What we’ve never known, and what we may never know, is how it all really worked. Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis, and Romeo Crennel steered the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories over the last four years, their individual coaching talents interfacing like so many gears in a fine Swiss timepiece.
How fitting, in the closing moments of last Sunday’s victory in Jacksonville, that Belichick and his two lead coordinators, Weis on offense and Crennel on defense, formed their tiny, sentimental huddle on the sideline. Heads down, arms locked around one another’s shoulders, they shared an intimate goodbye amid the celebratory tumult that swirled around them.
They were joined, one last time, in their secret society of coaches. Who called what? How often did Belichick, the mad scientist/football genius, impose his will upon his two coordinators? Was Weis really, truly the riverboat gambler on offense? How often was it Crennel, and not the defensive-first-last-and-always Belichick, who fashioned more looks out of that New England defense than a Parisian clothes designer could wring out of a bolt of burlap?
They hugged. They talked. They laughed. They left.
“I was thrilled to be able . . . for the three of us to be able to hug each other - we’ve been together for a long time, all the way back to the Giants,” said Belichick, dwelling on the moment one last time before leaving Alltel Stadium following the 24-21 win over the Eagles. “It was a good feeling.”
There it was again. One tiny opening, Belichick sounding for a second as if he might reveal his emotions, or wax sentimental over his longtime partners, and then he pulled it back. If ever he were to share what they meant to him, or how they all factored and functioned individually and together in the Patriots’ success, the 52-year-old Belichick wasn’t about to let it all out for the world’s media to dissect and discuss.
“It was very bittersweet,” said Weis, 48, referring to his parting feelings for Belichick, Crennel, and quarterback Tom Brady. “[Belichick] makes our job easier. He is such a good leader and he is so prepared. He’s got so much foresight and insight, where he always puts the coaching staff and the players and the whole organization in a position to be successful.”
Added the 57-year-old Crennel about the one last huddle on the sideline, “That kind of let you know that it was over, and the last time we were going to coach together - potentially the last time we were going to coach together. It felt kind of different, a little strange. But if you have to go out a winner at the Super Bowl, that’s a really special feeling.”
The following day, Crennel was in Cleveland, introduced as the Browns head coach, having agreed a couple of weeks earlier to a deal that will bring him around $11 million over the next five years. Thirty-five years of coaching finally led to a top job in the NFL, a fact that spoke to Crennel’s intelligence, talent, hard work, and perseverance, as well as to the league’s slow success in promoting African-Americans to head coaching positions.
Weis, a Notre Dame alum who never played football in college and began to coach high school ball in the late 1980s, agreed in December to take over the Fighting Irish. The only stipulation he attached to his six-year, $12 million deal: He wouldn’t leave the Patriots until their season was finished. By the end of last week, Weis, who nearly died in June 2002 when he underwent stomach surgery aimed at losing weight and creating a better image for him, had moved to South Bend, Ind.
It doesn’t figure to be easy to replace Crennel and Weis, both widely considered around the NFL to be the masterminds of their respective positions.
If they were, then the Patriots would seem headed to an inevitable falloff, no matter how talented their players. Coaching matters in the NFL, certainly more than it ever has due to the constant churning of rosters in the salary-cap era, and arguably it matters more in football than any other sport. If not, then why are there so many of them?
If Weis and Crennel weren’t masterminds, and Belichick was merely able to split himelf in thirds these recent years and channel his game plans through Crennel and Weis, then maybe nothing changes. Perhaps Belichick makes his two hires - Eric Mangini on defense; maybe Jeff Davidson on offense - and the Patriots can pencil in their calendar another Super Bowl next year in Detroit.
“Charlie’s been the biggest reason for the success of this offense,” Brady said in the hours after the win in Jacksonville, labeling Weis’s departure as a big loss. “I don’t even want to think about next year right now.”
On the other side of the ball, added Mike Vrabel, “Romeo really is the key. He’s the one calling the plays.”
Not to worry, Weis said in the hours leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX. Everyone is replaceable. In fact, kidded Weis, he was confident Belichick will “probably upgrade” at the offensive coordinator’s spot.
“He prepares for the future better than anyone,” observed Weis.
Belichick, indeed, has been a watcher, a planner, most of his life, dating back to his days as a preteen breaking down game film at the Naval Academy, where his father, Steve, was a coach for 33 years. Some 40-plus years later, and one miserable run in Cleveland as the Browns’ head coach far in his wake, he is the same deliberate worker, known to sift endlessly through opponents’ game tapes to detect tendencies and nuances to exploit.
We know the Belichick way works. We saw it again this season, especially in the playoffs, when Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), and Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia) all were rendered ineffective. Manning looked discombobulated, again, to the point of grounding passes near the line of scrimmage in frustration. Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ rookie savior in the regular season, looked like a frustrated freshman.
Most telling was McNabb. In the end, he could point to decent game stats next to his name, but his press clippings will serve as a permanent reminder that he looked uptight, out of place, and without a clue most of the night. Late in the fourth quarter, he had the ever-talking Terrell Owens imploring him on the sideline to “Relax! Just relax!” as the two eagerly awaited their next series on offense. Another icon turned inside out by the Belichick way.
“You don’t know how a Belichick defense is going to line up,” ex-Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie said five years ago, shortly after Belichick’s arrival as head coach in Foxborough. “What are they going to do. He makes you do your homework.”
`Two of the best’
In all, Belichick coached with Weis at his side for 15 years, including these last five in New England. Opting to be his own defensive coordinator his first year in Foxborough, Belichick brought Crennel aboard in 2001; the pair worked in lockstep 11 of the last 12 years. Crennel’s only year out the loop was in Cleveland, where he was the defensive coordinator for the 2000 season.
“They’re two of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” Belichick said the morning after the three shared their final moment together on the sideline. “I think the world of those two guys. They’ve done a tremendous job, been a big part of our success here. The record speaks for itself, and a lot of the success we’ve had, a large share of the credit should go to them.”
How much credit? Now we find out. Upon landing in Foxborough in 2000, Belichick said he learned two things during his frustrating tour with the Browns and a quarter-century of coaching. He learned he must concern himself more with off-field issues, that executing the X’s and O’s and winning on Sunday is a byproduct of a lot that goes on the other six days of the football week. He also said he would “delegate more” - ignore the things that “took away from the big picture.”
To that second point, Crennel and Weis could be the ultimate proof that Belichick learned his lesson well. They said little in their tenures here, because part of the Belichick way, similar to the Bill Parcells way, is that only one coach speaks for all. He may have delegated duty, but chat wasn’t part of the chore. Most of what we knew of Crennel and Weis came from TV shots on the sideline, where they could be seen lifting flipcharts over their lips before they spoke. Not very quotable stuff.
In the days and weeks ahead, Belichick now will have to delegate those duties to two new men. Weis and Crennel will have their own guys doing their old jobs. How it works out for all of them, on the sidelines in Foxborough and Cleveland and South Bend, ultimately could tell us how it really all worked here the last four years.
“A wonderful moment to be able to share,” said Belichick, reflecting on the farewell huddle. “Sort of a perfect ending.”