September 19, 2002
Disciples Of Belichick: The Next Great Coaching Factory
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Coaching genealogy in the NFL makes the league one big, huge family.
You have the Vince Lombardi (Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg) tree. Then you have the Bill Walsh (George Seifert, Mike Holmgren) tree. Over here, it's the Jimmy Johnson (Butch Davis, Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner) tree. Somewhere in the big forest, you'll find a Bill Parcells (Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick) tree, too.
Now, fix your eyes on this sapling over here. It's going to grow up to be a big, strong oak someday.
Because if things keep going the way they are for the Patriots, Belichick is going to be the proud papa of two of the most sought after coaching prospects this offseason. That sapling will be named for Belichick, and the fruit it stands to bear looks to be of great quality and quantity. Any assistant under Belichick who spends time with him and rises to prominence will be a coach other teams will greatly want to hire.
This is great for Belichick's coaching legacy. But it is not good for he himself, nor his football team. Such is the pitfall of any team that shows sustained greatness, as well as a coach who shows sustained greatness.
Seifert and Holmgren are perhaps the highest profile coaches to come out of the stable headed by Walsh. Walsh literally revolutionized football in the 1980s, with the innovative West Coast Offense. Both Seifert and Holmgren went on to become Super Bowl winning coaches.
The nice thing about Seifert is that he didn't immediately leave the 49ers coop. He merely replaced Walsh as the top man, then won two Vinces in his wake (XXIV, XXIX).
Here in New England, Belichick isn't likely going anywhere after this year. So, if other teams come calling for Charlie Weis or Romeo Crennel, these guys will be putting their homes on the market. And like Walsh, Johnson and Parcells, Belichick will have to learn quickly how to replace quality assistants.
And everyone will find out rather quickly if Belichick is really a lot like Parcells. Just as Parcells was a poorer head coach without Belichick, how much poorer will Belichick be without Crennel?
Between the two of them, Weis may have the higher profile. When he and Crennel were with the Jets in the media capital of the nation, Weis was offensive coordinator whereas Crennel was defensive line coach (the position he held in New England and with the Giants). Weis was at the offensive controls when the Jets came within one game of reaching Super Bowl XXXIII, losing in the conference championship to Denver.
Weis brings a wider variety of experience to the table than Crennel. During his five-year stint as Patriot assistant in the Parcells era, Weis was tight end coach, running backs coach and wide receivers coach. In each position, Patriot players emerged almost immediately. Ben Coates became the premiere tight end in the NFL while under Weis. Curtis Martin enjoyed a sensational rookie season in 1995 under Weis' tutelage. And Terry Glenn, despite perhaps being more motivated by Parcells than Weis, flourished in his rookie year of 1996 with 90 catches. Once again, Weis was there as his position coach to help make it happen.
When Parcells bolted to Joisey, he took Weis (and Crennel and a whole lot of other folks) with him. Because of all this success he enjoyed in Foxborough, Parcells put Weis in charge of the Jet offense. Martin developed into a complete running back, adding a power game to his great slashing skills. Testaverde finally looked like a guy who actually did win a Heisman in college instead of a pro bum who was better at throwing at defensive backs than wideouts. You might want to shoot up Keyshawn Johnson with truth serum and see if he secretly wishes he could go back to those days, and if he might treat Wayne Chrebet nicer.
Crennel presents a whole different view. He lacks the widespread experience versus Weis, but he may be the hotter of the two coaches right now.
It is not real clear who really makes the great Patriot defense go. In a recent Globe article, Michael Smith talked about that very perception. To paraphrase, many experts and the media think Belichick is the key man. Belichick and the players say it's Crennel. Crennel says it's the players.
If this muddles your thinking, chew on this: look at how the Patriot defense was in 2000 when Belichick did double duty as head man and defensive coordinator. When Crennel came on board in 2001, Vince came to the Fox.
Belichick is the all-time game films nerd. He takes a gym rat approach to studying tapes of the other team. If there is a way to beat you, Belichick will find it.
But it is Crennel who implements the plans, and brings it all together. And like Weis, Crennel had to break away from the big shadows of the Big Tuna in order for his career to take off.
After toiling for countless years as a defensive line coach, Crennel finally got a break when Browns head coach Chris Palmer (who was Drew Bledsoe's position coach during Crennel's first tour of duty in New England) hired him to be the new Cleveland defensive coordinator. Since it was a move up and not a lateral move, Crennel was able to take the job and therefore enter his first pro coaching season since 1982 not under Parcells. Crennel spent one year there, then came back to Foxborough when Belichick came calling. It was a lateral move that was made possible when Palmer was fired and Davis wanted Foge Fazio to run his defense.
What will also stand Crennel in good stead is his color. Every scribe across the country will soon catch on that one of the leading candidates for a head-coaching job is a black man, and they will hop on the Crennel bandwagon in a second. Many African-American coaching candidates have been stiffed over the years, prompting an outcry for "affirmative action" and "racial equality" in hiring head coaches. It will become a great "feel-good" story, and any team that talks to Crennel will go under a big, huge media microscope.
The problem with Crennel is that the guy is simply a great coach, and should be hired totally on his coaching ability and nothing else. Unfortunately, someone will play the race card, and it will likely be all about Crennel's color rather than his unquestioned football smarts. It would be nice, albeit not good for the Patriots, that if Crennel gets hired, that the national media not write headlines like "What a great day for Black America!" or stuff similar to that. Stick with "Outstanding Patriot defensive assistant gets the call".
Both Weis and Crennel will become "hot guys" at season's end. Whose hot guys will they be? Early favorites might be teams like Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Detroit. Coughlin might finally be wearing thin with the Jaguar faithful, and anyone who coaches the Bengals is set up to fail when they sign on the dotted line to coach for owner Mike Brown.
And Detroit? Two men who chuckle with each Lion loss are Wayne Fontes and Patrick Sullivan. The Lions should have never fired Fontes. And Matt Millen is the one who looks like the fool as president of the Lions, instead of the recipient of his fist after a certain playoff game a while back.
One thing that will cause great pain for Belichick is having to coach against either Weis or Crennel. Parcells was very open about his affection for Coughlin, and his distaste for coaching against him in the 1996 AFC Championship Game. It's a situation that Belichick will likely confront sooner or later, with the smart money being on sooner.
At least if the Patriots keep going deep into the playoffs, it reduces the chance of one of these guys leaving. Come Super Bowl time, most coaching vacancies have been filled. If a team needing a coach is patient like the 1997 Jets, and is willing to wait for their man, Weis and Crennel will need to make current their curriculum vitae for presumptive job interviews.
It is an inevitability that Belichick and the Patriots will have to prepare for. To the victor go the spoils, but along with the spoils come admiration for the staff, and the opportunity for their career advancements. For Weis and Crennel (Weis has openly stated that he would love to be a head coach), that day may not be long in coming, and both men more than deserve their shots.
And Belichick may soon have to show everyone how really great a coach he is.
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