By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
If money is no object, and it never is if Dan Snyder is the owner signing the check, then why not hold on to Gregg Williams? What he didn't accomplish in Buffalo as a head coach is of no concern to the Redskins, nor is what kind of head coach he might be in the future. Snyder's past spending sprees tell us he has little if any concern about what paying an assistant coach $2.5 million or so per season will do to the salary structure around the NFL. No doubt, the more conservative owners will roll their eyes -- a couple may even say something to him at a league meeting.
It appears that Joe Gibbs wants Williams nearly as much as Snyder wanted Gibbs. And the Redskins, for one more season than many thought, will retain perhaps the best defensive coach in the NFL. At $2.5 million per, Williams can easily afford to ignore the eight head coaching jobs that are available at the moment.
If you're Snyder, the money wasn't going to be an impediment to keeping Williams, not after it gnawed at you that you had Marvin Lewis on your staff, then watched him make something out of nothing in Cincinnati the last two years while you had to catch lightning in your hand when Gibbs said, stunningly, he'd come back.
If you're Gibbs, you hope you have the closest thing you can find to this generation's Richie Petitbon, not just a trusted lieutenant but one who can work with autonomy. Most folks around here presumed Snyder had the big say in the benching of LaVar Arrington early this season. More likely, Williams is simply his own man, confident in his decisions and bold enough to insist he be left alone to make them.
And if you're Gregg Williams, or at least his agent, you ought to have negotiated some kind of "out clause" if the head coaching job of your dreams becomes available, or perhaps even an unspoken dibs of sorts on the Redskins' head coaching job whenever Coach Joe leaves.
But the signing of Williams to a yearly contract that is roughly three times what Mike Tice made as head coach with the Minnesota Vikings certainly raises the question of exactly what the Redskins are buying. Are they simply doing whatever is necessary to keep Williams coaching the defense? For as much criticism as some of us leveled at Steve Spurrier about not fooling with the defense, fact is Gibbs will tell you in a second, "You'd have to ask Gregg Williams about that." Gibbs knows everything, but it doesn't mean he has to handle everything every day. Perhaps in order to be at his best now, Gibbs has to have that position filled with exactly the right man.
Thing is, the $8 million deal leads you to wonder if there is already some kind of wink-wink agreement in place for Williams to succeed Gibbs. Of course, nobody with a brain in his head is going to admit to that publicly because it would be circumvention of the NFL's hiring rules regarding head coaches, the kind of circumvention that gets you a seven-figure fine. Ask Matt Millen and the Lions about it.
Not only that, but we still don't know how Williams is going to fare in his second go-round as head coach. At Buffalo, in his first, he was 17-31.
Bill Belichick, after a more impressive yet failed first stop in Cleveland, turned out to be a coaching god in his second stop, at New England. Tony Dungy was awfully good, if not great, at Tampa Bay and Indianapolis after being a coordinator. Lewis has worked something just short of a miracle with the Bengals. However, Dave Wannstedt, after coordinating the Cowboys' Super Bowl defense, was a flop twice as a head coach. Bud Carson, the man who designed Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, struggled as a head coach. The Great Buddy Ryan of the Bears' "46" defense had his moments, but not enough of them and never even won a playoff game as a head coach. Petitbon (one-year head coaching record) wasn't within shouting distance of being that good when he followed Gibbs.
It's hit or miss. Maybe Williams has learned exactly what he needed in order to succeed the next time -- maybe not. Maybe he needs a strong personnel man and an owner who prefers to stay in the background.
Either way, the Redskins will have a premier assistant for at least one more year, maybe Joe Gibbs's third-year-is-a-charm season. Last season, Williams's first in Washington, the Redskins' defense was No. 1 in the NFC and No. 3 in the league. This season, the Redskins' defense was ninth in the NFL, which isn't the drop it seems when you consider the team had to play against the Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Chargers and, twice, the Giants. That also meant they had to try to stop Tiki Barber twice, the Chiefs when Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes were both in the lineup, record-setter Shaun Alexander, Thomas Jones and Denver's stable of backs.
The Redskins are a serious threat because the offense and special teams have come along. But the Redskins are in the playoffs because the defense gave the team an identity. And as good as the other assistants are, Williams is the face of that defense the way coordinators usually are.
There are assistants who never aspire to be a head coach, but Williams isn't one of them. He has talked openly this season of his desire to be a head coach again one day. But everything in his conversation suggests he likes living here, that he likes working with the players available to him, and that more than anything he loves coaching for Gibbs. In today's NFL, you hold on to an assistant like that if you can for today and leave tomorrow for goodbyes.