With the exception of supporters of the Eagles and Patriots, no group of fans is more eager for this weekend's Super Bowl than Browns fans. As the game concludes, not only will the door be officially slammed shut on a disappointing 2004 season, but we will also immediately be naming our new head coach.
Make no mistake, the players on this team are just as frustrated as the fans. They are eager to once again begin to move forward, and under a more competent set of leaders.
In my continued attempt to relay the pulse of the players to the loyal readers of this website and Bernie's Insiders Magazine, I've been lucky enough to get a chance to speak with many of the Browns players over the last six months. One of the guys I've always wanted to get a chance to speak with is free safety Chris Crocker.
In all of my conversations with people close to the team, I have consistently heard the same things over and over about Crocker. Intelligent, personable, great football IQ, has great respect from his teammates for a guy who has been in the league just two seasons.
I'm here to assure Browns fans nationwide that the stereotype is true. I called Chris, wanting to just get some quick thoughts on our new coach and his take on the 2004 season. What I ended up getting was 53 minutes of Chris Crocker, unplugged and candid … and a host of great takes from a guy that lives, breaths, and eats football … who is committed to becoming one of the greatest free safeties to play in this town.
The conversation was fascinating, and the full interview will be featured in a coming issue of Bernie's Insiders Magazine. So good in fact, that I just had to get some highlights from our talk out there to the fans sooner than the release date of the magazine.
Here are some snippets from our discussion. Chris said he would be happy to talk with me further as we head towards training camp this summer, and I plan to take him up on that offer.
Swerb: "Chris thanks for taking the time. Despite an injury that sidelined you the last four games, you've got to be pretty happy with the way things went individually for in 2004 you, no?
Crocker: "Yes, I felt I progressed a lot as a player. I really feel there were a lot of good things I did that I can build on, even though missing the final four games was disappointing. I thought I played pretty well, and I'm really excited about a new coach coming in … a fresh start for us here."
Swerb: "Give me your thoughts on Romeo Crennel. As a defensive guy, is it nice to see a defensive head coach with such a track record of success coming in here to lead this team?"
Crocker: "Yeah, I'm really happy for him. He's been a top assistant for a long time, and he's done well every place he's been. I know he was here in 2000. I'm just very excited about getting a new coach. It's been almost surreal. The players have been so unsure now for the last two or three months, it's nice to be getting to the point where we will have some direction again."
Swerb: "Just six defensive guys were here still when Romeo led the defense in 2000. Have you talked to any of those guys about Crennel?"
Crocker: "I actually just talked to Courtney (Brown) about it. Everyone has said the same thing: that he's a really fair guy. A big key to building loyalty and camaraderie is having a head coach that is fair. He'll tell you like it is, and people have said he would never tell guys one thing, then do another. And that's what we really need here. I don't want to say it was tough to play … but people never really knew what to believe in the past. Romeo is a no nonsense guy, and we're all looking forward to moving forward with him."
Swerb: "Have you been watching the Patriots through the playoffs, and paying closer attention to some of the things they do defensively since it became apparent Crennel was going to be the guy?"
Crocker: "I have. Also, I talk to Troy Brown a lot because we're both Marshall guys. He says everyone knows their role on that team, everyone is clear what they are doing and how they fit into the plan. If you look at that team, they're missing Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Richard Seymour … all Pro-Bowl type guys, and they haven't missed a beat. It goes to show you everyone knows their roles, and know the scheme, and it really says a lot about the way that coaching staff prepares that team."
Swerb: "Give me your thoughts real quick on how the playoffs have progressed. Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl this weekend?"
Crocker: "I think the playoffs have unfolded exactly as I thought they would. I think the Patriots and the Eagles are the two best teams, and the Patriots are so dangerous because they play team ball, and it's not just one guy that can beat you. Dillon didn't play in the regular season versus the Steelers, and I knew the results would be different the second time around. The Eagles, even though a lot of people wanted to see Vick in the Super Bowl … I also thought they would win. I think New England wins the Super Bowl hands down. The Eagles have struggled against good running teams, and Corey Dillon has been great. Also, it's their first time in the Bowl, with all the hoopla and distractions. New England's been there three times now in four years. I don't see a blowout, but I do see a New England win."
Swerb: "What does this defense need to become an elite unit, capable of carrying this team deep into the playoffs?"
Crocker: "Easy question. Continuity. This defense, over the past three years, there's been a lot of changing, a lot of shuffling. Not many of the players here have been here for the long haul. It's hard to have new guys being shuffled in every couple of weeks. You have to develop a core group of players, and let those guys get comfortable together. Look at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Both teams have a core of seven or eight guys on defense that have been together and know how to play as a group."
Swerb: "The thing I've always heard about you from your coaches and teammates is that you have a ‘high football IQ', that you're a student of the game, and that you are a tireless worker in the film room. Talk for a minute about how important that aspect of the game is to you."
Crocker: "That is one thing I take incredible pride in, the mental aspect of the game. Simply put, it's too hard in the NFL to try and get by just on athleticism. The competition is so tough. You have to have an edge, and the time I put in preparing is one area where I can get ahead of and outwork the competition. I want to have that edge, and want to know everything about everybody. Not just offenses, but even other defenses … and what they do to be successful. Like this week coming up, I'll be analyzing film on what Philly and New England do this weekend. I watch as much film as possible. Also, Robert Griffith was just an enormous help to me, he really took me under his wing. He's a true professional, and that's really rubbed off on me."
Swerb: "Is there a particular defensive back you watched growing up that you have modeled yourself after?"
Crocker: "I wouldn't say there was one in particular I modeled myself after, but my favorite guy growing up was always Merton Hanks on San Francisco. He was a hybrid corner/safety, he could cover, he could hit, and he could run. Now Merton is the head of the NFL dress code, he's the head of the fashion police now."
Swerb: "It had to be kind of uncomfortable during the year, you a second year guy, taking over Earl Little's starting job a couple weeks into the season. How did you guys handle that, and did it make for any locker room tension between the two of you?"
Crocker: "At first it was very uncomfortable, not from the standpoint that Earl was mad at me or vice versa. It was just the fact that it happened so soon in the season. I think the coaching staff should have told us both from the beginning of the season that it was an open spot; it just should have been handled differently. If it was, it would have been a lot smoother. And I have a lot of respect for Earl."
Swerb: "Did you know who Phil Savage was before the hire? Has his people reached out and talked individually to any of the players yet?"
Crocker: "I knew a little bit about him, of his track record in Baltimore and draft success. Now that he's here, they haven't talked to any of the players yet. I've talked to Lerner, but I'm sure the general manager is busy watching us, and getting familiar with us on film and what style of players he has. I'm sure at some point he will want to sit down and talk with some of us."
Swerb: "You mentioned you spoke with Lerner. What was his message to you?"
Crocker: "I actually recently spoke with him. He's really anxious to get this transition over with and to begin to move forward and make a name again for the Browns. You know Randy; he's just … ready to go. He's anxious to start moving forward in the right direction, and there's still a lot of things they have to do with the coaching staff."
Swerb: "Anthony Henry is about a month away from free agency. Obviously you want this guy back. Talk to me about what he means to the team."
Crocker: "We really want Anthony back. He's a really good player. He may not have had quite a Pro Bowl year, but Anthony plays very well. And he's a great corner, and I'm not just saying that because he's my friend. They're not going to find anyone in free agency that is going to come in here and do a better job than him in my opinion. You just don't find guys like him, 6'2 that can run like that and have a good head on their shoulders. Going back to the continuity I mentioned earlier, you don't want to lose good players that you have the power to retain."
Swerb: "Of the three quarterbacks presently on the roster … Garcia, Holcomb, and McCown … which one gave you the most trouble as an opposing defensive back in practice?"
Crocker: "Man, that puts me on the spot. Isn't that just a complicated way of asking me which one I like the best?"
Swerb: "Exactly (laughing)."
Crocker: "That's a tough question, honestly. Luke is just so young. It's hard to judge him until he is able to fully grasp an offense. Luke is very talented. He's very athletic and has a strong arm. He's just not polished in the offense. I would say Holcomb is more polished than Garcia as well, it's just he can't move as well as the other two. He knows the offense very well, and is a student of the game himself. Jeff, he makes a lot of things happen out of the pocket with his feet. Holcomb and Garcia are very different type quarterbacks, so it makes them hard to compare. The key will be instituting an offense that plays to the skills of whichever quarterbacks are here next year."