Gregg Williams’ special way of connecting with players may lead to his downfall
He always appeared to be a football rogue – brash and sneering, and outthinking everyone while at the same time spoiling for a fight. This turned Gregg Williams into one of the most sought-after defensive coordinators in the NFL – beloved by his players even as he tussled with the men for whom he worked.
And it forever made the man who ran the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program one of the most compelling men in football: a coach who could design magnificent defenses while at the same time touching the carnal desire to hit and hurt that lurks inside each defensive player’s soul.
[ Jason Cole: Price for Saints’ bounty program should be steep ]
It is hard for many in the NFL to defend Williams today. No one can endorse the operation of a slush fund that paid out bounties for injuries to key opposing players as he has admitted to doing in New Orleans and is alleged to have done with Washington. But to grasp how it could happen, one has to understand the culture in which he coached, the combativeness with which his teams played and the way his players responded to his demands to be relentless and even dangerous.
Or as Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said when asked a few months after Williams’ 2009 arrival what the new defensive coordinator had brought to the team: “Attitude. Attitude. Attitude.”
It should surprise few in the NFL that Williams ran such a program. He was always talking about running a defense that would knock players out of games. Many of his players have been accused of playing “dirty,” a moniker they wore with pride. When Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was asked in December what he thought of allegations his defense levied illegal hits, he laughed and replied: “I’d rather be known as a [dirty defense] than a finesse defense.”
But few coaches in the NFL have touched their players the way Williams did in Tennessee, Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans where he was defensive coordinator. He created a pack mentality, bonding defenses in the united purpose of hunting down sacks, interceptions and yes, big hits. And generally his players loved this, enduring his verbal attacks and snide comments because he gave them the reward of playing with a relentlessness that other coaches didn’t offer.
“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,” former Redskin Matt Bowen wrote in a piece for the Chicago Tribune describing the way he felt about Williams. “I don’t regret any part of it. I can’t. Williams is the best coach I ever played for in my years in the NFL, a true teacher who developed me as a player. I believed in him. I still do. That will never change.”
To understand Williams, to see the contradictions in a brilliant coordinator who ran a pay-for-hit program, you need to understand the phrase that has haunted him since he was a little boy:
He has been running from those words for decades, disdainful of everything they imply. He wasn’t the best athlete growing up in the western Missouri town of Excelsior Springs but he always made sure to play the most important positions: quarterback, pitcher, point guard. He wanted the roles that had responsibility. He wanted to be in charge. He wanted people to look up to him. He wanted respect.
Nothing he hated more than being labeled a “dumb jock.” Even as a professional assistant, revered for his clever defenses as armies of players professed their devotion, the phrase burned at him. Dumb jock? He was much more than that. How could they distill him to a single, empty cliché?
[ Doug Farrar: Gregg Williams’ bounty history should result in lifetime ban ]
He has called his lingering resentment over the stereotype “a chip on my shoulder.” And it is why he has stomped around the headquarters of the teams that employed him with an air that many interpret as arrogance. His offices are always meticulous, notes ordered in tidy rows ready to be pulled off when necessary. His desk is immaculate, devoid of clutter. On days of important meetings he will rise extra early, long before the sun creeps over the horizon, to make detailed lists on his pristine desktop.
When he signs his name, he does so clearly because Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly once told him: “If you can’t read the name, does that mean the person isn’t proud of who they are?”
He is well aware of his image. He knows people think him too smug for his own good. As a result, he won’t display the awards he has won in his office. But he can’t help worrying that someone might think he’s just another beer-swilling, empty-headed coach, shouting platitudes to each new head coach in an effort to keep cashing NFL paychecks.
However, Williams is in fact a defensive genius. Those around the Titans say he had a great deal to do with the team’s success in the late 1990s, including the Super Bowl season of 1999. He is known for taking a base 4-6 defense and adapting it to any situation, going from almost exclusive man-to-man pass coverages in one season to none the following year depending on his players. Often the adjustments came weekly.
This is why the Buffalo Bills made him their head coach for three tumultuous seasons, why the Redskins paid him handsomely to become their defensive coordinator and why Saints coach Sean Payton fired Gary Gibbs and then took $250,000 a year from his paycheck to generate enough money to lure Williams to New Orleans.
Neither Payton nor Redskins coach Joe Gibbs seemed particularly fond of Williams. Payton rarely allowed Williams to speak to reporters, especially after Williams boasted on a Nashville radio station that his players were going to deliver “remember-me shots” in Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts. Gibbs was annoyed when Williams didn’t notify him of plans to start the first game after the death of safety Sean Taylor with only 10 defensive players – a tribute to the fallen safety. Williams insists he did notify Gibbs, but their relationship was clearly strained.
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Yet the results always justified the friction. And most defensive players whom Williams has coached adore him. Hardly wanting to be seen as the dumb jock, he instead portrays himself as a kind of smart gangster, a swashbuckling renegade who runs his a defensive unit separate from the rest of the team and without regard for basic rules. Most of his players love this. He comes at them with language so profane you would expect them to despise him. But he delivers his assaults with such a sneering edge, backed with such enthusiasm when they do something right, that his demeanor often endears him to them, making him the rare coach, three decades their senior, who can actually relate to them.
“Gregg Williams is a very tough, very verbal coach,” Antonio Pierce, a former linebacker of his with the Redskins once said. “When I was there I respected him a lot. He may be killing his players in practice but he was the first guy patting you on the back after [you] made a tough play.”
But there was no player Williams loved more than Taylor, who died after being shot in his home during the 2007 season. The safety was the essence of everything Williams cherished in a football player: honest, aggressive, relentless and reckless.
Much like Williams, Taylor was a loner among his peers and misunderstood by outsiders. His viciousness on the field and glaring refusal to trust people off it masked a tenderness that only a handful of people ever saw. Williams understood Taylor’s mistrust, seeing it as a sign of character, and he encouraged Taylor to play with a near-intent to hurt because he knew that was when Taylor felt most free on the field.
And when Taylor died Williams wept for days. He designed the missing-man formation for the first game after Taylor’s death as a way to help the defensive players heal. Among the people devastated by the shooting, Williams was the one who brought them together, whose raw emotions allowed them to cry, too, and may have generated an impossible run to the playoffs and a near-victory in their wild-card playoff game at Seattle.
Years later Williams’ voice still cracked when Taylor’s name came up. And when games got tight and Williams felt anxious, he’d reach into his pocket and finger a coin with Taylor’s face on front as a sort of talisman to get him through the moment.
Now he might need that coin more than ever. His career is in jeopardy. He is in St. Louis as a defensive coordinator for Jeff Fisher, the coach who believed in him first as a coordinator and let him lead the Tennessee defense. The NFL is certain to punish him, perhaps with a lengthy suspension. The league is far more concerned with player safety now than even when Williams first arrived in New Orleans and helped deliver a Super Bowl title.
Calls to his cell phone were immediately routed to voice mail on Saturday, a signal that it had been turned off. He apologized in a brief statement that was released on Friday. Otherwise he has been silent.
The coach who touched his players like few ever did has gone silent now, a victim of the very thing that made him beloved.
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