Monday, January 14, 2008


The NFL, like most sports, has a way of keeping you humble just when you think you have it all figured out. Just ask either Todd Grantham or Tony Dungy.

Entering the weekend, Todd Grantham was the Browns defensive coordinator, the high energy, high emotion translator of the vaunted Romeo Crennel 3-4 defense. Tony Dungy was getting ready to lead his defending Super Bowl championship Indianapolis Colts team into the 2007 playoffs, the overwhelming favorite to meet the New England Patriots in next week’s AFC Championship. But as the last grains of sand dribbled through the hourglass that was the weekend, both had seen better days.

For Grantham, he now wears the title as former defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. When Browns general manager Phil Savage met with the media on Wednesday, he offered no hint that a change was in the offing. Perhaps it wasn’t. But somewhere between the end of that press conference and until the time it took to write and release the announcement on Friday, Savage had a dramatic change of heart. Grantham out, Mel Tucker in.

The story of Grantham’s departure is starting to sift out slowly and in the way these things usually do, through unnamed inside sources. The Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot, who was played like a violin by Crennel’s agent, Joe Linta, regarding an extension for Crennel, was apparently taken into someone’s confidence, finally. She wrote on Sunday that the back story on the Grantham firing had mostly to do with a young coach letting his ego get out ahead of his accomplishments. When Savage gave Grantham a two-year extension last year, which Crennel supported, he praised Grantham and said he’d make a fine head coach someday. Apparently Grantham read “someday” as “any day now” and became a bit of a prima donna in whom the players lost trust.

It’s as good of an explanation as any, I suppose, but it begs the question of why this kind of thing is just coming out now. Cabot writes that Tucker now needs to regain the trust that Grantham lost within the organization without even acknowledging that at no point prior to Sunday did she or any of her half-asleep colleagues covering the team on a daily basis ever notice a schism that was apparently at least a year in the making.

If Cabot’s story on Sunday is correct, Grantham became an unbearable pain in the butt about twenty minutes or so after he signed that extension last season, so much so that some players privately complained. It may be all true, but the only attribution Cabot cites is unnamed inside sources that have only been speaking about the situation in the last day or so. Odd no one noticed it before.

In any case, as I noted previously, the comeuppance suffered by Grantham was a particularly precipitous fall from grace. Savage wasn’t wrong when he praised Grantham last season. He was and probably still is head coaching material. But if he was thisclose to becoming a head coach last year, he’s now as far away as he’s ever been. Grantham is only 41 years old and has plenty of time to rebuild his career. But he’s going to have to go back on the sales floor for awhile before he gets back into management. With all of the turnover that takes place in the NFL coaching ranks every off season, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Heck, Maurice Carthon is still in the league.

One of the lessons in all of this, of course, is that contract extensions are meaningless, at least from a fan’s perspective. Keep that in mind if Savage ultimately gives one to Crennel. Just as often, it’s the kiss of death, as it was in the case of Grantham.

There is no question that Savage sees, if not greatness, then at least stability in Crennel. But if Crennel is ultimately going to be successful, and one good season is no more of a barometer for him than it is for quarterback Derek Anderson, he is going to have to find a way to stay engaged with all facets of the operation without micromanaging any of them.

One of the most shocking things to come out of the whole Carthon debacle of a year ago was how little interaction Crennel had with the offense at all, which Crennel himself admitted. He was spending far too much time with the defense. If we can read anything into the Grantham affair, it’s that once Grantham was given the extension, Crennel stepped away and let him do his job, only to find the results lacking. If the “inside sources” are to be believed, things only started to show improvement near the end of the season when Crennel reasserted himself more directly in the process. Personally, I think a weak end of the season schedule was far more responsible. But if the inside sources are correct, then whatever that might say about Grantham’s shortcomings, it also highlights a weakness in Crennel as a head coach.

In any case, one of the more interesting subplots to watch next season is the interaction between Crennel and Tucker. If Crennel is going to be successful as a head coach, as compared to the success he knew as a coordinator, he’ll have to find a way to temper his instincts to do the work himself on defense and instead provide overall guidance and leadership while letting Tucker do his job, just as he’s done with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

If Crennel needs any proof of that, just look to Brian Billick’s downfall in Baltimore. For awhile, he looked like a genius when he dumped offensive coordinator Jim Fassel part way through last season and took over the play calling responsibility himself. But it really was an act of desperation and when he continued the experiment into this season, his neglect toward the rest of the team showed, in spades. The Ravens were awful in almost every way a team can be.

If Tucker is the right guy for the job, then it will be because he can successfully translate the philosophies of his head coach into on-the-field performance. And if Crennel is the right guy for the job, it will be because he found a way to perform like a head coach and not a coordinator. This season, and the Grantham debacle, shows at the very least that Crennel has more work to do.

As for Crennel’s counterpart in Indianapolis, Tony Dungy, he’ll deny it forever, but in his heart of hearts he has to know that part of the reason his Colts lost to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday was his decision to treat the last regular season game as if it was the fourth game of the preseason. By resting his starters on both offense and defense, Dungy ran the risk that his team would be stale once the playoffs started. It was a risk he shouldn’t have taken.

The time off didn’t seem to have as much of an effect on Peyton Manning and the offense, except when it mattered most at the end of the game, as it did on a Colts defense which was ranked third in the league and had given up the fewest points of any team all season. But whatever the culprit, it was certainly a comeuppance for Dungy and, frankly, was well deserved. And Browns fans should be forgiven if they’re laughing just a bit too loudly at the Colts misfortune.

The fact that the Browns didn’t make the playoffs was their own fault. A victory against Oakland earlier in the season or Cincinnati late would have sealed it. But Dungy letting his team tank the last game of the season so that its divisional compatriots, the Tennessee Titans, could likewise make the playoffs wasn’t helpful either. But no good deed goes unpunished and, as a result, Dungy is left to again answer why one of the most talented teams in the league underachieved. It’s something he should be used to.


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