The NFL is a league of second chances, for both players and coaches.
Romeo Crennel compiled a 24-40 record as Browns head coach that included a 10-6 mark in 2007, the best in Cleveland in 15 years. But after being let go following the 2008 season, he was out of coaching for a season.
He was a highly respected NFL assistant for well over 20 years, a run that included four years as the Patriots defensive coordinator during their run of Super Bowl wins, before getting his first head coaching shot. Crennel returned to the sidelines in 2010 with the Chiefs as defensive coordinator.
He was in familiar surroundings. General manager Scott Pioli and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, both of whom he had worked with at multiple stops, were in Kansas City, and Anthony Pleasant and Otis Smith, whom he’d coached, were on the staff as well.
Last season, when Pioli’s first head coaching hire with the Chiefs, Todd Haley, was fired with three games left on the schedule, Crennel was tapped as interim head coach. But after Crennel led Kansas City to wins in two of those games - and ended the Packers’ pursuit of a 16-0 season - Pioli removed the interim tag.
“I think he’s the right guy for the job,’’ Pioli said. “I think he’s a tremendous football coach, he’s a tremendous leader, and he had the opportunity to do this job here the last three weeks and what I was able to see certainly showed that.
“I saw a team that was prepared, I saw a coaching staff and a team that was organized and that responded well, solid game plans, and solid execution. And again, in terms of the emotional component, their energy levels were really high. Additionally, I saw us doing some fundamental things very well.’’
Pioli added that playing fundamental football is critical to “not only achieving success but also to sustaining success.’’
Crennel said that in the days before the 2004 Super Bowl, he had begun to think he’d never get a head coaching shot. So he set his mind on being the best coordinator he could.
It was the same when he returned to coaching two years ago with the Chiefs: He did everything he could to be a superior defensive coordinator.
Now that he has gotten his second chance as a head coach, he feels better prepared.
Asked what he learned from his Cleveland tenure that he will use this time, Crennel said, “I think the scope of the job itself. As a first-time head coach, the scope of the job is a lot bigger than you anticipate or that you may realize.
“So having had that experience, the second time I can anticipate some things happening, know how to deal with some things that might happen that I wasn’t quite ready for the first time I had the job.
“The other thing, I think, in Cleveland, a quarterback controversy was an issue for me there and trying to be definitive about who the quarterback was going to be . . . that’s not saying that you’ll never have a quarterback controversy, because if you have two guys, you have to make a decision on how you’re going to let them compete and then how you’re going to let them play.’’
Crennel may have just that for the 2012 season. Matt Cassel, who was placed on injured reserve in November with an injury to his throwing hand, and journeyman Ricky Stanzi are the only quarterbacks under contract, but Crennel wouldn’t commit to Cassel stepping back into his starter’s role.
“Matt has done a good job for us, he took us to a playoff [in 2010], and he’s proven that he has those capabilities,’’ said Crennel. “And I think that as long as he’s on the team, we’re going to work to try to improve him as a player and allow him the opportunity to get us back to the playoffs.
“That’s not saying that there’s not going to be competition for him. Right now, I have two quarterbacks under contract in Cassel and Stanzi and then we’ll have to work through any other options that we might have.’’
One option could be re-signing Kyle Orton. The Chiefs claimed Orton off waivers after Stanzi struggled, but he is slated to be a free agent.
Though Cassel wasn’t playing at the same level he did in 2010 (10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions at the time of his injury), he wasn’t the only key player Kansas City lost to injured reserve. Safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles, and tight end Tony Moeaki were all hurt.
The 64-year-old Crennel’s contract is only for three years, though he and Pioli both said that number is fine with them. And Crennel has been around long enough to know that it doesn’t matter how long the deal is if he doesn’t win.
“Hey, you know what happens in this league: If things go bad and you lose, you get fired,’’ he said. “That’s the way I’ve always looked at it, and it doesn’t change. I don’t care how many years you got - they can tell you it’s a five-year program, but in two years, if you haven’t gotten it done, you’re gone.’’
In other words, Crennel has to make the most of his second chance.
Tackling some final thoughts
Colleague Greg Bedard did a fantastic job grading the performance of Patriots players for the 2011 season, so we’ll hand out some superlatives, too:
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady. Without him at the helm, the Patriots may have been in serious trouble. He showed that he’s still at the top of his game, throwing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns (against 12 interceptions) despite again playing through injury.
Most Valuable Player, Defense: Vince Wilfork. We can’t let the big guy’s work go unnoticed. Wilfork was a true three-down player, playing in an incredible 86.6 percent of the defensive snaps and anchoring a line that was in flux for nearly the entire season. And he got to flash his playmaking ability with two interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Best Play: For sheer fun, was there a better one than Rob Gronkowski’s 49-yard reception in the first quarter against the Redskins? The tight end took a tumble when he caught the pass, realized he hadn’t been downed, got up, broke two tackles along the sideline, and only went down when he couldn’t keep his feet after Josh Wilson dove at his knees.
Best Newcomer: Brian Waters. The veteran guard was signed just 10 days before the opener and learned not only a new playbook but also a slightly different position, flipping from left guard to right, and was invaluable. He started every game, working alongside three right tackles and four centers. A steadying presence.
Best Team Spirit: Julian Edelman. Save for putting his college quarterbacking skills to work and throwing a pass, what didn’t Edelman do? Receiver, returner, nickel back . . . wherever he was needed, Edelman was there.
Best Introduction: Sterling Moore. Before Jan. 22, did any New England fan pay him much mind? But since that day, when he broke up two passes against the Ravens on the game’s final drive, one in the end zone, he gained a bunch of fans.
Best Dressed: Antwaun Molden. The corner may not have distinguished himself on the field, but off the field he was sharp, donning tailored suits that were coordinated sometimes down to the socks, which of course earned him some ribbing from teammates.
Class Clown: There are a few candidates for this one. Gronkowski’s “Yo soy fiesta!’’ declaration to an ESPN Deportes reporter encapsulates his fun-loving personality, while Ross Ventrone and Rich Ohrnberger are widely recognized in the locker room as the funniest players. But it was Nick McDonald who kept up the season’s longest joke, leaving close to two dozen costumed rubber duckies in the locker of fellow lineman Donald Thomas.
Prospects high for Kuechly
The NFL Combine, where prospective draft picks are poked, prodded, quizzed, and put through their paces, begins Wednesday in Indianapolis when offensive linemen, tight ends, and specialists start the four-day job interview process.
Defensive backs are the last group to arrive, on Saturday, and the gathering wraps up a week from Tuesday.
There are eight players from six New England colleges expected to attend: Massachusetts tight end Emil Igwenagu, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Merrimack linebacker Shawn Loiseau, Maine safety Jerron McMillian, Yale quarterback Patrick Witt, and receiver Kashif Moore, defensive lineman Kendall Reyes, and kicker Dave Teggart, all of Connecticut.
Kuechly is the best of the bunch, projected as a first-round pick. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock had high praise for the junior, who won the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player), and was Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think he’s the best inside linebacker in this draft, by far,’’ Mayock said. “He’s a natural three-year junior, he’s got more production than you could ever imagine, he’s never been hurt, no significant injuries, he’s clean off the field, he’s intelligent, he’s got great instincts and he’s a better athlete than people think.
“I think he’s going to get a lot of ‘oh, he’s an inside linebacker from Boston College, so he can’t run.’ Well, he can run. I put on five or six tapes at least of this kid and every once in a while he’s going to get enveloped by a big body, but his instincts are so good, his ability to move under or over a block are so good, and his playmaking and instincts are so good.
“Think about Sean Lee. I think that’s the best comparison to him. Sean Lee went in the second round to Dallas but has become a Pro Bowl inside linebacker, and I think this kid is very similar and has none of the knee issues that Sean had and is a slightly better athlete.’’
Kuechly has been projected by several draftniks as a good fit for Philadelphia, which selects 15th.
As for the Patriots, who have two first-round picks, Mayock believes they should focus on defense.
“Bill [Belichick] is a master at letting the board come to him,’’ said Mayock, “so I don’t even think Bill will know really until that last week prior to the draft what specific players he’s interested in. But the way I look at it is, it’s got to be all about defense.
“You’re sitting there with two picks, with the ability to move up, down, or stay at 27 and 31, and in a league where it’s a pass-first league . . .
“I was kind of happy to see the return of defense in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, but let’s be honest about it, there’s a lot of teams, including the Patriots, that want a track meet every week. Which means you’ve got to rush the quarterback and you’ve got to defend on the back end, and I think those are the two areas of need that cry out for some help in the draft for the Patriots.’’
STILL A FAN
Pioli wowed by Belichick
As his longtime colleague prepared for his fifth Super Bowl as Patriots coach, Scott Pioli was asked if he saw signs in their days in Cleveland that led him to believe Bill Belichick would someday be considered one of the game’s greatest coaches.
“One of the things that stood out to me immediately about Bill was how hard he worked,” said Pioli, who was hired by Belichick in 1992 as a Browns personnel assistant, making $14,000 his first year. “Everything that he did revolved around winning football games.
“It wasn’t about agendas, it wasn’t about his relationships with players. He had a job. His job was to win football games, and everything he did every day was going to revolve around that.
“That caused him to work really, really hard, and I think part of his leadership style was the fact [that] in working hard, any job that Bill ever asked anyone to do - no matter what it was, whether it was the guys doing laundry, whether it was the guys lining the field, every job he had either done or was still willing to do.
“I mean, as silly as it sounds, I don’t know of a whole lot of head coaches who run around making their own copies, that do a lot of seemingly silly things. They’re usually telling people or getting people to do it.
“I think that’s a rare type of leadership.’’
Moss: That’s entertainment
Randy Moss celebrated his 35th birthday by announcing that he wanted to return to the NFL. Last August, Moss’s agent, Joel Segal, said the record-setting wideout had decided to retire.
But on Monday, the suddenly chatty Moss - he joined Twitter and has become a bit of a cult hero on the video chatting site Ustream.tv - told those watching his “MossTV’’ that after tending to some personal business last year, “Your boy is going to come back here and play some football.’’
While it’s a bit of a surprise to see the mercurial Moss embrace social media, he has long done things on his own terms. On MossTV, he showed off a bag of his freshly cut hair (he shaved off his trademark cornrows) and said it smelled like sauerkraut, praised Bill Belichick, shared memories of Myra Kraft, and said that a friend timed him at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash recently. He also may or may not have picked his nose on camera.
The question now is, who would be interested? We know that the Indoor Football League is, as Moss was offered a contract by the Chicago Slaughter. His rival, Terrell Owens, is playing with an IFL team in Allen, Texas.
Moss seems realistic about his chances, acknowledging that he may not play anywhere in 2012. As for a possible Patriots reunion, the feeling here is that that ship has sailed.
Fisher gets competitive
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell named three new members to the powerful Competition Committee last week: new Rams coach Jeff Fisher, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, and Packers president Mark Murphy. They join committee chair Rich McKay, the Falcons president; Cowboys COO Stephen Jones; Bengals coach Marvin Lewis; Giants owner John Mara; Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome; and Texans GM Rick Smith. Fisher, who did not coach in 2011, was co-chair of the committee from 2002-10.
It seems almost oxymoronic to say that the Bengals made a curious move, but hiring Hue Jackson as an assistant coach for special teams and defensive backs seems to qualify as one. Let go last month as Raiders head coach, Jackson has never coached defense or special teams. It could be Lewis looking out for a friend - Jackson was on the Bengals staff as receivers coach from 2004-06 - or the team’s way of thanking Jackson for the foolish deal he made to acquire Carson Palmer that has left the Raiders without first-round draft picks this year and next. But it is undoubtedly a sign of how quickly things can change in the NFL. Oakland was 7-4 a dozen weeks into the season, but stumbled home at 1-4, and couldn’t pull out a win in the season finale that would have given it a playoff spot. Now Jackson has been fired by a man he considered a friend (new Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie) and finds himself an assistant again . . . Calling all high school and youth coaches: The Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association will team up with the Patriots for the 2012 New England Football Coaches Clinic at Gillette Stadium March 16-17, with NFL and college personnel on hand to pass on tips. Among those expected to participate are Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, along with coaches from Boston College and UMass. For more information, go to newenglandfootball.com.