Last offseason, Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel nearly escaped the shadow of Bill Belichick's "defensive genius" reputation. Crennel interviewed for the San Francisco 49ers head coaching job that eventually went to Dennis Erickson.
But rather than sulk, Crennel promised to "do a good job at the [job] I have." Not only has he kept his word, but what he's done with New England's injury-riddled defense through six games should be recognized as a miracle of modern science.
First, the business of pro football claimed a defensive cocaptain. Then injuries claimed five starters. Now, the Patriots are leaning heavily on a pair of rookie corners (one of whom is playing safety for the first time), a versatile yet undersized rookie lineman, and a career special teamer. Still, the defense goes into Sunday's game against Miami and Ricky Williams allowing a respectable 19 points per game, ranked seventh in the league against the run, and third on third down.
Belichick gets most of the credit, but he'll be the first to admit that Crennel does most of the work. You didn't think he was working 18 hours a day on his cover letter, did you? Belichick offers suggestions and, ultimately, has the final call, but it's Crennel who devises those ingenious game plans. He calls the game. He's the real mad scientist.
If there were such a thing as a coordinator of the year award, Crennel certainly would be among the finalists. But try to credit Crennel, and he'll be the first to admit his defense doesn't work without linebackers coaches Pepper Johnson and Rob Ryan and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini.
"It's our defensive staff," Crennel said this week. "We all work together and everybody has some input. And what I do is I take the input and decide, `OK, we think this is going to work. Maybe this is too much this week. Let's throw this out.' You know, try to whittle it down to an amount that we can work with. So far -- knock on wood -- it's worked pretty decently."
True, the Patriots rank 22d in total defense, 25th against the pass. But they always come up with the big stop when they need it.
One could argue that the defense is primarily responsible for three of New England's four victories: The "D" made Donovan McNabb look lost in Week 2, was the difference against the Jets the following week, and won last Sunday's game against the Giants pretty much on its own by forcing five turnovers. The Patriots are tied for second in the league with 15 takeaways.
All without Lawyer Milloy and despite losing their nose tackle (Ted Washington), the foundation of the 3-4, their best pass rusher (Rosevelt Colvin), and starting linebackers Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel for extended periods. All while working with a reconstructed secondary that includes rookie cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson, who starts at safety. All while trying to break in their No. 1 pick (defensive tackle Ty Warren) and come up with creative ways to use Dan Klecko. All while flip-flopping not just from week to week, but sometimes from series to series between the 3-4 and 4-3. All while making a local cult hero out of Matt Chatham.
"It's early," Crennel warned.
"In this game, you're judged at the end of the season. We still have to wait. You gotta play 'em one at a time. You gotta win the next game.
"Hopefully, at the end of the year, you've done enough to get yourself into the playoffs and put yourself in a position where you can advance."
It took nearly two decades for Crennel -- his nickname is "RAC," short for Romeo A. Crennel ("My middle initial is A, is all he would say) -- to land a gig as a defensive coordinator. He spent 12 years with the Giants, first as a special teams coach, then as a defensive line coach, then four seasons with the Patriots coaching the defensive line. He followed the Bills (Parcells and Belichick) to the Jets and coached their D-line for three years before Chris Palmer hired him as the Browns' defensive coordinator for one season. When Palmer and his staff were shown the door, Belichick welcomed Crennel as his D-coordinator in 2001. Last year, Crennel also assumed the defensive line duties from Randy Melvin.
In that capacity, he's been directly responsible for Richard Seymour's rapid development.
"He's a guy that always pushes to try to get the most out of his players," Seymour said. "He's a wise man. I like to listen to wise older men. When you want to rush and do things, he kind of gives me that calm side, tells me to `relax, take your time, and understand what you're doing before you just jump into it.' "
Crennel has three Super Bowl rings and is more than qualified to make the jump to head coach. Fortunately for some fledgling franchise, he didn't leave his desire to be a head coach in San Francisco.
"I took it as a learning experience," he said. "Having gone through the process, you can say, `OK, hey, this is how it's done,' and `This is what I need to have ready.' "
Belichick wasn't ready to be without his right-hand man. "That was a major concern of ours, losing somebody of that quality," he said. "But on the other hand, you recognize that sooner or later somebody is going to see all of the positive attributes that he brings. Selfishly, it's great to have him because he's a rock. His personality is very steady and solid . . . He's got a real calmness about him, but at the same time a toughness that goes with it."
For others, it would be difficult residing in the shadow of a reputed genius. Crennel appears comfortable. "When you win, it doesn't make any difference who gets the credit," he said. "And when you win, people realize that the people on that staff or that team, they're doing enough to win, so they must be pretty decent at what they're doing. Winning helps everybody and helps everything. I've always been a team guy, and that's our philosophy around here."
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