Current St. Louis Rams and former Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher has long been one of the most respected men in pro football, and for good reason. He coached the Titans through a franchise move from Houston, got them a yard away from a possible Super Bowl win at the end of the 1999 season, and effectively battled the two-headed monster of frequent salary cap purges and the ever-increasing weirdness of team owner Bud Adams. After almost two decades with the Oilers/Titans, Fisher lost his job for basically refusing to endorse Vince Young as the team's franchise quarterback, a stance that has proven to be fairly intelligent in retrospect.
Fisher learned his football under Buddy Ryan -- he was a defensive back for the Chicago Bears from 1981 through 1984, and a defensive assistant on the 1985 Super Bowl Bears team that may have had the NFL's all-time greatest defense. He worked with Ryan in Chicago and Philadelphia, and as our own Mike Tanier recently intimated in the New York Times, Fisher may have learned a thing or two about "Buddy-Ball" along the way.
Fisher first came into contact with Gregg Williams in the early 1990s; while Williams worked under Ryan in Houston, Fisher eventually replaced Ryan as defensive coordinator right about the time Ryan took a sideline punch at offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. When Fisher became the Oilers' head coach in 1994, Williams moved up the ranks and became Fisher's defensive coordinator from 1997 through 2000. Williams then went on to the Buffalo Bills, the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints, where the bounties and specific injury language he had dispensed to players for years finally caught up to him. When Fisher re-hired Williams to be the Rams' defensive coordinator upon taking the St. Louis job, he knew what kind of coach he was getting. As he told ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Friday morning, the indefinite suspension Williams now faces was the surprise.
"First off, when the Commissioner initiated the discipline, had we been aware of it, we would not have made that hire," Fisher said. "Nor would Gregg have taken the job, had he been aware of the consequences. Fortunately for us, we have a number of experienced coaches on the staff. Dave McGinnis has called defenses for a number of years, and Chuck Cecil is in a position to coach the secondary. He's coordinated for me for a number of years. And the playbook kinda still has my name on it. So, we'll be fine. We were just set behind a little bit as we started to install with our players, because the offseason programs just started a couple weeks ago. We're caught up now, so things will be fine."
Interesting language there. While Fisher has said that he felt the punishment was justified, he had to know to some degree what Williams had been doing. Was this yet another example of the "as long as it works, I don't care how it's done" mindset that perpetuated Williams' NFL career far past its logical conclusion? Would Williams have been permitted to do the same things with the Rams had he not been caught? How did Fisher, who was also a longtime member of the NFL's Competition Committee, see the Saints' scandal and suspensions affecting the way the game is played?
"Well, I think you're talking about two different situations here. The 'pay for performance' is, very simply put -- you've got a bunch of offensive linemen in a meeting room, and they'll fine each other five bucks for jumping offside or missing an assignment, and the money goes into a pot. At the end of the year, the money goes to a charity, or they all go out to dinner. That's 'pay for performance.' But what we're talking about is the things that took place where there were people standing up in front of the players, saying, 'Look, guys, let's see if we can take this guy out,' or 'Let's see what we have to do to win this game.' Not that it ever happened, because I don't believe that there was ever an injury associated with those types of things that were said in the meetings, but the point is, you just don't say it. That's where we had the problems."
And this is where things get difficult. I have a great deal of respect for Fisher as a coach, but his assertion that there were no injuries associated with the bounties, or Williams' "edgy" coaching style is a remarkable disconnect from reality. The Saints clearly went out of their way to take shots at Brett Favre's knees and lower legs in the 2009 NFC championship game, and there's a very clear line between the Williams-coordinated Redskins and the start of Peyton Manning's neck problems in 2006. Lower-leg shots are against the NFL's rules, as are the kinds of "high-low" hits Manning dealt with.
As far as how this will change the NFL, Fisher seemed a bit murky on the real problem.
"Yeah -- I think we have to draw the line, and you have to draw the line right at the top. A few little things for charity and things like that? I can understand that. But when you talk about rewarding your teammates, or a player rewarding another player for an interception or a big hit, I think we have to get away from that."
So ... one player giving another player 500 bucks for an interception is the problem? C'mon, coach. The real problem is a culture of coaching, which may not have started with Ryan but certainly grew in his presence, that focuses on intentional injury as part of the game plan.
Fisher then went on to say that Williams truly feels remorse (based on all the evidence, we agree that Williams is remorseful about everything that got him busted), and that Williams could still do great things in the NFL.
Then, the coach was asked about the league's new contact rules, and I found it interesting how Fisher -- whom I believe to be an intelligent man who tries to play it straight in his own career -- was able to switch hats from defensive mastermind to Competition Committee hive mind.
"The perspective that the Competition Committee comes from, and the Commissioner comes from, is very simple -- it's player safety. That's why the rules were generated. Protecting the [head], helmet-to-helmet contact, those types of things. That's it -- it's player safety. The game's really good right now -- scoring's up, and even after the lockout, the number were off the charts. The game's good; we just have to understand that we have to protect our players.
"There is [frustration about the ticky-tack calls as a result of that emphasis], but the officiating department is instructed to ... not to err on the side of player safety, but if you're in doubt, then throw the flag. Because we've got to get these hits out. What's interesting, and what people may not realize, is that the Committee and the league office has watched the tapes over the years as the rules go in. The players are adjusting. They really are -- they're not launching anymore through a defenseless receiver, players are trying to stay away from the legs of a quarterback, and where you get frustrated is when a player gets blocked or fouled into the legs of a quarterback, and the referee may not see the initial action. But you'd rather have the quarterback staying in the pocket and coming back to play next week than not. From a defensive standpoint, you want to play hard and all that stuff, but you have to protect the quarterback."
Jeff Fisher, the good coach, has to protect the quarterback. Jeff Fisher, the moral man, has to protect the game. Jeff Fisher, the longtime NFL rule-maker, understood his obligation to the NFL. But Jeff Fisher, the man who cut his NFL teeth at the Buddy Ryan school and helped other graduates succeed, may have looked the other way on a great many things. And that's why Jeff Fisher may be the best possible example of the bridge between the way the game needs to be played, and the way it's been played far more frequently than most people would like to believe.
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