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A possible inside play

Members of the staff may be replacements

FOXBOROUGH -- When Bill Walsh relieved Chuck Studley of his duties as San Francisco's defensive coordinator after the 1982 season, Walsh tapped as Studley's replacement secondary coach George Seifert. He did OK. The Niners won two Super Bowls with Seifert coaching the defense. Walsh, of course, ran the offense during his 10 seasons as head coach, so when he stepped down after the '88 season, new coach Seifert had to find an offensive coordinator. He did a smart thing by turning to San Francisco's quarterbacks coach of three seasons, some guy named Mike Holmgren. The raid on Jimmy Johnson's staff in Dallas began after the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII, with the Bears' hiring of Dallas defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt to be their head coach. Johnson promoted his defensive line coach, Butch Davis, to coordinator. The Cowboys managed to win a few games with Davis doing Wannstedt's old job, including another Super Bowl the following year.


One more. Following the 1988 season, Wade Phillips left his position as defensive coordinator/linebackers coach under Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia to be in charge of Dan Reeves's defense in Denver. Ryan then made the bold decision to make his 30-year-old defensive backs coach of three seasons the league's youngest defensive coordinator. That young man was Jeff Fisher.

Soon it may be Bill Belichick's turn to find a replacement for one, if not both, of his top assistants, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Having your coaching staff dispersed throughout the league comes with the territory of being the best team in the league and the favorite to win a second Super Bowl in three seasons. Weis has drawn interest from Buffalo and the New York Giants regarding their head coaching vacancies. Crennel, who was passed over for the 49ers job last offseason, will interview with Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, and the Giants.

Interviews don't guarantee job offers, and the pool of head-coach candidates will widen when seasons end for four wild-card teams this weekend, but it's now or never for Weis and Crennel, wouldn't you agree? If their days as aides to Belichick are indeed drawing to a close, that could mean the time has come for two lesser-known members of the coaching staff to step up and possibly be the next Holmgren or Fisher.

For certain, current employment at One Patriot Place won't guarantee any of the Patriots' position coaches a promotion. Belichick would want the right man for the job, be he in New England or New Delhi. But you have to count continuity among the reasons for the Patriots' success under Belichick. With the exception of quarterbacks coach John Hufnagel, the other members of the staff have been together since Belichick arrived in 2000. If Crennel and/or Weis leave, one assumes Belichick would lean toward filling their positions from within.

Asked last week about the comfort of continuity among a coaching staff, Belichick said, "It's a big advantage. The fact that we've been through a lot here together is very important. We've experienced a lot of the same situations together, as opposed to coaching in different organizations. That's good, too, I'm not saying that negatively. But the common experiences that we've shared here in New England in the last two, three, four years, those go a long way to really enabling you to make strides and move your program along or that particular part of the operation along. I think that's really important on so many different levels, like personnel, scheme, and strategy . . . You can gauge how to deal with [situations] based on previous experiences. I think it's very valuable."

Folks around the league familiar with the situation here are fairly certain Belichick would look to defensive backs coach Eric Mangini to replace Crennel. Mangini, 32, oversees arguably the league's best secondary despite having one regular (Ty Law) from last season. Belichick brought Mangini into the league in 1995 as an assistant in Cleveland. Mangini was a defensive assistant/quality control coach with the Jets when Belichick was there as assistant head coach/secondary coach. Mangini was a de facto co-coordinator in 2000 (Crennel arrived the next season) and called several games that year. He and Belichick both attended Wesleyan University. They are fraternity brothers.

Said one defensive player, "Mangini's the obvious choice." Though not necessarily by a landslide. Outside linebackers coach Rob Ryan also helped coordinate the defense in 2000. He has experience as Oklahoma State's defensive coordinator from 1997-99. This is his sixth NFL season, but he's been around the league all his life. He knows defense like he knows English. Buddy's his dad.

Assistant offensive line/tight ends coach Jeff Davidson could be the heir apparent to the offensive coordinator's position. Davidson, a former Broncos and Saints offensive lineman, assists Weis in both phases -- running and passing -- of the offensive gameplan, as opposed to other position coaches who may concentrate on one or the other. Said one offensive veteran, "I think they've been grooming him for that position. A lot of people don't know about him, but he would be great at it."

But assistant head coach/offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's 22 seasons of experience can't be ignored.

Life will go on at Gillette Stadium whether Crennel and Weis are here or not. And it could be just as good should Belichick decide to chose their replacements from among his homegrown talent.

"I think you look at some of the more successful organizations in the last 30 years and you can find a lot of continuity there," Belichick said.

"Whether it was Chuck Noll and his staff in Pittsburgh, or Joe Gibbs and that group at the Redskins, or Walsh and Seifert and his group out there in San Francisco. You can go right down the line, with Bill [Parcells] and our group there in New York for almost a decade. I think there is certainly a lot to be said for that."

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