MOBILE, Ala. – Coach Sean Payton's return to the New Orleans Saints was all the buzz Tuesday among the hundreds of coaches and front-office people at the Senior Bowl.
When it came to Gregg Williams, however, the buzz was killed in a matter of seconds. As talented and accomplished as Williams has been in his career prior to the bounty scandal that severely impacted New Orleans' season, there is a huge question around the NFL about how exactly he can get back in the league.
If at all.
The primary issues for Williams, suspended indefinitely by the league for his role in the bounty program, are trust and his ability to work within a staff. The trust issue relates to both how players will deal with him and how he will follow orders from a head coach.
"Fabulous coach, energetic, inventive, aggressive … but after all the stuff that happened, are your players going to worry about what they do or say in front of him?" one head coach said. "Heck, the way you hear it from the people [in New Orleans], he won't listen to superiors."
Williams has been cleared by the NFL to pursue a job, a league source confirmed Tuesday. According to a report by NFL.com, the clearance is subject to approval by commissioner Roger Goodell. However, it's considered unlikely that the league will stand in the way of Williams returning.
What's more likely to hold up the process is that Williams is considered radioactive by many coaches. In an informal survey of four head coaches, each withholding his name, all seemed uncomfortable with the idea of bringing in Williams. Longtime friend Jeff Fisher of St. Louis hired Williams as his defensive coordinator before the scandal broke last offseason. However, Williams reportedly isn't a consideration for the Rams' current opening.
That decision seemed telling to many of the other coaches because Fisher and Williams have been friends for nearly 20 years. Although none of the four coaches had talked to Fisher, all said that the immediate interpretation is that Williams would have a hard time gaining the trust of players.
Williams played a role in the NFL building a case against players in the bounty scandal, eventually admitting to pushing players to participate in the bounties and administering the program. That administration included tracking big hits that would be rewarded. Williams also was among the coaches who provided information on player behavior which eventually led to suspensions for Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, and Scott Fujita.
All of those suspensions were eventually thrown out on appeal to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Still, the mere fact that Williams was so forthcoming to the league about the behavior of the players may be too much for him to earn trust and credibility – certainly as a defensive coordinator, a position that ultimately has great control over players.
All of the coaches who talked about Williams said that getting players to buy into what he was saying would be difficult, particularly among veteran players. Moreover, Williams' image as something of a renegade – good or bad, he has long been considered a brazen man with a larger-than-life ego – has morphed in this situation into more of an outlaw.
"I've been around Gregg a lot over the years and I like him, but he has always been a guy who pushed it to the limit as much as possible," another coach said.
That makes many people fearful that Williams will be difficult to handle. Moreover, his strong attitude could be hard to control even if he were a lower-level assistant, such as a linebackers coach.
As an example, one coach pointed out the problems that former Philadelphia defensive line coach Jim Washburn had fitting in with the Eagles' staff the past two years. Washburn, who has an extremely strong personality, was eventually fired in the middle of last season by former Eagles coach Andy Reid when he could no longer get along with the rest of the staff.
So while Payton returned to the league to much fanfare on Tuesday, Williams may be stuck waiting for an opportunity.
And he may be stuck for quite some time.
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