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Covitz:Tragedy clouds job fates for Crennel, Pioli
Tragedy clouds job fates for Crennel, Pioli
The way the Chiefs coach and general manager dealt with last week could affect the decision on whether to bring them back.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
A week ago, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel displayed extraordinary leadership skills when he calmly led his team and staff through a horrific crisis.
Crennel’s composure and ability to hold together a heartbroken Chiefs organization in the hours after linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and himself captured the admiration of not just those in Kansas City, but across the country.
But now that the tears have dried and the business of football resumes, a dilemma hovers over the franchise. How does one separate sympathy for Crennel and general manager Pioli — who were courageous in trying to dissuade Belcher from taking his life and witnessed the suicide — from the frustration of a miserable season on the field?
Even if the Chiefs, 2-10, manage to win a few of their four remaining games, starting with today’s visit to Cleveland, 4-8, this season will rank as one of the most disappointing in franchise history.
Chiefs Nation, through protests on game day and failing to fill Arrowhead Stadium as in years past, is demanding a housecleaning. Fans want changes in the front office, coaching staff and at quarterback, though the tragic events of last weekend muffled the outcry as a show of respect for Crennel and Pioli.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt hadn’t shown any indication that changes were coming soon, or at all, during the team’s eight-game losing streak, a dismal slide that was snapped with last weekend’s improbable 27-21 victory over Carolina. And the timing for making a change now would be grossly insensitive, considering what Crennel, Pioli and the team have gone through.
It’s even possible that the manner in which Pioli and Crennel comported themselves in the eye of danger — and the way they comforted a fragile team in the aftermath — will convince Hunt to stay the course despite a 2-14 or 4-12 season.
“I don’t think anybody gets fired after one season,” said veteran defensive lineman Shaun Smith. “Anything’s possible. He’s still coaching us, he said he ain’t going to throw in the towel, and I believe him. That’s why I like playing for him, because he’s a fighter no matter what the situation is.”
It was just about a year ago — Dec. 12 — that Crennel took over as interim head coach in place of Todd Haley. He was promoted to head coach permanently after the Chiefs went 2-1 in their final three games, including an upset of then-13-0 Green Bay in Crennel’s debut.
But the Chiefs have been a punch line for most of this season, including their epic eight-game streak of failing to lead a game in regulation and a league-high 32 turnovers.
Crennel, 65, still has two more years left on his contract, which may give him some security, though he could be forced to make changes on his coaching staff to retain the job.
Pioli, it is believed, has one more year remaining on his original five-year contract. The Chiefs are 23-37 under his watch, and if Hunt decides to change coaches, it’s hard to see him entrusting Pioli to make a third hire in five years.
If the clamoring for change in Kansas City is affecting Crennel, he isn’t showing it — just as he didn’t show the strain of the nightmare he experienced last weekend.
“We can’t worry about who’s flying (anti-Pioli) banners or what other people think,” Crennel said a day before the Belcher tragedy. “You can’t please all the people all the time. You have to try to do your job the best you can do it, and hopefully on Sunday you can come out with a victory.”
But there’s little doubt he’s coaching for his future.
“When you get into coaching, you’re coaching for your career,” Crennel said. “Every game, you’re out front and you get evaluated, and that hasn’t changed since I’ve been in this game. You worry about the next game, that’s what you do.
“When you sign up to be a coach, you know your job is on the line. And it’s on the line every Sunday.”
The Chiefs are not the only franchise with club executives and head coaches sitting on the annual December hot seat. Big changes are certain to happen in San Diego, where general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner are expected to be dismissed; Philadelphia, where Andy Reid, the dean of NFL head coaches with one team, is on his way out; and Carolina, which dismissed general manager Marty Hurney in October. Coaches in Buffalo, Carolina, Dallas, Arizona and Cleveland are also on shaky ground.
It’s been 10 years since an NFL season has gone this long without an in-season coaching change. Club owners have probably learned there’s little to be gained by firing a coach during the season and elevating an assistant on an interim basis.
Such a move usually provides a short-lived spark to a team — as it did for the Chiefs last year — before it reverts to the form that led to the coaching change in the first place.
The prevailing feeling around the league is that, come Dec. 31, the day after the regular-season ends, pink slips will fly across the NFL.
The Browns are under new ownership this season, after Jimmy Haslam bought the club from Randy Lerner for $1 billion. Haslam immediately replaced president Mike Holmgren with CEO Joe Banner, who may want to bring in his own general manager and head coach. Browns coach Pat Shurmur, 8-20 in two-plus seasons, is under fire, even though his team, with 17 rookies and 10 others with less than two full years’ experience, is riding a modest two-game winning streak.
“My concerns are always for our team and our coaches moving forward,” Shurmur, 47, told reporters last week. “I really believe in this group we have and I really believe this is the foundation of something that could be really good. Even though I say that and believe in it, until we start winning football games, that’s what shows it. That’s really my concern.
“Some of the other stuff about me personally — what more can they say about me (on sports talk radio)? Right? I mean, really, think about it. I don’t listen to it, but I’m told frequently about it. I think that’s where the thick-skin part comes in.”
Herm Edwards has been in this situation. With two games remaining in the 2008 season, Carl Peterson, the club’s chief executive for 20 years and a mentor to Edwards, parted company with the Chiefs, who were 2-12 at the time and would finish 2-14.
Though Hunt had signed off on a youth movement that contributed to six losses by seven or fewer points in 2008, including two one-point losses and one in overtime, the feeling was that Peterson’s successor would bring in a new coach, no matter what the Chiefs did in the final two games.
“The key is don’t get caught up in that,” Edwards said of the uncertainty of the final games preceding his dismissal. “The hard thing for you as a coach is to make sure everyone else is focused is on the plan … the team you’re going to play that week. You have to make sure the focus is on the job at hand, and that’s to win a football game.
“Saying that is easier than doing it. You have coaches concerned, you have players sitting there thinking, ‘Coach is going to be out of here, and we’re going to be playing for a new coach,’ and they’re thinking, ‘Who’s going to be the guy …?’ The assistant coaches are having to go home and deal with their wives and saying, ‘You know what, we’re probably not going to be here.’ ”
Sure enough, Pioli, hired in mid-January 2009, dismissed Edwards. And after the Super Bowl, he hired Haley, a former offensive coordinator at Arizona.
“This is the part of coaching cycles,” Edwards said. “At some point in your career, you’re going to deal with it. When you’re not sitting in that seat, and you see other coaches of other teams that you know are sitting in that seat, you better realize, if you stay in this game long enough, you’re going to be in that seat, too. It’s just a matter of time.”
Edwards, who has been an analyst with ESPN since leaving the Chiefs, tried putting on a brave front for his staff, players and everyone else in the building.
“For me, it was simple,” Edwards said. “I’m going to be upbeat, energetic, and I’m looking forward to trying to win a football game. Because you know when you win a game … the feeling of winning, it puts everything else secondary.
“The thing I learned about it is you don’t take it personally. It’s part of the game.”
Much to Crennel’s credit, it’s hard to tell whether this Chiefs team is 2-10 or 10-2. The players practice enthusiastically and chat and banter in the locker room while going from practice to meetings.
Certainly, there is an undercurrent of doubt about the future, but there’s not a feeling of having to “Win One for Romeo.”
“Everyone in this locker room, especially the guys who have been around, know it’s a bottom-line business,” said offensive tackle Eric Winston. “If I’m a guy evaluating … you don’t want to get caught up in a moment, whether it’s good or bad.
“They’ll sit back, look at the totality of things that have happened, and they’ll make their decision. Romeo has a lot of great attributes for a head coach. It’s not my place to say whether he stays or goes. I’m going to do everything I can to win, and usually wins means he’s going to stay.”
Smith, the Chiefs defensive lineman, also played for Crennel in Cleveland in 2007-08. He said the coach can’t be blamed for players dropping passes or committing penalties, two of the biggest culprits in the Chiefs’ poor record this season.
“I’ve been with him when we won 10 games in Cleveland and the next year we didn’t have a good year,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can win these last four games of the season, and we’ll be 6-10. That’s better than two-and-whatever.”
But only Hunt knows if that will be enough for Pioli and Crennel to return in 2013. That answer probably will come the week of Dec. 31.