manager were searching for answers.
They may have found at least one in Romeo Crennel.
Exactly one week later, the Chiefs’ interim coach stepped to a podium inside the same interview room and couldn’t help but smile. Kansas City had upset the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers on Sunday, keeping its faint playoff hopes alive with two games remaining, and the dramatic shift in mood inside the team’s practice facility was palpable.
“We should all feel pretty good. We should,” Crennel said Monday. “I do.”
The Chiefs still need to beat the Oakland Raiders on Saturday, have Denver lose to Buffalo and San Diego drop one of its last two games. But if that happens, Kansas City will play for a spot in the playoffs when it visits Denver in their regular-season finale.
Who would have thought that a week ago?
“It feels good to get back to playing ball,” fullback Le’Ron McClain said.
The Chiefs have been ravaged by injuries and routed plenty of times, among them a 41-7 loss to Buffalo, a 48-3 setback at Detroit and a 31-3 home defeat to Miami, which also fired its coach last week.
Kansas City was coming off a 37-10 loss to the New York Jets in which it fell behind 28-3 while gaining 4 yards of total offense in the first half, an embarrassing performance on all accounts.
Haley was fired early the next morning, and the team was put in the hands of Crennel, who was just 24-40 in four seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach.
But it was Crennel who, as defensive coordinator, had kept Kansas City in so many games this season, and it was his calming influence that Hunt and Pioli sought to keep the season alive.
The first thing Crennel did was to bench Tyler Palko, who had been ineffective in four games as a replacement for injured quarterback Matt Cassel, and anoint Kyle Orton the starter.
Crennel made a few other moves, too, like scheduling weight-lifting sessions after practice to allow more time for film study beforehand, and those subtle tweaks paid dividends on Sunday.
Orton was sublime in his first start since Week 5, back when he was the starter in Denver. He was 23 of 31 for 299 yards, leading the Chiefs to 19 points — their most since late October.
Ryan Succop banged through four field goals, the kick coverage team held dangerous Packers return man Randall Cobb in check, and the defense put together another fine performance, led by linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Tamba Hali, who racked up three more sacks.
“That was about the most fun as I’ve had on a football field,” Orton said. “You go through practice and all that stuff, but your teammates don’t really know you until you get in that huddle. That’s a special time for me, inside the huddle. ... We had a lot of fun and battled together.”
Orton said he didn’t dwell too long on beating the Packers, even though that’s all anybody wanted to talk about Monday. Green Bay hadn’t lost in 19 games, the second-longest streak in NFL history, and there was talk the Packers were good enough to go through the season unbeaten.
But with another critical game coming up, there was little time to savor the success.
“We were able to win and we feel good about getting the victory, but we know the season lies in the next game,” Crennel said. “We have to win this next one, and it’s a short week. We’re looking forward to that, trying to keep this thing moving. We’re in the race and we have a chance.”
Crennel has made it clear that he wants to be considered for the permanent (backslash)job once the season ends, regardless of whether the Chiefs somehow reach the playoffs.
He certainly has the support of his players, who dumped a bucket of Gatorade on him Sunday.
“That might have been my first in the NFL. When you don’t win, you don’t get many showers,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “That was a good shower. A little sticky, but it was good.”
Indeed, there’s a lot of good surrounding the Chiefs right now. Now it’s up to Crennel to make sure his players keep things in perspective.
“Hey, you beat the Green Bay Packers, that was great,” Crennel said. “But if you don’t get prepared, you don’t get ready to go, we’re going to lose to the Oakland Raiders, and then the game yesterday will be kind of down the drain.”