HOUSTON -- Romeo Crennel looked around the room during his first news conference as the Texans’ defensive coordinator and asked each person there to introduce themselves. After a dozen reporters stated their names and affiliations, Crennel looked to the men standing in a row toward the back.
“I’ll meet you camera guys later,” he said to laughter.
“We like to be under the radar,” one said. “Like you.”
“Sometimes that’s hard,” Crennel replied.
It certainly is for Crennel, the most experienced coach on the Texans’ practice field if you consider longevity and level of responsibility. His presence isn’t as loud as some of his assistants’, but it’s imposing nonetheless. He has been a defensive coordinator thrice and a head coach twice, most recently for the Kansas City Chiefs, who fired him after one full season.
The talk has centered around the offense. How will quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick play? Will right tackle Derek Newton protect him well enough? Can Arian Foster stay healthy and propel the running game? But in truth the Texans’ 2014 turnaround will hinge on Crennel’s ability to get a talented defense to play the way it looks on paper.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career and I’m blessed,” Crennel said. “And I appreciate that, but I can give you a dollar and a half with that and buy a cup of coffee. That is just the way this business is. It is what have you done for me lately, and I haven’t done anything lately. I’ve got to work to try and get something done.”
Most of the blame for the Texans’ 2-14 season has fallen on the offense and suddenly woebegone quarterback who caught a pick-six disease that shattered his confidence. They rightfully took blame for last season, but looking at the defense is critical, too.
While the Texans’ offense turned over the ball at an unusually high rate, its defense forced turnovers at an unusually low rate. The Texans forced only 11 turnovers in 16 games, the lowest number in the NFL. Their turnover margin of minus-20 was 40 net turnovers lower than the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Despite having the best interior lineman in the NFL in J.J. Watt, a man who commands attention in the pass rush, the Texans as a group notched only 32 sacks all season. That ranked 29th in the league.
These numbers are simply not good enough.
It’s OK to ask for the offense to play better than it did last season. That has to happen. And it will with the return of a productive running game and head coach Bill O’Brien’s emphasis on smart football combined with tough football.
The problem is, if you want an offense that can cover up the flaws of a defense it needs a great quarterback. The Texans have a wise, tough, battle-tested quarterback in Fitzpatrick. But his history hasn’t shown greatness.
A great defense, of which the Texans are certainly capable, can allow time for the offense to develop.
Crennel didn’t have to do this. He had no history with O’Brien and is still getting paid by the Chiefs. He could have waited for exactly the right opportunity.
When Crennel looked at the Texans and why they went 2-14 last season, this felt like the right opportunity.
“A lot of positives, and good players, too,” Crennel said. “… Of course everyone thinks when you are 2-14 that you are no good. Your record is what it is, but from what I saw on tape, I saw guys hustling, I saw guys giving effort and guys being in the game in the fourth quarter. That indicated to me that maybe they weren’t that far away.”
Those good players are an important facet of this. Watt returns. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing returns, and he’s easily a top five middle linebacker when healthy. Jadeveon Clowney arrives with transcendent talent, though he needs to heal from surgery and learn a new position. And there’s plenty of talent beyond those stars.
Crennel plans to be flexible and adaptable. He plans to use players in ways that work best to their strengths, a hallmark of this staff on both sides of the ball.
“We have a challenge of coming in, trying to win games and quote ‘turning things around.’ I think it is a good challenge. I think we are up to it.”
There’s no reason to think he isn’t. The Texans’ season will depend on it.