Crennel getting more opportunities

Twenty-three years into his NFL coaching tenure and, suddenly and ironically, Romeo Crennel has become an overnight sensation.

The defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, Crennel is one of the hottest commodities, a man in demand, during the league's annual firing-and-hiring period. No fewer than five of the seven teams preparing to make a coaching change for 2004 have sought permission to interview Crennel this week. At age 56, the highly respected and well-rehearsed assistant certainly seems poised to land his first head coaching gig.

Yet only two years ago, Crennel might have been victimized by his own success, and certainly by that of the New England franchise.

Under the NFL's prior anti-tampering rules, a team seeking to interview an assistant for a head coach position could not do so until his incumbent club concluded its season. And for staffers working for franchises that went deep into the playoffs, that meant delaying interviews, often until all the head coach vacancies were filled.

"It was as if you were being punished for being a good coach," said longtime NFL aide and current New York Jets senior offensive assistant Jimmy Raye. "The rules were meant to keep teams from raiding coaching staffs. Or from cutting down on the distractions of having guys on your staff interviewing for jobs in the middle of trying to get ready for a playoff game. But those rules also kept deserving (candidates), unwittingly or whatever, out of the (interviewing) process."

Two years ago, the rules were altered, with the league allowing very limited window of opportunity for interviewing assistants on the staffs of playoff teams. The rules allow now for coaches on teams with first-round byes to interview during the off-week. Those interviews must take place in the home city of the team employing the coach and at a time agreed to by the incumbent club.

Only one interview is permitted during the one-week period, which helps explain why officials from franchises like the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals are jetting all over the country this week, logging interviews before the Friday deadline. It also helps to explain why Crennel, and other coveted assistants like St. Louis defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, are extremely busy men this week.

Said one Patriots official, referring to Crennel, who must also squeeze in meeting time this week as New England prepares for a division-round contest: "To say that Romeo's dance card is full this week is an understatement. I mean, he's trying to get about 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day. But, hey, this is his big chance."

Unlike past years, it's a chance for which Crennel doesn't have to wait, one in which he is getting his resume in front of key decision-makers early in the interview process. With the old rules, it is likely Crennel would not have been able to interview until February, if the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl. And by then, even though some owners insist they are willing to wait until worthy candidates finish their season, most of the top jobs would have been filled.

"It helps bring the playing field a little more level," said one assistant coach who will be interviewed several times this week. "It doesn't make the system perfect. You still only get one contact with an owner or general manager and you better make a good impression in that first meeting, or they'll just move on, because they won't think it's necessary to wait until your season is finished. But, yeah, it's better than what we had."

Although not many league officials will address it publicly, the changes in the anti-tampering rules were also implemented to help enhance the opportunities for minority assistants to interview for head coach positions. The anti-tampering alterations, along with the new guidelines from the NFL's workplace diversity committee, should draw more minorities into the process.

"They keep saying they want to get more (minorities) into the pipeline," Raye said. "And, hopefully, this will do it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.