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Seeing How It Plans Out

Coordinators to Match Wits in Super Bowl

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page E01

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 5 -- Charlie Weis was trying to go to sleep in his room at the New England Patriots' hotel here around 10:15 Wednesday night when the phone rang. He certainly needed the rest, having worked two grueling jobs for nearly two months. But his favorite pupil, quarterback Tom Brady, was calling, wanting the offensive coordinator to come by his room to go over the game plan. Again. Just to make sure Brady had everything down.

The same thing had happened the previous night, when Weis had spent an hour with Brady. But such eagerness by a player is never ignored by the sport's most diligent coaching staff. So Weis crawled out of bed and spent another precious hour with Brady cramming for Sunday's Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tom Brady and Charlie Weis will collaborate for the last time Sunday before Weis moves on to be the head coach of Notre Dame. (Robert E. Klein -- AP)

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Weis Is Working Overtime (washingtonpost.com, Feb 4, 2005)
Thomason Settles Into Role With Eagles (washingtonpost.com, Feb 3, 2005)
E. Smith Retirement May Come as Cowboy (washingtonpost.com, Feb 2, 2005)

Weis will leave the NFL after this game to devote his full attention to the Notre Dame head coaching job he accepted in December, but any suggestion his double duty has resulted in the Patriots getting less than his best rankles him. "Tell me I'm not here when I'm sitting in Brady's room at 10:30 [Wednesday] night," he said. "Everyone else is worrying about bed check, and we're going over the game plan."

Weis's boss, Coach Bill Belichick, is trying to further cement his place in football history with what would be his third Super Bowl title in four seasons. Belichick's Eagles counterpart, Andy Reid, got much of the blame when his team lost the NFC title game in each of the previous three seasons and has received much of the credit now that the club has taken the next step. But the intriguing battle of coaching wits in this matchup of the sport's model franchises of the new century extends beyond the head coaches. Belichick and Reid are supported by perhaps the best sets of coaches in the league, and those four coordinators did more of the legwork the past two weeks and will do more of the hands-on button-pushing Sunday that will determine the NFL champion.

Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress has many in the league thinking he will be a head coach in a year or two, and Philadelphia defensive boss Jim Johnson might be the best coach who isn't a head coach. But that still leaves them as the coaching underdogs, with Weis preparing to run one of college football's most storied programs and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel apparently set to be hired as the Cleveland Browns' head coach soon after this game. They want their final game with Belichick to be a victory, and their coaching sleight of hand in victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC playoffs remains the talk of the league.

"What Belichick and Weis and Crennel have done is amazing," former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said. "And they've saved the best for last."

Belichick and Crennel are the sport's master defensive schemers, and knowledgeable observers are eager to see what they've concocted to shut down the Eagles after having two weeks of preparation. Esiason, an NFL analyst for CBS, said he thinks the Patriots' defensive game plan will be similar to the one they used to shut down the Colts and record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning during the playoffs, dropping as many as eight defenders into coverage to make the offense patiently string together a series of shorter plays. The key to the game, Esiason said, will be for Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to be patient and not force throws farther down the field into tight coverage.

"The underneath passes are going to be there," Esiason said. "He'll be able to run for five or six yards when he wants. I don't see them blitzing. Why would they? . . . This is a seasoned veteran [quarterback] who can burn them if they blitz. I think the Eagles have a better chance of winning if Donovan goes 17 for 25 for 185 yards than if he goes 20 for 40 for, say, 350 yards."

But Reid points out the beauty of how Belichick and Crennel operate is that they can change so much from one game to the next, finding ways to attack an offense's weaknesses. This chameleon-like nature makes it virtually impossible to predict what they'll do. They have versatile, interchangeable players and move them around.

Whose defense is it, really, Belichick's or Crennel's? It's difficult to tell. Crennel has worked alongside or for Belichick, off and on, since the early 1980s, when both were New York Giants assistants under Ray Perkins and then Bill Parcells. They don't quite think as one -- Crennel said they do have their tactical disagreements -- but each generally knows what the other is thinking. Belichick shares his thoughts on the upcoming game each Monday during the season, and Crennel assembles the game plan.

Still, Crennel promises he will not merely be a Belichick clone when he moves on. "I'm different than Belichick," he said. "Our personalities are different . . . but we want similar things. We want guys to do it right."

Childress interviewed for the Browns' head coaching job last month but apparently will be passed over in favor of Crennel. He will get a chance for revenge on Sunday, but he says that's not his focus. "You don't feel like you're attacking Bill Belichick or Romeo Crennel," Childress said. "You feel like you're attacking their scheme. We're more into the X's and O's."

Childress, like Crennel, is in a collaborative situation, since Reid's coaching background is on offense. Childress and Reid also go way back, as Childress once was Reid's boss in the college coaching ranks. In 1986, Childress, as offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, hired Reid from San Francisco State as offensive line coach.

Together, they will try to take advantage of an inexperienced New England secondary, something no team has accomplished this season; to blend wide receiver Terrell Owens back into the Eagles' offense as he returns from an ankle injury; to keep the Patriots from blanketing tailback Brian Westbrook the same way they blanketed another running back who was a superb receiver, the St. Louis Rams' Marshall Faulk, in the Super Bowl three years ago; and to have McNabb ready to react to a defense that is masterful at disguising its coverages by looking initially like it's going to do one thing and then doing something else by shifting just as the ball is snapped. And they'll have to adjust to whatever surprises are provided by Belichick and Crennel.

"In a two-week game plan" by the Patriots, Childress said, "you can expect anything."

The chess match between Weis and Johnson pits the two assistant coaches who have great autonomy, since each of their bosses focuses on the opposite side of the ball. Weis has told his players their performance will determine the outcome of the game. But he said, "I can't tell a lie: I say the same thing every week."

Johnson is revered by his peers for creative blitz packages in which he finds ways to overload one side of an offensive line and get a rushing linebacker or defensive back into a seam between blockers. Other defensive coordinators regard him as a guru. But, at 63, he knows his days as a head coaching prospect probably are over. He passed up a chance to interview for the San Francisco 49ers' job two years ago and was passed over in favor of Dennis Green after interviewing for the Arizona Cardinals' vacancy last winter.

"Not that I don't want to be a head coach, but I don't get up every morning saying, 'What do I have to do today to be a head coach?' " Johnson said. "I'm very happy in my job. My goal in this league was to be a coordinator and develop my own system. I can honestly say I'm not angry."

He has bounced around the coaching ranks and won a collegiate national championship in 1977 as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, then left to coach in the U.S. Football League. Reid, as assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers, noticed Johnson's wizardry when Johnson was the defensive coordinator of the Colts in the mid-'90s. The two conversed one year at the Pro Bowl, and Reid brought Johnson to Philadelphia in 1999.

Johnson calls the Eagles' triumph over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game his highlight in coaching, at least so far. Oddly, it was an uncharacteristic game for him: He didn't blitz Falcons quarterback Michael Vick much.

His strategic gem for that game was to move speedy defensive end Jevon Kearse from the left side to the right side so that Kearse could be the closest pursuer when the left-handed Vick rolled out in his favored direction. Johnson had Kearse and fellow defensive end Derrick Burgess hang around the line of scrimmage on passing plays instead of rushing too far up the field and creating running room for Vick on scrambles. The idea was that if the Eagles could get some pass rush pressure up the middle from their defensive tackles, Vick would take off running toward the outside, and Kearse or Burgess would be there waiting. The strategy worked beautifully, and the two ends combined for three sacks.

The Eagles might not be able to rely on blitzes against the Patriots, either. Weis might utilize maximum-protection schemes to safeguard the less-than-mobile Brady, and Johnson said the onus could be on Kearse and Burgess to win their individual matchups with New England offensive tackles Matt Light and Brandon Gorin.

"They might release two receivers and keep everybody else in to block," Johnson said. "The key is going to be our [defensive] line and the pressure we get off our edge. . . . You have to make sure you're on top of your game in terms of adjusting to all [Weis's] matchups, all his motions."

Just as Johnson usually dictates to an offense how a game will be played with his blitzes, Weis likes to dictate to a defense by using different packages of players and an array of formations. Weis warned college coaches during the week they might have gotten a head start on him in recruiting, but it won't be easy for them to maintain their advantage when it comes to X's and O's.

He had two cell phones in his pocket all week, one for his Patriots calls and one for his Notre Dame calls. He plans to take three days off after the Super Bowl and then start full-time at Notre Dame on Thursday. Weis says he won't take time to reflect on his pending departure until after the game. And the toughest goodbye will be the one he will say to Brady. "Sunday night," Weis said, "it'll be tough."

By then, the legacy of the team Weis is leaving will be set. By the time they leave the locker room at Alltel Stadium, the Patriots could be a two-time Super Bowl winner -- a very, very good team, but perhaps not quite a great one. Or they could be a dynasty, joining the 1990s Dallas Cowboys as the only clubs to win three Super Bowls in four years.

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