As the Chiefs begin their head coach search, most analysts seem to point to interim head coach Romeo Crennel as the most likely candidate to get the job. Crennel has obviously been great for this team as a defensive coordinator and the team played well under him in the last three games of the season, ending 2-1 including a win against Green Bay and a razor-thin overtime loss to Oakland.
Still, I have my qualms with him.
I think Chiefs fans need to take a hard look at the entirety of this season and what Crennel can take credit for and what he can’t. There was also a lot I saw in the games Crennel led that had me pulling my hair out – tendencies I think could spell death for the Chiefs in 2012 if Crennel remains in charge of the game plans.
My problems with Romeo after the jump.
I should start all of this by acknowledging that no matter what I say, Crennel probably is the most likely to be hired – Todd Haley was fired as head coach three days after I wrote a 2,000-word defense of his tenure. Therefore, with this column I may in fact be destining Romeo to get the job, but all well.
First off, the KC’s feel-good 2-1 streak was fueled entirely by the defense, which Crennel should the credit for, of course. However, I am not convinced that Crennel’s interim promotion had much of an impact on that. After being blown out in the Chiefs’ first three games – which Crennel also has to take responsibility for – the defense started to turn things around in the middle of the season and became a more consistently solid unit while Todd Haley was still the head coach.
My take on the defense overall this year is that it was a young unit that was still growing and learning the game mentally, while the defensive backfield took a long time to adjust to the loss of Eric Berry and the off-and-on injuries to Kendrick Lewis. Jon McGraw is a tough, smart veteran; he’s just way too slow for the position. Donald Washington and Sabby Piscatelli may eventually develop into NFL-quality safeties, but their first few outings showed that they were not ready for the opportunity by a longshot. The Brandons + Javier Arenas are studs, but over the past two seasons they have grown accustomed to the Chiefs’ defensive scheme which relies heavily on man-coverage leaving them exposed unless they can count on consistent safety help. With Eric Berry on the field – a ball hawk who had the athleticism to get to where he needed to be no matter what – this scheme works brilliantly. But without him, there was always at least one safety that the corners could not rely on for help and this was a death knell for the Chiefs defensively with dozens of blown coverages per game.
The improvement of the defense came almost exclusively due to two things: increasingly consistent play out of the mish-mash of backup safeties and the emergence of Justin Houston as a legit pass rushing threat opposite Tamba Hali. Crennel, of course, had a lot to do with these players’ development, but then again, they may have learned their way with or without him – and certainly didn’t need him to be head coach to perform at a higher level.
The Chiefs held opponents to 20 points or less in all three of the games in which Crennel was a head coach. But they succeeded in doing so seven other times in 2011 as well — the difference was the offense. The Chiefs only won one game this year in which they passed for less than 180 yards. Guess which one? Week 7 against the Raiders – a game that Oakland gift-wrapped to the Chiefs by throwing six interceptions.
In short, I think we need to look at the Crennel defense as it played through the whole season – not just the last three weeks, and I don’t necessarily think Crennel deserves credit for the fact that Todd Haley signed Kyle Orton, but Orton couldn’t play until after Haley was fired because he got himself injured on his first play. In his first two starts, Orton put up the Chiefs’ best passing numbers of the season in successive games.
Still, even looking at those last three games, I’m not sure the Chiefs have found a consistent recipe for success. They never scored more than 19 points and were horrendous in the red zone. And, although they squeaked by with two wins, they did by making the game as ugly and slow as possible, and this is where Crennel’s style has had me screaming at my screen.
Crennel’s general game plan in each of the games seems to be: keep the ball moving, edge in a small lead, protect it like hell. In each of his three games, Crennel went into a conservative shell early in the second half. In every one of the games he has ended up calling runs up the gut on 3rd and long, knowing full well that they wouldn’t make the 1st down, but did so to run some more time off the clock – again protecting the lead.
Obviously this plan worked more often than not, but I think it is playing with fire. Against the Packers, the Chiefs got lucky. Rodgers was having an off day and through out most of the game, the Chiefs were holding them off with a six-point lead. Playing conservative clock-killing football up six points against prolific passers is nuts. Guys like Rodgers, Brees, Brady and company are always just one throw away from putting 7 points up on the board. Crennel got lucky that A-Rodg’s bad juju continued to plague him up to the end of the game, and the Chiefs snuck away with a 5-point win.
In the loss against Oakland, you could look at it two ways: 1.) The Chiefs should have won that one. Oakland blocked two Chiefs field goals, either one of which would have won them the game. 2.) The Chiefs were asking for trouble by playing a vanilla offensive game plan guaranteed to make them one touchdown and some change, but would give a Raiders QB with a big arm and some fast receiving options infinite chances to get back in the game with a big play. In the end, the Raiders’ last big play was the only one they needed, and that’s all that matters, because rather than leaving them in the dust by going hard for points, Chiefs just thought they could eat clock and hold on.
Against Denver, look, if you can’t win a game in which the other team’s QB only completes six passes for 60 yards and an intereception, you should be relegated to the Big 12. Against quarterbacks that are not visually impaired, I don’t think the Chiefs are going to be able to count on the other team doing exactly nothing on offense. When Crennel called a run up the gut on 3rd and 13 in the 4th quarter, I nearly lost it. In this sport, you should never be sheepishly protecting a 4-point lead. For all of his flaws, at least Todd Haley played aggressive. If Brady Quinn had been put in toward the end of that game, I’m not sure we’d all be so smug right now.
So, while I think Crennel does deserve an enormous amount of credit for how the defense is playing right now, we may have just seen the Chiefs playing the best they ever will under him. If he is still the head coach next year, we very well may end up playing every game scoring around 13 points and sometimes we will hold the opponent to less than that, sometimes not, but we probably won’t be a real contender.
Everyone has been talking about how the players greatly respect Romeo and how they love playing for him. But, I think that sort of stuff gets a bit overblown. These guys are professionals – they’ll play for any coach, because really their playing for their own contracts, it’s their job. Being a player-friendly coach is an elusive thing, and not necessarily a positive trait. Look at what happened to the last three coaches I’ve most often heard described as “player friendly” – Wade Phillips, Raheem Morris and now Rex Ryan.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter has said he is confident that Green Bay OC Joe Philbin is a legit candidate for the head coaching job, and that he may come with QB Matt Flynn, who would be a big free agent prize for the Chiefs. If Philbin is hired, I think we could expect Crennel to stay as the defensive coordinator. He is 64 and probably nearing the end of his career. He would still prefer to work for Scott Pioli and would almost definitely retain defensive play-calling authority. My sense is that this is the last team that Crennel will ever coach for – he loves these guys and he will want to stick around them for another five years or so before hanging it up.
Meanwhile, what the Chiefs really need in a head coach is a guy who has a vision for fixing what really killed the Chiefs this year – the offense. We have a lot of bright spots, and with Jamaal Charles coming back, we will once again have a home-run threat on the ground, but despite now having considerable talent in the WR corps, we still can’t put up points or control the game through the air. If this guy can train a backup to break the Packers (extremely hard to beat) single-game passing record in a meaningless game, then imagine what he could do with a QB who is throwing to Bowe, Baldwin and Breason for the next 10 years.
That’s what I want to see.