By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005
Dale Lindsey has all the attributes expected of an old-school linebackers coach in the NFL: knees scarred by six surgeries to repair ligament and cartilage damage? Check. A militaristic streak? Check. An expletive-heavy vocabulary? Check that one twice.
A self-described curmudgeon who became an expert by playing eight years at linebacker in the NFL, Lindsey once caused a player to cry on the field. But it isn't the constant pain -- he has bone-on-bone contact in his right knee -- that makes Lindsey perpetually grouchy.
"I can't say that. I'm naturally that way," Lindsey, 62, said recently with a rare half-smile. "Some people are [jerks]. They have to work at it. I was just born that way. I'll take the label."
Lindsey's unabashedly gruff style was formed during a peripatetic, 28-year coaching career that included stops in the Canadian Football League, United States Football League and World Football League. Lindsey -- who has postponed the knee-replacement surgeries his doctor says are essential -- has been a linebackers coach in the NFL for 14 seasons, including with the Redskins in 1997 and 1998. He has such a passion for coaching that he once switched from professional football to high school despite a precipitous drop in salary.
Last season, Washington's defense finished third in the NFL and tops in the NFC. Gregg Williams has garnered most of the spotlight as Washington's assistant head coach-defense. But Williams has been helped by a well-regarded staff: Greg Blache, the de facto line coach, has received the most attention among assistants. And Williams predicts that his young assistants such as cornerbacks coach Dewayne Walker will eventually become NFL defensive coordinators.
But Lindsey has done an impressive job overseeing linebackers, which Williams considers the heart and soul of his complicated defense. By early last season, Washington's linebacker corps was without starters Mike Barrow and LaVar Arrington. But Antonio Pierce and Lemar Marshall emerged from obscurity to give the team a strong linebackers unit.
"I'd admit on the field I'm rather curmudgeonly," Lindsey, who played with the Cleveland Browns from 1965 to 1973, said with pride in his voice. "It's how I was raised in the game. It's very serious stuff to me. I don't take it half-[heartedly]. I'm not going to put up with someone that takes it half-[heartedly]."
Williams added, "He doesn't have a lot of sympathy for that position when you played nine, 10 years in the league in that Jim Brown era he played in."
Lindsey's NFL career, according to his linebackers, allows him to convey things better than coaches who never played professional football. "He understands some of the things you go through," Marcus Washington said. "Some of the same things that you see."
Lindsey starred in football, basketball and track and field at Kentucky's Bowling Green High. After a standout career at Western Kentucky, Lindsey was drafted by the Browns in the seventh round in 1965. He entered rookie camp as the fifth-string middle linebacker, but beat the odds to become a starter by his second season. Lindsey maintained that role until after the 1973 season, when he walked into the office of head coach, Nick Skorich, and said that his knees no longer could take the pounding.
Lindsey has a reputation for developing players by demanding a level of play that initially seems beyond their means. His players say that Lindsey acts as if each of them has Pro Bowl potential. And fellow assistants describe him as a perfectionist with a strong work ethic and blunt manner.
"He always gives you a brutally honest answer, emphasizing the term brutal ," said Blache, laughing. "He'd be a [natural] on 'Grumpy Old Men.' He's a good person, though. There's just nothing phony about him."
From 1999 to 2001, Lindsey was linebackers coach with the Chicago Bears under Blache. Linebacker Brian Urlacher was named defensive rookie of the year in 2000. The next season, Urlacher made the Pro Bowl as Chicago's defense set club records en route to the NFC Central title. Blache -- who has been an NFL coach for 17 years -- called Lindsey "by far" the best linebackers coach he has worked with. "He's made more out of less," Blache said, "than anybody I've ever seen."
Gibbs -- who diplomatically described Lindsey's personality as "a little gruff maybe" -- added: "If you watch his guys play, they are very, very well-schooled. It's very impressive."
Despite his cantankerous nature, Lindsey is also known for his dry sense of humor that breaks up the monotony of coaches' meetings. Lindsey's zingers, which drip with sarcasm, have little competition at Redskins Park. But Blache is quick to point out that Lindsey's also is "a very warm, caring person."
Lindsey's NFL coaching career started inauspiciously after he joined Skorich's staff in 1974. Over his first five seasons as an NFL coach, Lindsey was part of staffs dismissed fours times as their teams went a combined 17-59-1. "You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself," Lindsey said. "I tell [players], 'If you screw up, go to the next play.' Well, you're going to the next job."
The bulk of Lindsey's NFL coaching experience has been at linebackers: Tampa Bay (1991), San Diego (1992-1996), Washington (1997-98, 2004) and Chicago (1999-2001). His highest position in the NFL was as defensive coordinator for the Chargers in 2002 and 2003; after his dismissal he rejoined the Redskins.
Lindsey puts tremendous pressure on his players in practice, he said, so that the games won't be as stressful. But Lindsey admits that he can go overboard with his strident manner. After Lindsey joined Norv Turner's Redskins staff in 1997, his militaristic style became almost legendary. The Redskins held training camp in Frostburg, Md., where Lindsey excoriated a rookie linebacker so severely for mistakes that the player began crying on the field. Lindsey confirmed the story but declined to name the player, who is now a ninth-year starter on an NFC team.
"I told him, 'It's not your fault,' " Lindsey recalled. "I didn't mean to do that [cause tears]. I know when I do it. You don't have to come tell me. I know I've got a couple here right now I've been hard on. I've got to ease up a little bit on 'em."
Marcus Washington wasn't surprised when the story was relayed to him. "I can see that," Washington said, "because some guys aren't used to having a [coach] on their tail all the time with that General Patton stuff."
Lindsey's demanding nature was passed down from his father, Leo, an ironworker for 25 years before overseeing the Bowling Green sanitation department. A perfectionist, Leo Lindsey -- who died 13 years ago -- forced his two sons to clean their home every Saturday while their parents worked.
"I was raised by a father that said, 'Either you do the best you can every day or don't show up because you're wasting everybody's time,' " Dale Lindsey said. "That's exactly how I feel about the players: You come in here to collect a paycheck, you showed up for the wrong guy."