By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005
There are few boundaries when Gregg Williams and his defensive players banter, as the self-avowed coaching taskmaster revels in the give-and-take with his charges at meetings and practices. So when the opportunity arises to get in a dig at Williams's expense, the chatter often turns to his uncertain future, with the players lobbing a few shots about him being on his way to a job as a head coach somewhere else next season.
The topic is hardly taboo, and while Williams has tried to eliminate any potential distractions as the Redskins head into the regular season finale Sunday at Philadelphia with the playoffs well within reach, there is little doubt in NFL circles that Washington's assistant head coach-defense will be a popular candidate in what could be a coaching overhaul around the league. It's not a subject he actively seeks to engage in, but not something he hides from either, admitting there are several potential openings he would find "intriguing."
Several players said they would be surprised if Williams, 47, is back with the team next season -- although some expressed similar sentiments last December as well -- and after two seasons leading the Redskins' overachieving defense, the opportunity to be a head coach again might become too powerful to resist.
"He is going to be in demand, but we hope that he stays here," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Of course, the decision is really up to him, but we think he likes it here, and likes the guys he's coaching and likes the city. Hopefully, he'll stay. I hope he does.
"We get on him about it all the time. I haven't said anything to him, but the guys give him a hard time. We kind of have an open mic almost in the defensive meetings. We go off on each other, and it's fun."
Williams, who was 17-31 as Buffalo's head coach from 2001 to 2003, would disagree with none of that. His appreciation and admiration for his players -- largely a cast of previously discarded or overlooked individuals -- is evident. His faith in and respect for the rest of the coaching staff is unmistakable as well -- he ensures they get accolades for their work and he deflects attention to the collective in most every news conference. Williams has said time and again how fortunate he feels to have been Coach Joe Gibbs's first hire upon his return to coaching -- he chose the Redskins from among eight suitors -- and how indebted he is to this organization, which made him one of the highest-paid assistants ever.
All of that would make it difficult to walk away, but Gibbs acknowledged such a progression is natural.
"When you have somebody as good as Gregg is at what he does, with all the responsibility he has here, and what he's done with it, it shows this guy is an exceptional football coach," Gibbs said. "So you've got to realize that in what we do, people have individual goals, too. So on one side you want what's best for him, but on the other you want what's best for the Redskins. I think we're just going to have to see what happens."'This Isn't Just About Me'
Williams, whose defense led the NFC last year and entered last week ranked eighth in the NFL, is a remarkably driven person, and an admitted competitive junkie. A year ago, the head-coaching market was relatively stable and Williams was correspondingly low-key. With the market expected to open up, Williams is a little less rigid, an implicit acknowledgement that something akin to a dream job might be out there.
"Even if I didn't know him like I do, I would say he wanted a second chance," said Joe Bowden, the Redskins' defensive coaching intern, who previously played linebacker for Williams. "If and when that time comes, he'll address everybody. One thing about him, he's not going to keep a secret too long. Right now, he hasn't said anything. He's just focused on the job at hand, and until all that other stuff takes place and everything plays out, then he'll be here taking care of his business."
Williams has stressed his satisfaction with everyone from owner Daniel Snyder on down and stipulated that there is no need to leave now, and that openings will occur every offseason. He has continually uttered this mantra: "I can say no. I have said no, and I can say no," and speaks of twice turning down job interviews last year without investigating them.
Williams has also made a point of stating that his family is his top priority. "This isn't just about me, there are other people involved," he said. "And they come first." Williams's family is settled in this area, with one daughter starring in high school athletics (his son plays football at Princeton). But Williams also pointed out that under certain circumstances the best thing for him and his family could be a return to head coaching.
He has strong ties to Missouri -- where jobs in St. Louis, currently under an interim coach, and Kansas City could be available -- as well as Houston, where his coaching career began, where his children were born, and where Coach Dom Capers is all but ensured of being fired. Williams could be comfortable living in any of those areas he is already familiar with. Like the Rams, the Chiefs have a talented offense but need defensive help, and both organizations have been playoff regulars.
Those who know Williams well say he views all three franchises favorably and believes they are dedicated to winning; league sources said Houston and St. Louis already view him as a quality candidate, while Kansas City waits to learn whether Coach Dick Vermeil will retire. "When I looked at the film after the [Dec. 18] Dallas game, I said to myself, 'He's gone,' " cornerback Shawn Springs said. "That's not to say I wanted him to leave, but when you look at a team like St. Louis, don't you think they could use him? Don't you think they're thinking how much he could help them? Look at their offense, and look at what he could do with their defense. A team like that would love to have him. They'd be crazy not to."
Williams is a former high school star quarterback and prep coach in Excelsior Springs, Mo., 30 minutes from Kansas City, played at Northwest Missouri State and speaks glowingly of those times. Williams also has an affinity for Houston, beginning his college coaching career there and his NFL career as well. His wife, Leigh Ann, was an operations manager for a gas processing company there and the prospect of returning that city's football fans to glory would be special for him as well.
The proposition of going home -- or close to it -- is not lost on Williams, and when asked if particular jobs would "tug at his heartstrings," he nodded and said: "Sure, that's true. There are definitely certain things that would be intriguing, but it's got to be the right situation."Looking for the Right Fit
The chances of such a perfect combination of location, organization, personnel and autonomy appear greater than ever, and a team source said at least five organizations have attempted to gauge Williams's interest. At least one club hired a firm to conduct research on its behalf, league sources said, contacting former coaches and players under Williams.
"I don't think there's any doubt he'll get interviews," said one AFC team executive who declined to comment at least in part because of his club's potential coaching search. "He's clearly a good defensive coordinator, very organized and a hard worker and very demanding of the players -- he's taken on [Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar] Arrington head on there, so there's no questions about that.
"I think the issues in Buffalo were staff. He hired some of his friends and from what we have gathered he did not have a good staff there. How much of that was him? How much was salary constraints? How much of it was [Buffalo General Manager] Tom Donahoe? He'll have to answer all those questions in interviews. The interesting thing we heard is that he was a tyrant up there on the field, and at the end ended up being too nice. But Donahoe really didn't support him, either, and interfered all the time, so it was a tough situation for him as we see it."
Several team executives contacted said they expect Detroit and Oakland to be looking for new coaches as well, although front-office issues and other considerations would likely make them less appealing to Williams, who realizes he can be picky. Minnesota, New Orleans, Buffalo and Baltimore could need a head coach as well, but those opportunities would lack the intangibles St. Louis, Kansas City or Houston would provide.
Williams said that in any potential job, he will follow his father's advice and look at three factors: "Where am I going, what am I doing and who is it with?" And, Williams said, that third question is most important now, looking for strong ownership and management and an organization willing to spend for assistants and other staff. "I'm not willing to budge on that," he said.
Williams has thought about likely sticking with one side of the ball -- defense -- should he become a head coach again, and has kept detailed scouting reports on a myriad of pro and college coaches since 1992 in a personal database, updating it at the Senior Bowl each year in order to have the ability to put together a staff on short notice. But even then, Williams was adamant that he is very capable of turning down a job, and will solicit regular input from Snyder and Gibbs before doing anything.
"Dan Snyder and Joe Gibbs will definitely be a part of this process," Williams said.Redskins' Contingencies
If Williams does leave, Greg Blache, the defensive coordinator, would be the most likely successor, and the Redskins could block Williams from taking any other assistants under contract with him should he leave.
Blache is also a disciplinarian who espouses the same hyper-aggressive philosophies as Williams. Neither is averse to getting in a player's face if need be, and, like linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, Blache has run an NFL defense before. Unlike in years past, when upheaval marred Washington's maturity as a franchise under constant firings -- leaving the Redskins with six defensive coordinators between 1999 and 2004 -- there is a blueprint in place, an identity all believe in.
Losing Williams would surely be a blow -- and if he stays he would certainly be next in line when Gibbs retires -- but his departure would be cushioned by the experience of the entire defensive staff.
"Gregg has surrounded himself with credible people in Blache and Dale, and the list goes on," defensive tackle Joe Salave'a said. "And that's their forte, too, physical football, and I think we'll be in good hands whatever the situation may be. For Gregg, that's on him, but I think either way, with the nucleus that Joe Gibbs has reestablished here, he wants to have some sort of normalcy that hadn't been around here for the last couple of years, and I think we'll have that either way."
Staff Writer Howard Bryant contributed to this report.