In Romeo they trust

BEREA, Ohio -- For the first 11 seasons of his career, Trent Dilfer, like a lot of NFL players, never wore knee pads and thigh pads. In his 12th training camp, however, the Cleveland Browns quarterback checks every day now to make sure the pads are in his football pants before he goes out to the practice field.

Why the change? Because early in training camp, Browns coach Romeo Crennel casually mentioned he wanted his players to wear them. And for Dilfer and most of his teammates, well, that was reason enough.

"Let me tell you something," said Dilfer, who was one of several veterans acquired by general manager Phil Savage, because of what he'll bring to the team on the field as well as in the locker room. "If that man tells me to throw the ball into Row 17 of the stadium, you know where the ball is going? Right between Row 16 and Row 18, that's where. I'm not about to question him. I mean, the guy has five Super Bowl rings. Five of them. That's good enough for me."

And good enough, it seems, for even the most senior players on a dramatically revamped Browns roster. It is an assemblage cobbled together by equal parts offseason addition and subtraction, with Savage employing every acquisition technique available to him. There is not yet a lot of commonality to a roster that could qualify for Extreme Makeover: NFL Edition. One element that every player appears to have here, though, is an unwavering respect for their new head coach.

At least in terms of getting his club's rapt attention, and commanding instant "street cred," Crennel is an overnight success a quarter-century in the making. The kind of Super Bowl bling he owns -- he brought his three championship rings from New England to show his players after recently collecting the jewelry from last year's victory -- clearly makes a powerful impression. But the rings do not totally define Crennel.

He is even-handed, knowledgeable, detail-oriented and, key to any successful coach, Crennel is consistent. No one gets a free pass, there are no favorites, and the players have quickly discerned those things.

"Men want to be treated like men," Crennel said. "And that's how we approach it."

Those qualities, make no mistake, cannot be underestimated. Particularly given the daunting task that Crennel assumed when he accepted his first-ever head-coach position.

Were one to invoke Shakespeare and ask, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" the Browns coach would likely respond by suggesting he is in the best place of his long career, finally and deservedly leading an NFL program.

In truth, Crennel finds himself leading a franchise that arguably possesses the shoddiest talent of any with which he has ever worked. And in a city which contains loyal and throaty fans, many of them old enough to recall the glory days of one of the NFL's most historic franchises, don't really want to hear that the Browns are starting over again, with a fourth head coach (counting interim boss Terry Robiskie for the final five games of 2004) in just the seventh season of their reincarnation.

An NFL head coach must command the respect of his players with some component of his nature that compels guys to want to throw themselves on the grenade for him. Confronted by such a monumental task, Crennel might need that even more than some of his peers around the league, it seems.

Granted, camp is barely a week old, and the Browns and Crennel haven't suffered their first defeat yet. The players haven't grown weary or wary of their rookie coach or his assistants. This is a team that won just four games in 2004, and increasing that victory total by even a couple of games will be difficult. Any assessment of how Crennel has been accepted, therefore, must be tempered by those realities.

It certainly seems, though, that the Browns players are in lockstep behind their coach.

"He is The Man," acknowledged ninth-year defender Kenard Lang, who is being asked to switch to outside linebacker in the 3-4 that Crennel has installed, after having played his entire career at end. "I remember thinking, after the first time I met with him and he told me what the plans were, 'He's got it.' Look, you're always skeptical of a new coach, no doubt about it. But everyone, at least all the veteran guys, knew about him. They knew that he had more than paid his dues. And there is just something about him that, kind of like your dad, when he talks, you listen. Even if he doesn't use a lot of words."

Indeed, Crennel is neither prolific nor often eloquent, but is still effective with the few syllables he chooses. He acknowledged between practice sessions Monday that he isn't going to talk just for the sake of talking. Said Crennel: "I think, sometimes, the less said, the better, if you know what I mean." Translation: Sometimes, fewer words carry more gravity with players.

When he called his team to the middle of the field after Monday's morning session, for instance, Crennel offered a pithy but pointed analysis that consumed maybe all of 20 seconds, but certainly delivered a clear message to his team.

"I think all he said," said cornerback Gary Baxter, "was something like, 'Well, men, the offense was pretty good, the defense wasn't.' That was pretty much it. But that's how he is, really. One of his strengths is that he cuts through all the [garbage] and gets right to the point. When he looks you in the eye, whatever is coming out of his mouth at the time, you can take it to the bank. You feel like you can believe and believe in the man."

Since he is one of the newbies on the roster, Baxter might not fully appreciate what that means to the veterans who have been here a while and played under Butch Davis. The former Cleveland coach had developed a reputation for lacking accuracy. Davis became, in these parts, the pro of con. But he also became so transparent in his dealings with players, he lost their trust, he lost face, and ultimately, he lost his job.

At first blush, at least, Crennel is certainly the anti-Butch.

There is, indeed, almost a grandfatherly mien to Crennel, a manner in which this bear of a man carries himself that evokes trust. He is 58, and believed to be the oldest rookie coach in modern league history. And Crennel has had plenty of time to prepare for this job, an opportunity that was far too long in coming to him, given his NFL resume.

If it's possible to elevate a franchise without raising one's voice very often, Crennel will eventually succeed, because his tone is a borderline whisper and his tenor almost matter-of-fact. There are people who elicit focus by forcing their audience, because of the economy of their words and the low-key manner in which they are spoken.

Crennel is one of those people.

"He can calm the waters," acknowledged Savage. "And, around here lately, the seas have been pretty rough. But he has been unflappable, that's for sure. And he's a straight-talker. When he says something, it is what it is, and I think players relate well to that and really appreciate it. They really take what he says to heart."

And they make sure, every day now, they've got on their thigh pads and knee pads.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.