LOS ANGELES -- In the public eye and to various NFL administrators, Gregg Williams is very much the face of BountyGate, and all that is wrong with football today. But to his players past and present, the current defensive assistant with the Tennessee Titans and former defensive coach and coordinator with seven different NFL teams has a name with a very different ring to it. To most of the men he's coached, Williams inspires profound loyalty, which speaks to the difference between those who want the game to be different from the outside, and those who have to survive it in the here and now.
“The bottom line is still getting the players to perform, and what I’ve been able to do, I guess, and had the opportunity to do at a lot of different places is, ‘How do you make an average guy good, a good guy great, and if you have a chance to coach a great guy, he’s got to be great on your watch,’”Williams said upon his Tennessee hire. “This is still a production business. You have to get them to do that and people have to understand how to do that.”
And a Titans defense that finished 19th against the pass and 29th against the run, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, are looking for that quick fix.
Put simply, Gregg Williams improves defenses, and defensive players. Those defensive players appreciate it, beyond what you may hear and know. Matt Bowen, current columnist for the National Football Post and Chicago Tribune, wrote about "crossing the line," and how Williams helped him do it, when Williams coached Bowen as a safety for the Washington Redskins in 2004 and 2005. Bowen is now one of the most astute football minds in the media, but he brought a player's perspective to the Williams issue -- and once you're indoctrinated, it's tough to part that out. Even after the history becomes more convoluted.
"Williams is the best coach I ever played for in my years in the NFL, a true teacher who developed me as a player," Bowen wrote in March of 2012. "I believed in him. I still do. That will never change.
"Williams is an excellent motivator. You do what he wants: play tough, push the envelope and carry a swagger that every opponent sees on tape. When you lined up against us, you knew we were coming after you. It was our gig, our plan, our way to motivate, to extra-motivate. I wanted to be That Guy for him, playing the game with an attitude opposing players absolutely feared. If that meant playing through the whistle or going low on a tackle, I did it."
When I talked to former Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints defensive end Paul Spicer about playing for Williams in two different cities, he echoed many of those same thoughts.
"Really, he's a good coach," Spicer, who is now an at-large coach working with defensive line draft prospects, told me. "Overall, a good, solid coach. He knows football, and you know what? You've got to respect him for that, and how he gets after it. When he came to Jacksonville, he showed up with an attitude of how we've got to get after the football. And when it comes to defense, you've got to have a demeanor about yourself. You get to that ball in a violent way. A lot of people don't understand that, but I have nothing but great things to say about that man. He was great to play for."
Bowen and Spicer have the wisdom of hindsight. What do the players about to be coached by Williams in 2013 have to say? I caught up with Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers at Travelle Gaines' gym in Hollywood on Tuesday, and the narrative is still the same -- as long as the coach makes the player and the defense better, that's what counts. Ayers had a breakout season for that bad defense in 2012, amassing 103 tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception in his second NFL campaign. Now, he just wants everything to get better.
"I think it's going to be a good thing for us, based on the things I've heard about him," Ayers told me. "Based on the things he's done in the past with previous defenses. We've got a young defense with a lot of talented guys, and we're just coming together -- we're just getting better and better. I don't know a lot about his personally or anything else -- just going off the good things people have told me about him initially. I just got the news, and it's pretty fresh to me. I don't know much about him, so I guess I'll learn all about that once I get there."
Ayers is well aware of how Williams' former players feel about him, and that carries the day.
"That says a lot about him as a coach, and as a person -- some of the things he was able to do for the players. He helped them develop. I'll be able to experience it firsthand once I get back to Tennessee and really get to talk with him."
And BountyGate? Get used to it, America -- for those who will be coached by Williams in future, that's a thing in and of the past. It's most likely a crucial disconnect when you're trying to forward yourself in the league.
"I don't really have an opinion on that," Ayers said. "It happened, and it really didn't involve me. I'm really just concerned with .. as long as he helps me on the field. I just want to become a better player -- get better on defense, and become better as a team. Anything else that happened in the past, I don't really have anything to do with that."
Those Saints players named in Williams' sworn affidavit, a key part in his reinstatement, probably don't feel those same warm fuzzies. And there's no two ways about it -- a coach with a long history of coloring outside the lines flipping on his own former players is distasteful to the extreme. Gregg Williams won't win any popularity contests, but he doesn't care. He never has. After a year off, the man who is used to being vilified emerges clean.
And after a year off, that same man will face a group of players with one simple message for him: Make us better, coach. In the NFL, the past is always the past, and the future stares you in the face.
For the players, it's not "by any means necessary;" a year of bounty controversy and over 4,000 lawsuits from former players have awakened us all to the terrors and dangers of this game. But the present -- the vital truth -- tells a very different story for those who suit up on Sunday.
And when the players tell us that we can't understand the difference, maybe we have to accept and understand that they're right.
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