Kansas City, Mo. Going 2-1 and stunning then-undefeated Green Bay as Kansas City’s interim head coach meant a lot more than gratification for Romeo Crennel.
It also persuaded the Kansas City Chiefs to give the affable defensive specialist a second chance to be an NFL head coach.
The Chiefs announced Monday that Crennel was the official replacement for the fired Todd Haley, removing the interim tag he bore for the last three weeks of the season.
“The three games had a lot to do with where we arrived at this decision,” general manager Scott Pioli said. “Some of the things we saw was a great deal of accountability and consistency. There was also a different energy to the football team. A lot of it had to do with those last three games.”
Warm and personable, the 64-year-old Crennel is a sharp departure from Haley. Often called a “players’ coach” he’s been known to write off mistakes as youthful indiscretions. Ironically, being soft with players was a criticism when he was fired after four years as head coach in Cleveland with a 24-40 record.
He was an instant hit with Chiefs players while serving as Haley’s defensive coordinator the past two years. After the Chiefs beat the Packers 19-14 on Dec. 18 in their first game with Crennel in charge, the Chiefs chanted his nickname, “RAC! RAC!” as they ran up the tunnel.
He was always considered the front-runner to replace Haley, even though Pioli said he interviewed “more than half a dozen” candidates.
“I’m not exactly sure what a player’s coach is,” Crennel said. “Sometimes I think players think that a coach who is on their side is a player’s coach, who always rules in favor of them may be a players’ coach. I know that’s not always the case with me. I think that basically, I’m a good guy. And I think this is what players appreciate — players appreciate honesty. Players appreciate you telling them like it is. They don’t always want to hear it. But that’s what they appreciate. I try to tell them what I believe, what I feel and how I think it should be done.”
With a core of good, young players, the Chiefs could be poised to become dominant in the AFC West. Crennel is the fifth head coach in Kansas City since the Chiefs’ last playoff win in the 1993 season
Shortly after winning a Super Bowl title as New England’s defensive coordinator in 2004, Crennel was hired by Browns owner Randy Lerner, who hoped he would bring needed discipline and accountability to his young team.
However, the Browns continued to have issues on and off the field and there was a general feeling Crennel was too lenient. When wide receiver Braylon Edwards cut his foot during training camp while running around in his socks, Crennel downplayed the incident as youthful immaturity, saying at the time: “Kids are kids and you look at kids and they take their shoes off and run around all the time.”
He was also criticized for using a coin flip to pick his starting quarterback before the 2007 exhibition opener. The Browns finished 10-6 in his third season, narrowly missing the playoffs, but fell to 4-12 in 2008, losing their last six games. Against Pittsburgh, Crennel was 0-8, including a 31-0 blowout in his final game.
The Cleveland experience has helped him be a better head coach, he said.
“Probably if I hadn’t gone through that experience, I wouldn’t be sitting here now,” he said. “When you’re in the seat for the first time, there are a lot of things that even though you’re an assistant and think you have all the answers and know exactly what’s going to happen, you don’t know what’s going to happen because things occur every day that you’re not quite ready for. That’s one of the things that helped me in these last three games.”
Crennel’s lone defeat as interim coach came in overtime against Oakland, which knocked the Chiefs (7-9) from playoff contention. But they closed the season by beating Denver, giving them some momentum going into 2012.
One of the biggest decisions facing Crennel and Pioli will be at quarterback. Veteran Kyle Orton, acquired shortly before Haley was fired, replaced the ineffective Tyler Palko in the last three games and engineered wins over two playoff teams, the Packers and Broncos. Orton is an unrestricted free agent, but many fans want him signed and competing with incumbent Matt Cassel, who was out most of the second half of the season with a hand injury.
“I’m probably not sitting here if Kyle hadn’t done the job that he did,” Crennel said. “And I’m very appreciative of that. I’m also appreciative of the fact he is an unrestricted free agent and we have to go through the process.”
Crennel was also noncommittal when asked about his staff, but did leave the door open that he could be his own defensive coordinator. First-year offensive coordinator Bill Muir came under criticism even though the offense was greatly weakened by season-ending injuries at the beginning of the year to tight end Tony Moeaki and Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles.
Pioli also spoke to former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio.
“One thing RAC said at the time was, ‘I want you to go out and talk to other people because if you make this decision, I want you to know that you’re making the right decision,’” Pioli said.
Many players had said they wanted to win the last three games to help Crennel get the job.
“Throughout the year, we were all over a little bit. We came to a common ground over the last three weeks,” said fullback Le’Ron McClain. “We started doing good when Romeo stepped in.”