Coach Bill Belichick's two top assistants with the New England Patriots, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, were hunkered down with their boss yesterday, preparing their game plan for the team's Super Bowl meeting with the Carolina Panthers in 11 days in Houston.
Crennel and Weis were attractive candidates for head-coaching jobs around the NFL when the regular season ended. But they have been victims of the Patriots' success, remaining tied to their team by the league's tampering rules while all seven head-coaching vacancies have been filled, four of them with NFL assistants. The two New England coordinators will have to wait at least another year — barring another coaching departure — to be considered seriously for head-coaching opportunities.
That troubles some executives around the league, and the NFL's competition committee likely will consider possible changes to the rules in the coming months so assistants on the most successful teams could have a better chance to land head-coaching positions.
"The system needs to be studied," Tom Donahoe, the Buffalo Bills' president and general manager, said yesterday. "It does seem like the guys who win get penalized, and that doesn't seem fair. . . . It's hard to say if it'll happen next year, but I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about it. Each year it only affects five to seven teams, so could you get enough votes to change it?"
The competition committee's agenda for its next meeting, which is in February during the scouting combine in Indianapolis, still is being formulated, an NFL official said. Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, a member of the committee, said he wouldn't be surprised if the issue is discussed. Any change to the tampering rules would have to be approved by three-fourths of team owners, but the recommendation of the competition committee would have great influence.
Under the current setup, an assistant coach on a team in the playoffs can interview once with each interested club for a head-coaching position, but cannot participate in a second interview or accept a job until his team's season is completed.
That puts those assistants at a distinct disadvantage to assistant coaches on clubs not in the playoffs and college coaches. Teams with vacancies don't want to wait, in part because they will have to compete for assistant coaches as well.
"We got the guy we wanted and he wasn't in the playoffs, so we were lucky that way," said Donahoe, who hired Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to replace Gregg Williams as the Bills' head coach. "If you wait, you can still get the right guy. But can he get a staff together? That's the problem. . . . I can't talk about Weis and Crennel, but any coach who advances to the conference championship is at a great disadvantage. Even if a guy had a great interview, you can't have a further interview until they're done playing. And if it's after the Super Bowl, that guy is in a tough situation getting the right staff."
Crennel reportedly was a candidate for at least five of the teams with head-coaching vacancies — the Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants — and he and Weis participated in interviews during the Patriots' bye week early in the playoffs. Weis reportedly was a candidate for the Giants and Bills.
But the Falcons hired San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. The Bears chose St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. Three other clubs went with former head coaches getting back into the NFL — the Giants with Tom Coughlin, the Cardinals with Dennis Green and the Washington Redskins with Joe Gibbs. The Oakland Raiders, the last team to hire a coach, settled yesterday on Dallas Cowboys assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Sean Payton.
This is not a new problem for the NFL. The participants in the Super Bowl after the 2000 season had coveted defensive coordinators — the Giants' John Fox and the Baltimore Ravens' Marvin Lewis — but neither got a head-coaching job that offseason. Both got into the mix, though, and got head-coaching jobs later and thrived. Fox has the Panthers in the Super Bowl and Lewis nearly got the Cincinnati Bengals into the playoffs.
The league has struggled with the issue over the years, trying to balance opportunities for coaches with the integrity of postseason games. At one time, the league allowed assistants to accept jobs elsewhere if their clubs approved. But that created the awkward situation of an assistant coaching his team in the postseason after already accepting a job elsewhere, and the backlash against that led to a ban on even interviewing for other jobs while in the playoffs. That prohibition was lifted a few years ago in favor of the current one-interview system.
"It's better than it was," Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said. "When we went to the Super Bowl, Fox lost out on a chance to interview two places. So it's better, but it probably has to be changed a little. I don't have an answer. The back side of this is that teams are going to the Super Bowl, and that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So you don't want to distract them. I was kind of sensitive to Belichick. Romeo had three or four interviews in there, and you don't want to take away from their preparations. New England is trying to win the Super Bowl, and here we are interviewing their coordinators. We still would have made the decision we made, but it's hard."
But Casserly said: "This isn't a new problem. We've always had teams in the playoffs, and we've always had coaches getting hired. Having been in the playoffs, it would be very disruptive to have a coach of yours trying to get a job somewhere else. I don't think you can do both things well. I would be against liberalizing the rule any more."
The problem is that there's no clear-cut solution. "I don't know if the answer is letting them accept the job beforehand, because that's a distraction, too," Accorsi said.
Donahoe said: "I've had a couple ideas on it. One is to give you the opportunity to at least have a follow-up interview, even during the playoffs. Even if the guy is still playing, you'd like to have that second interview done. The other thing I've thought about is putting a freeze on hiring assistant coaches for all teams looking until after the Super Bowl. That could create more of a level playing field."
Larry Kennan, the executive director of the NFL coaches association, said the organization plans to lobby the competition committee to permit assistants on playoff teams to accept head-coaching jobs immediately.
"We're trying to change the rule so it's better for coaches," Kennan said. "It isn't right at this point. It makes it almost impossible for guys who are in the Super Bowl to get jobs. It's happened to Marvin Lewis, to Wade Phillips a few years ago, and this year to Romeo and Charlie Weis. It's not right that a guy could miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. They've eased up a little bit, but it's a joke they can't hire them. Charlie Weis believes he'd have been offered a job. Why not let them interview and let them offer them the job? Coaches are the most loyal guys in the world. Their focus will still be on the game. If you can't trust us to be loyal, you can't trust anybody."