HOUSTON -- As Romeo Crennel danced around in the locker room, doing the "Macarena," cranking the "Soulja Boy" and doing the disco after the Texans’ first victory of the season in his first game as interim head coach, the world saw what players in Houston have known for seven years.
Not only does he have players' respect as a coach, but he’s fun to be around.
Crennel took over after the team fired head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien last week, and Crennel told players he expected to see a different energy on the field. Crennel has led by example on that front.
“Everybody has much respect for OB [O’Brien],” safety Michael Thomas said, adding, “but to answer your question, it felt good to get out there and get a win because everybody felt loose, felt relaxed, and they know ‘RAC’ [Crennel] was just trying to put us in the best position, knowing that we were amongst the storm and knowing we had some big changes this week.”
When Crennel was asked by team CEO Cal McNair if he wanted to be the interim head coach for the rest of the season, he said yes because he wanted to make sure the players in the locker room, many of whom he has coached for years, had some continuity, at least for the rest of the year.
“I have relationships with a lot of these players and I know that sometimes change is difficult,” Crennel said in his first news conference as interim head coach, “particularly when you bring somebody from the outside in, and so I want to do as much for these guys as I can to see if we can finish this season on a good note and have some stability in the organization.”
For as fiery as O’Brien could be both on and off the field, Crennel’s personality is different in a lot of ways. Not long before O’Brien was fired, he and Watt got what one source described as “a huge argument” on the practice field.
After the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Watt said the word “fun” six times in his first four answers.
“[Crennel] is a tremendous leader of men,” defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said. “He has a contrasting style to Bill [O’Brien], which I think any time you go through a coaching change, usually that’s the norm, right? You go different from the guy that was there previous to you.”
“What you see from Romeo in the media is the same guy he is with us,” Weaver added. “He is genuine. He is sincere. He cares about his players and he is maniacal about football, though. He is determined and he is very detailed in everything that he does. He believes in the technique and fundamentals, whether it is on the offensive side of the ball or defensive side of the ball. He believes that’s what wins, and I couldn’t agree with him more. So, it’s our job to get better in all those areas.”
Quarterback Deshaun Watson said Crennel kept the team loose, which made a difference.
“He's just very loose, got guys laughing and enjoying and wanting to come to meetings, and he lets the coaches and the staff just do how they want to coach us and have our own sessions and own units, and then we play as one complementary football, one team, and that's what it's all about,” he said.
Crennel has been in this situation before. In 2011, when Todd Haley was fired by the Kansas City Chiefs after 13 games, Crennel took over and did so well in the remaining three games that he was named head coach at the end of the season. That included an upset victory over the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers, who finished the regular season 15-1.
Crennel, who on Sunday became the oldest head coach in NFL history to win a game, “really knows how to get the energy out of the guys,” safety Justin Reid said. “That’s part of his mantra that really makes everyone want to go out and play really hard for him.”
Said Watt: “I don’t think anybody’s ever left a conversation with Romeo without a smile on his face. He’s a happy guy. He’s a fun guy."
Leading up to the game against Jacksonville, Crennel said he told the team “they were better than the record showed going into the game.” According to Football Outsiders metrics, the Texans have been an above-average team so far this season. Taking into account that Houston has played the second-toughest schedule in the NFL this season only behind the Minnesota Vikings, DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ranks Houston 12th overall.
Crennel’s focus was on each player doing his job, knowing where his gap is, what his responsibility is and “getting back to the basics a little bit,” Watt said. One area in which the defense struggled in the first four weeks was in run defense, often failing to tackle well and get off the field, especially in the fourth quarter. After allowing 727 rushing yards in the first four weeks -- an average of nearly 182 rushing yards per game -- Houston only allowed 75 rushing yards to the Jaguars.
He also focused on technique on the other side of the ball, making it a priority to “establish the running game.” That worked, too. Running back David Johnson had his best game of the season, rushing for 96 yards on 17 attempts.
“I think he was just trying to make sure everyone was doing their job,” Johnson said. “They didn't have to do too much. He wasn't asking anyone to go out of their element, out of their skill set. I think the biggest thing is just do your responsibility, do what you were brought on this team to do, and I think that is really what helped us get over this hump and getting this first win.”
The next step, of course, is making sure that that atmosphere and the improved energy continues through the rest of the season, beginning Sunday against the unbeaten Tennessee Titans (1 p.m., CBS).
“Well, the job is fun when you win,” Crennel said. “If you don’t win, then there’s not much fun involved in the job. I mean, hey, I enjoy being around the players and being around the coaches, but everything is better when you win.”