Aaron Kromer learned a lot during his stint as Saints interim coach
October 2, 2013 10:21PM
Updated: November 4, 2013 12:21PM
Aaron Kromer wasn’t an interim head coach.
He was — his words — a substitute teacher.
For the first six games last season, he ran the New Orleans Saints.
In the wake of “Bountygate,” the NFL suspended coach Sean Payton for one season and his designated interim coach, Joe Vitt, for the first six games.
“The worst thing you can do,” Kromer said, “is try to be somebody else.”
Kromer kept Payton’s schedule, stressing the same fundamentals as his boss and trying to operate the Saints as though nothing had changed — even if they were reminded daily that things had.
“I learned a lot of things about dealing with people and dealing with problems and those kinds of things, and working them out as a group,” said Kromer, now in his first year as the Bears’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
“That’s the biggest thing if someone does appoint you to be in charge: You have to do a great job of keeping everyone involved in the decision-making.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees — whose team plays the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field — said Kromer “didn’t change,” even after circumstances did.
He would brief the team before every practice, the way a head coach would, then go back to work as the team’s offensive line coach.
“He was obviously doing something he had not done in the past, but I felt he did a very good job with it,” Brees said. “He was just trying to communicate the same messages he knew Sean would want communicated, but in his way.”
Kromer, who called his head-coaching stint a very positive experience, kept his mantra simple.
“It was gonna be the same message,” he said. “In a different voice.”
It would’ve been easy, perhaps, for Kromer to use six weeks as a hyperactive head-coach audition. To draw attention to himself, to change his personality completely, to fill the void of the dynamic Payton.
Instead, Kromer tried to do what Payton — with whom he coached at Kromer’s alma mater, Miami (Ohio), from 1994 to ’95 — would have wanted.
“The situation a year ago is so unprecedented or uniquely different,” Payton said. “It’s hard to make any comparisons.”
Payton returned this season and has coached the Saints to a 4-0 record.
Last year under Kromer, they started 0-4.
“Obviously, we would have liked to win more games early,” Kromer said. “There was a lot of distraction, obviously, without the head coach being there. . . .
“They weren’t rattled. There was just a lot of attention that had to be focused on football. It wasn’t early, and it got better when we played games.”
Jermon Bushrod, the Saints’ left tackle for six years who signed with the Bears this offseason, said Kromer did well in an awkward situation last year.
“Your head coach is gone, your assistant head coach is gone,” he said. “He’s the third one up.
“He did everything he could, and we did everything we could and tried to make the best out of a weird situation.”
Kromer’s acumen was one reason Bears coach Marc Trestman entrusted him with the offensive-coordinator title, though Trestman calls the plays.
They worked together with the Raiders from 2001 to ’03, reaching the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
“Aaron’s got a unique package of a very, very good communicator,” Trestman said. “He’s a quick-minded, football-minded guy who understands the real detailed, technical things that go on with playing offensive line.
“It’s not just who we block. It’s quite different than that.
“It’s much more detailed and refined than that, and he has the ability to communicate that. And his record speaks for itself.”
Kromer coached five years in New Orleans, the last four with the offensive line. He coached five offensive linemen, including Bushrod, to 10 combined Pro Bowl appearances.
No one gave up fewer sacks than the Saints during those four years.
The Bears’ blocking Sunday will determine how long they keep Brees off the field — and, likely, who wins the game.
“He’s just a good guy, man,” Bushrod said. “A good guy who expects a lot out of you when it comes to coming to work every single day, fighting to get better every single day and having a mind-set of playing together, being together, being a unit.
“Helping the guy beside you, helping the guy behind you, helping the guy in front of you.
“Because we’re all here for the same common goal.”
Even if that goal Sunday is to beat the team Kromer once led.
“We called ourselves substitute teachers because we knew it was a holdover until the next guy,” Kromer said. “It was an entire team coming together to lead each other and make up for Sean not being there.”