Gregg Williams, Redskins played an ugly game with bounties

Mike Wise
Columnist March 3, 2012

In a conference room at the Greenbelt Marriott, the members of the Washington Redskins defense would take part in a weekly ritual between 2004 and 2007 that went far beyond the usual game-planning for that Sunday’s opponent at FedEx Field.

Some had a queasy feeling in their stomach when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams listed prices on players’ heads — how much would be paid out from a bounty fund to take out an offensive star, especially if they knew the player or had gone to college with him.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Others, afraid for their jobs, kept their mouths shut.

But some, such as Matt Bowen, felt a euphoric rush, as if the ante of a dangerous sport had been impossibly upped, as if, in some primeval way, even more of the game’s rawness had been exposed,

“It’s an ugly tradition,” Bowen, a former safety under Williams in 2004 and 2005 in Washington said by telephone Saturday afternoon. “I’m not proud of it.

“But the NFL is a small window of opportunity. The normal rules don’t apply. People are angry about this and I can see why from the outside. But I guarantee Gregg Williams isn’t the only one who did this. He’s just taking the fall.”

Bowen wrote a revealing tell-all about the Redskins’ bounty system for the Chicago Tribune in the wake of the NFL coming down on Williams administering the same type of pay-for-pain program in New Orleans. League investigators determined thousands of dollars changed hands between Williams and Saints players for “knock-out hits,” tackles that sent a player to the sideline for good that Sunday.

In Washington they were known as “kill shots,” and though neither Phillip Daniels nor Andre Carter ended Peyton Manning’s day, someone had to earn a bonus when Manning was essentially folded in half during a game in Indianapolis in 2006. The play is almost disturbing to watch.

Carter hammers Manning from the left side while Daniels, who admitted to being part of a bounty program by telephone to The Post on Friday night, gets him high — right in Manning’s neck. Many Colts fans fear Manning’s neck was never the same after that play.

Was it clearly dirty? Neither player was fined or suspended, so that’s up for debate. But you wonder if no money had been on the line, does Manning withstand the same type of hit?

Maybe. The hit might have been the way it was because these were Williams’s players, and they wanted to please him in the worst way, because they knew he was a little crazier than most defensive coordinators, a foul-mouthed, hand grenade in a burgundy-and-gold polo shirt.

He’d go to edges no one wanted to go. And then he’d go further.

“That was part of the deal with Gregg, you pushed the envelope,” Bowen said. “He’s the best coach I ever had. I’ll still say that.”

But there was a sense among other players and assistant coaches that a Buddy Ryan disciple — Williams became the Houston Oilers’ special teams coach under the former Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator infamous for being part of a bounty game — had obliterated all gruff and coarse-language boundaries in a profession that seemed to have none.

I have spoken to eight Redskins players under Williams in two days, including two of his staunchest defenders, Daniels and Bowen, who agreed to go on the record. (Bowen said he actually wrote his detailed story after he saw Daniels’s admission. “I figured if it’s out, I’m going to be honest about it,” he said.)

All of them paint Williams as an intensely driven guy whose competitive fire drove them to be better and effective players, not necessarily hooligans in helmets.

But three of those players had major reservations about the barriers he sometimes crossed.

As one of the players said, facetiously, “Gregg could drop gay slurs like the best of ’em. Some of things that came out of his mouth didn’t need to be said.”

A message to Williams’s cellphone was not returned Saturday night.

When Greg Blache, who took Williams’s job as Redskins defensive coordinator and was the defensive line coach under Williams, was reached at his home in Wisconsin on Saturday, he politely declined comment. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Two players said Blache did not approve of the program and voiced that sentiment to several players. They added that Blache discontinued the bounty program after Williams was fired.

Some question whether Joe Gibbs knew about the program even after Gibbs told The Post he was not aware of Williams’s “bounty fund.”

I don’t believe he did. Not one of the eight players I spoke to said Gibbs knew, and just one player found it hard to believe Gibbs could not have known.

Gregg Williams operated on a different plane — a Buddy Ryan plateau, an ol’ blood-and-guts coach who liked to equate football with war, from a bygone era that has no relevance except to maim an already reeling-from-injuries game.

“No doubt, it can be downright disgusting living by a win-at-all-costs mentality,” Bowen wrote. “It’s a fundamental part of the NFL’s culture that isn’t talked about outside of team facilities.”

Now it is. And now it needs to go away.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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