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BOB RYAN

Case for Crennel is essentially airtight defense

JACKSONVILLE. Fla. -- If Romeo Crennel ever wants to switch agents, I have a few nominees for the job.

Their first names are Bill, Ted, Tedy, Richard, Mike, Willie, and Rodney. They see what the rest of us can't see. They know what we haven't been privileged to know. We see a finished product, which is certainly impressive. They see how it was constructed. We wonder about Romeo Crennel, who, to us, is the man behind the curtain. But they really know that man, and they say that -- shhh, nobody's supposed to know -- yup, he'll make a very good head coach for the Cleveland Browns.

Finally, the loyal lieutenant is going to be the general, which doesn't always work out. A coordinator has his bailiwick, but he's not the total boss. Some people are just not cut out to lead.

Don't worry about it, say his would-be agents. Romeo is ready.

"I'm glad he's finally getting the attention he deserves," says Ted Johnson. "How many people have his resume?"

Good point. Talk about putting in the time, paying your dues, exhibiting the requisite patience, and you're talking about Romeo Crennel, who has been coaching for 35 years, the last 24 in the NFL. He has worked for four colleges and four NFL teams, and he has been involved with four Super Bowl winners, the first two as an assistant under King Bill I and the last two as an assistant under King Bill II.

"I bring a certain amount of winning NFL experience," he submits.

You think?

"He has a wealth of experience," confirms Bill Belichick. "He's been involved with special teams, the defensive line, linebackers and as a defensive coordinator. He is smart, and he is very hard-working. He's in that office very late."

The big thing everyone wants to know about the Patriots' defensive success is where the thoughts of defensive whiz Belichick end and those of defensive coordinator Crennel begin. More and more during the past year, Belichick has, to his credit, tried to shift the credit away from himself and onto his coordinator. But the public still thinks of the team's defensive success as Belichick's, not Crennel's.

"I'm as guilty of that as anybody," says Fox TV's Howie Long. "How many times on a broadcast have I said, `What a great defensive job by Belichick'? Why don't I say, `What a great defensive job by Romeo Crennel'? I know they collaborate. I hear it from the players."

Here, now, is one of those players.

"Romeo is imperative to the success of this team," insists Tedy Bruschi, probably meaning "instrumental." "I have been on the sidelines many times listening to him and Bill. I'll be standing there, and they'll be going at it. I'll be turning my head, going, `OK, OK, OK,' as they bat things back and forth. Sometimes, Bill prevails. Sometimes, Romeo does. And I know that no matter which one gets his wish, I know that play, that call, that adjustment is going to work."

OK, so how does he do what he does? By intimidating? By stroking? By lecturing? By magic?

"The great thing about Romeo is that he is so open-minded," offers Rodney Harrison, who is, shall we say, a bit on the strong-minded side. "He welcomes player input. He's not one of these know-it-all guys. He gives you a great deal of freedom. In fact, I have more freedom than I've ever had playing football."

Could that be why Harrison, considered expendable by the San Diego Chargers, is coming off one of his great years at age 31 going on 32 (Dec. 15 birthday)?

"Anyone getting Romeo Crennel will not only get a coach who is passionate about the game," says Mike Vrabel, "but they'll also get one who has the ability to adapt to each player on an individual basis. He does not coach everyone the same way. It's important for a coach to recognize who needs to be coached differently. We are all different people who come from different backgrounds. Romeo recognizes that."

The man has struck a chord with both seasoned veterans such as Johnson (age 32), Harrison, Vrabel (age 29), Bruschi (age 31), and Willie McGinest (age 33) and a young pup such as the gifted Richard Seymour, who, at age 25, is established as one of the game's premier defensive linemen, in part because of the tutelage of Crennel.

"Wherever he goes, players will discover the type of person he is," maintains Seymour. "That means guys want to play for him. You can't underestimate his sheer passion for the game. He makes guys want to go out there and, so to speak, run through a brick wall for him. They will see his dedication."

McGinest can relate to the Seymour experience, having first encountered Crennel as a rookie in 1994. At that time Crennel was in the second year of a four-year stint as the team's defensive line coach.

"When I was first drafted," McGinest says, "he nurtured me. It was because of him that I had some early success."

McGinest goes on to say that Crennel is a "personable coach whose mind is always working."

His X-and-O acumen is at the highest level, McGinest declares. "He understands the talent he has and always puts people in the best position to get the job done."

As a head man, he will be responsible for more than just defense. He will have the responsibility for the fourth-and-a-foots at the opponent's 39. He will have to sign off on the go-for-it vs. taking the field goal inside the 5 at a gray-area moment in the game. Belichick believes he will be just fine.

"When crucial decisions need to be made, he makes them quickly and decisively," says Belichick, "and always with a lot of confidence. I think the players respond to that."

So why isn't 57-year-old Romeo Crennel a head coach already? The obvious answer is that he is an African-American, so right away we move onto the next question. A white coach with his credentials and who, as Vrabel points out, has "worked well for two of the hardest coaches in the league to work for," would have had a sniff or two at a top job a long time ago. That's the sad reality of the NFL. He is also the farthest thing from a self-promoter you could ever find. He's always believed that if he worked hard and kept his mouth shut he'd be found out, sooner or later.

So it's turned out to be later, but now, if everyone has the correct story, he will have his shot with the Browns.

"I think I'm ready to be a head coach," is all he wishes to say until that game Sunday night is over. A lot of people in his locker room would happily second the motion.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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