BEREA, Ohio -- If he's going down, Romeo Crennel is going down fighting.
Stung and personally insulted by running back Jamal Lewis' claim that some unnamed Browns quit in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to Denver, Cleveland's embattled coach disputed Lewis' belief, defended his leadership skills and said he's certain his team has not yet given up on him or a season spiraling away.
Lose a game, but find a leader
"When you say that the team quit, that's saying that I quit," Crennel said. "I know that I'm not a quitter and my players don't quit."
After the Broncos scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Browns 34-30 on Thursday -- just four days following a similar collapse in a home loss to Baltimore -- a frustrated Lewis vented by saying some Browns quit and others needed to check their egos. Lewis' comments were then supported on Monday by return specialist Joshua Cribbs, who said the team needed to "weed out those guys and play the rest of the season out."
Crennel, who is 23-34 in three-plus seasons in Cleveland, rejected those contentions.
"It seems like the word 'quit' has taken a life of its own and grown a little bit bigger, and now the Browns are quitters and the coach has lost control of the team and there's division in the locker room, and that's not the case," Crennel said. "These guys are going to play and play together. Whether we play good enough remains to be seen."
Crennel spoke to Lewis and Cribbs about their comments. He said the players do not feel their teammates quit, and although they did not apologize, both wish they had handled the situation differently.
Lewis refused to get into any specifics about his post-game rant, which came after the Browns (3-6) dropped to 1-4 at home and severely damaged any chances of making the AFC playoffs. However, the nine-year veteran isn't retracting his statements and said he has spoken to some players individually.
"Everybody wondered, 'Who you talking about, who you talking about?' It doesn't matter. I will address it. I address everybody, that's just the type of person I am," Lewis said. "I don't bite my tongue and I just tell it like it is. At the same time, I talk to everybody and just try to keep everybody on the same page."
The last thing the Browns need now is another distraction. In the past month, they've endured a squabble between tight end Kellen Winslow and general manager Phil Savage over the club's handling of Winslow's hospitalization for a staph infection as well as a change at starting quarterback after Crennel benched Derek Anderson for Brady Quinn.
As they began preparations for Monday night's game in Buffalo, Crennel reminded his players that they need to forget their personal goals and stay unified.
"That's what I preached to those guys in that room," he said. "The team is first and anything that you have or any agenda that you have comes secondary to the team."
Cribbs did not want to rehash his comments, either, and heeded Crennel's advice to worry about the Bills.
"What I meant to say was Buffalo has a good special teams unit," he said.
Lewis has yet to gain 100 yards in a game this season after having five 100-yard-plus games last year. But despite the Browns' struggles, the 29-year-old, closing in on 10,000 career yards, has no regrets about signing with Cleveland as a free agent.
"I've still got a lot of confidence in this whole team that we can get it done," he said. "It's just, everybody needs to come answer the bell, and that's it. Everybody needs to step up to the plate and know where we're at and know what needs to be done. The talent is in this room. It needs to be put out there. It needs to be laid out on the field."
Crennel was hired in 2005 in part because of his steadiness and experience. The former defensive coordinator, who last winter signed a two-year extension through the 2011 season, said he remains confident that he has his team's undivided attention.
Still, his job could be on the line in the next seven weeks. Cleveland's upcoming schedule, which includes road games at Tennessee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, could make it tough for Crennel to hang on into 2009.
"I'm concerned about the fact that we don't win games or haven't won enough games," he said. "You can't worry about what's going to happen in the future. You've just got to play the next game and do the best you can and try to get your guys to play the best they can.
"And then whatever happens is going to happen."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press