KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Romeo Crennel spent much of Monday morning meeting with his players, laying out the groundwork for the offseason. He planned to spend the afternoon on evaluations, which Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli will use to help reshape the roster.
Crennel won’t have much say in his own evaluation, though.
That’ll be up to Pioli almost entirely.
Crennel went 2-1 as interim coach following the dismissal of Todd Haley, making a strong case to be hired on a permanent basis. The two victories were over division champions Denver and Green Bay — the Packers’ only loss this season — while the lone loss came in overtime.
It couldn’t have been more damaging.
The defeat two weeks ago to Oakland eliminated the Chiefs from playoff contention, turning their finale against the Broncos into an exercise in pride. They wound up 7-9, but with a bunch of stars coming back from injury — among them running back Jamaal Charles, quarterback Matt Cassel, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki — they’re likely to be favored to win the AFC West next season.
Regardless of who is hired as head coach.
“The best I could have done was go 3-0, so you know, it wasn’t the best I could do,” Crennel said Monday. “If I did the very best, we would have won three games. It always stops at the head coach’s desk. You can always say it’s so-and-so’s fault, this guy should have done this, blah, blah, blah, but as the head coach, it stops at your desk. It goes against my record, so that’s what it is.”
Pioli has said Crennel will be interviewed for the full-time job, though it’s unclear when that will happen. Not even Crennel knew for certain. But the former Cleveland Browns head coach said he’ll listen to other opportunities “at the appropriate time,” even if they’re outside of Kansas City.
If it was up to the guys in the locker room, there would be no decision to make.
With a gentle nature and grandfatherly demeanor, Crennel served as a counterpoint to Haley, whose firing came the day after he was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct in a 37-10 loss to the New York Jets. The defeat had dropped the Chiefs to 5-8 on the season.
The mood abruptly changed when Crennel took charge, the wildly inconsistent performances brought into check. A team whose season to that point had been defined by devastating injuries, narrow wins and blowout defeats became more focused and more cohesive down the stretch.
“We came to a common ground over the past three weeks,” said fullback Le’Ron McClain, who will be a free agent but said he would love to be back in Kansas City next season.
“I think just the focus by Romeo, taking out a lot of stuff we didn’t need and putting in stuff we need,” McClain said. “We were just all over the place — couldn’t get anything going on offense, three-and-outs, and we’ve been doing good since Romeo stepped in.”
Defensive lineman Tyson Jackson said he’d support a campaign for Crennel, along with just about everyone else who quietly cleaned out their lockers on Monday.
“I mean, I really like Romeo,” Jackson said. “But I don’t make those decisions. People with powerful hands make those decisions.”
People like Pioli, who hasn’t tipped his powerful hand.
The Chiefs general manager has been quiet in recent week, though that’s hardly out of character. Pioli prefers to work in the shadows and let his players and coaching staff enjoy the spotlight, even when it’ll be up to him to decide which direction the franchise goes next season.
One thing is clear: The next head coach will have plenty of firepower.
Cassel, a Pro Bowl pick a year ago, will be back after a season-ending injury to his throwing hand. Moeaki will be back after tearing a knee ligament in the preseason finale, as will Berry and Charles, who also tore knee ligaments the first two weeks of the regular season.
Moeaki said that the three have been rehabbing together and are all on schedule to participate in April minicamps. The return of Charles and Moeaki in particular will provide an instant boost for an offense that managed no more than a single touchdown in each of its final nine games.
“I’m not one for predictions,” Moeaki said, “but the way we played to finish out the season, especially this last game, even though we’re not going to the playoffs, everyone played hard. That’s a good sign of character, and that’s something we can build off of.”
Pioli has locked up several of the Chiefs’ top players over the past couple seasons, including cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, who are both headed to their first Pro Bowl. Hali had 12 sacks while Johnson set a franchise record with 131 tackles.
There are a couple more who might get away.
Cornerback Brandon Carr has been a stalwart opposite Flowers in the defensive backfield, but could command a princely sum on the open market. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe had another good season despite a revolving door of quarterbacks, but he’s also been inconsistent — a dropped touchdown pass against Oakland may be the one play that kept Kansas City out of the playoffs.