It was late at night. Really late. Actually, it was early in the morning of Feb. 2, 2004, the day after the Patriots beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium.
Then-Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was walking through the team hotel in Houston after a night of partying and celebrating his second Super Bowl championship when he ran into defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
It was around 4 or 5 a.m. but the two stayed up and chatted well into the morning. The sun began to rise in Houston but it didn’t set on their Patriots careers until after the following season. The next year, the two won their third Super Bowl in four seasons before Crennel moved on to be the Browns’ head coach and Johnson retired. But Johnson said he’ll never forget the heartfelt chat in the wee hours of the morning in Houston.
“He wasn’t the coach; I wasn’t the player,” said Johnson, who is now a radio talk show host at 610 in Houston. “It was just ‘can you believe that’s what we were able to achieve?’
“It was really raw and real. I’ll always remember that moment.”
It’s that same connection with his players that has Johnson convinced Crennel, who agreed to a three-year deal to become the Texans’ defensive coordinator last week, will succeed in Houston, the very same city in which that special moment happened.
Crennel – or “Rac” as his former pupils call him – was the kind of coach players wanted to play for in New England.
In that manner, Crennel was a lot like his longtime friend and former colleague Bill Parcells. The players who played for Crennel didn’t want to let him down. Johnson said even when Parcells moved on to the Jets, he still wanted to prove him right for drafting him. He felt something similar with Crennel.
“There’s an emotional quality to defense even more than offense,” Johnson said. “So much is emotion driven. Offense is all about execution; defense is about emotion. Having Rac feel like he was emotionally invested in you mattered.”
Dan Klecko, who played for Crennel in his first two NFL seasons after being drafted by the Patriots in 2003, said he enjoyed playing for Crennel too. But Klecko compared him to a different coach: Tony Dungy, with whom Klecko won his third Super Bowl, as a member of the Colts, in 2006.
But Klecko still remembers being a rookie in the league and not wanting to let “Rac” down.
“You don’t want to mess up for Bill (Belichick) because you’re afraid for your job,” Klecko said. “You don’t want to mess up for Romeo because he was like a dad and you didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Klecko chuckled while talking about the different personalities of the three main coaches during his early time with the Patriots. They couldn’t have been more different. Head coach Bill Belichick was the gruff, stern ruler of the Patriots’ kingdom (he still is).
Then, there was offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss – the funny guy from New Jersey – whom Klecko affectionately referred to as a “smart a**.”
“We called him Teddy Ruxpin,” Klecko said. “He was the nicest man in the world.”
But Crennel wasn’t a pushover. Far from it.
While he was kind and gentle, he was demanding too. He didn’t yell often but when he did, his players listened. There was always accountability on his New England defenses.
“He is a great guy and he is mild mannered, but when he needs to put his foot down, he can,” said longtime Patriot and NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest. “He’s an open book; you can talk to him. He’s very approachable. He’s has that mild mannered side but he can get after your a** if he needs to.”
But with those teams of the early 2000s, Crennel didn’t have to yell or scream too much. See, those Patriots won Super Bowls in three of the four seasons when Crennel was the defensive coordinator. But, of course, there were some moments.
“It was almost shocking when he did go off,” Klecko said. “But every once in a while…”
The one moment that stood out to Klecko was during a preseason game in 2004. The Patriots were coming off their second Super Bowl win in three years but were getting pushed around by the Bengals, who scored 28 points in the first half. Crennel reamed out the defense and played the starters for most of the second.
The Patriots went 14-2 that season and captured another Super Bowl ring.
Crennel is honest. He’s straightforward. He doesn’t mince his words. His former players appreciated that.
“He’s a fair guy. He’s very fair,” Johnson said. “We always appreciated that about Rac. He would tell you how that is. He would never bullsh** you. You appreciate that, when your boss doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Klecko remembered when he was a rookie and Crennel gave it to him straight. The fourth-round pick just finished what he thought was a “pretty good” training camp.
And Klecko made the roster but after one of the first practices of the season, Crennel walked up to the young defensive lineman and put his arm around him. He broke the news to Klecko that the rookie wouldn’t be active for the team’s first game against Buffalo.
Klecko played in 13 games that championship season but he wasn’t ready for that first one. The two walked off the practice field together for about 150-200 yards, while Crennel explained the reasoning behind the decision. He told Klecko he would need to keep learning but would get there.
"I always respected him for that," he said. "That just shows you what kind of man he is."
Before the Patriots won any of their three Super Bowl championships, Johnson remembers a distinct turning point game for Crennel’s defense in 2001.
The Patriots held a mediocre 3-4 record and started the year like they were going to miss the playoffs for the third straight season. That led to a game in early November in the Georgia dome against the Falcons, who were coming off a bye week.
The Falcons went up seven early but some of the veteran leaders on the Patriots saw a chance for the defense to get more aggressive. They told Crennel. And he listened.
The Patriots’ defense finished the game with nine sacks and New England beat Atlanta 24-10. The Patriots lost just one more game that season, two weeks later to the Rams by a touchdown. Then they ran the table – nine straight wins – and got revenge on St. Louis in the Super Bowl.
And it all started because Crennel listened to his players and changed his defensive strategy.
“He’s very much the coach; we were subordinates,” Johnson stressed. “It was a trust that was gained just through being together for so long. A lot of people say he is set in his ways… He’ll adapt. He’s not going to try to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
Adaptation, or the fear that it won’t happen, is what has some Texans fans worried about the hiring of Crennel. The 66-year-old coach is known for running his two-gap 3-4 defense.
But Crennel was a part of the Patriots’ teams that didn’t care what system they were supposed to run. They ran what they thought was going to work that week. If that meant changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in a week, they’d do it. If that meant moving a player to a different position, they’d do it.
“We game-planned according to the teams that we played against and what was most effective and finding their weak points,” McGinest said. “We would do whatever we needed to do that’s going to give their offense trouble. That’s the good thing about Romeo. It’s a week-to-week game plan. He just doesn’t throw a skeleton defense on the field. He changes things each week to give his guys favorable matchups.”
What really has some Texans fans worried is the role All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt will have in Crennel’s defense, a defense that’s not known for getting pass rush out of its defensive ends.
But Klecko thinks Watt will actually enjoy playing for Crennel because of how much things are switched up from week to week. He pointed to the role Richard Seymour had with the Patriots. Klecko said Crennel will definitely put Watt in situations where he can get a chance to work one-on-one. And for a defensive end of Watt’s caliber, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“Those guys are going to love Romeo,” McGinest said. “He likes to move guys around. It’s going to be fun. I’m excited to see the turnaround. He walked into a gold mine. He walked into a lot of talent. I can’t wait to see what he does.”