By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006
Greg Blache's neck bulged and his temper boiled as he screamed at defensive tackle Joe Salave'a from the sidelines Sunday evening. Salave'a was pursuing Philadelphia offensive lineman Jon Runyan, who had felled him with a dangerous block, and barking at the officials. But with the Redskins trailing 20-17 in a game they needed to win to clinch a playoff berth, the grizzled defensive coach was in no mood to sympathize with his player.
Salave'a was nearing a personal foul, if not an ejection, and Runyan's unnecessary roughness penalty had already negated an Eagles first down and forced a second and 20 from the 15. Blache sensed the gravity of the situation, and by the time he got the 6-foot-3, 295 pound tackle's attention, the problem was diffused.
Salave'a headed meekly to his coach's side, two plays later Lemar Marshall intercepted a pass, and one play after that tailback Clinton Portis scored the game-winning touchdown in a 31-20 win to clinch Washington's first postseason appearance since 1999. The scene was but one of many that symbolize the respect and authority the Redskins' defensive coordinator/defensive line coach commands, and the intimidating presence he can impose upon the giants of the NFL.
"The moment he took his headset off, I knew it was time to calm down," Salave'a said. "Because I swore I saw a fist getting knuckled up, and I knew my place then. I'm just glad I didn't make a mistake to hurt us. I wouldn't test Greg even if you put money in front of me to egg him on. I knew my place, and that was that."
Salave'a dreaded the repercussions of a costly penalty, and, like the rest of the defensive linemen, gives the bulk of the credit for his tenacious performances to Blache, the likely successor to Gregg Williams if Williams (who signed a contract extension this week) ever left for a head coaching opportunity. Blache's occasionally caustic delivery has meshed perfectly with the blue-collar group, with veterans and younger players embracing his tough love tactics and striving to please him.
For as much as Blache, who declined to comment for this story, critiques their technique and demands their unyielding focus in practices, meetings and games, his impassioned approach to his job is infectious and his dedication to improving his players is seen as an endearing trait.
Blache adroitly juggled his personnel for much of this season, cultivating a corps of capable backups, with stalwarts like Salave'a, tackle Cornelius Griffin and end Phillip Daniels battling injuries. With his unit finally approaching full health in the last six weeks, the results have been good, with the defensive line keying a revitalized pass rush and producing turnovers as Washington heads to Tampa Bay for a first-round playoff game tomorrow.
"It goes unnoticed, but he's a genius in his own right with the way he communicates with us, the materials he gives us, and he expects a lot out of us," Salave'a said. "During the course of the past few games he has a way of pushing your buttons and letting guys know, 'Hey, come on now, it's time to go get this thing and seize the moment.' I see why guys go out and play so hard for him, because of what he means to the players, and I'm just excited to be a part of his group."
After each victory, the Redskins select a player from offense, defense and special teams to win the "Lazy Boy" award, getting to sit in a plush chair in the meeting room for his efforts, rather than a normal hard-backed seat. For the last three weeks -- with Washington beating NFC East rivals Dallas, New York and Philadelphia to reach the playoffs -- Blache has been awarded the distinction on defense. His line has 7 1/2 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a host of blocked passes in that span.
"He's earned it, and it's a big deal," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Coach Blache's guys, for some reason they just play their guts out, and I think the defensive staff and Gregg and everybody, they've kind of been honoring Coach Blache and said, 'Hey, if your guys can play like that, then you get the chair.' "
Gibbs admits he knew little about Blache when assembling his staff prior to the 2004 season, but Williams thought highly of him and at his urging owner Daniel Snyder made a considerable push to land him. Blache, who was a candidate for the Notre Dame and San Francisco head coaching vacancies last year, has coached 18 seasons in the NFL and was Chicago's defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2004. He served as a defensive line coach with Indianapolis and Green Bay for 11 seasons prior to that. His experience -- and the fact that he ran one of the league's top defenses for several seasons in Chicago -- gave him immediate cache with the players, and the consistently positive results of his teachings has created a legion of willing disciplines in Washington's locker room.
"His experience in the game kind of speaks for itself, and we learn so much from him," second-year tackle Ryan Boschetti said. "He's constantly coaching, and when he stresses something to you in the film room and then he has to stress it again to you on the field, that's one too many times he's had to say it -- and it might be two too many times.
"When daddy is disappointed, you know; he doesn't have to say anything. I just feel like he pushes you physically and mentally, because he knows that that's how it's going to be on Sunday. So if you can take what he's dishing out during the week, you'll be able to start dishing out some of your own on Sunday. That's his mind-set, and we work really hard because we know it's going to pay off."
Blache knows too well how fleeting one's playing days can be and wants his players to maximize their playing time. Blache's own football hopes were dashed when a leg injury ended his on-field career at Notre Dame. The former defensive back went on to earn a master's degree in secondary education from Notre Dame and began his coaching career as a defensive assistant there in 1968, the first of nine stops. Through those years he earned a reputation as an unflinching competitor. "For being really even [keeled], he's got a spark to him," Gibbs said. "He can definitely handle himself." Getting a healthy group of linemen back has made Blache's job easier lately, he said. His top four -- Renaldo Wynn, Griffin, Salave'a and Daniels -- have reunited the past three games and created huge plays since, with Daniels the ringleader. Daniels, who played previously for Blache in Chicago and briefed his teammates on his bare-knuckled ways after signing here in March 2004, has six sacks the last three weeks.
"Greg does a great job of getting his guys healthy and a great job of how he keeps his finger on the pulse of how many reps they take in practice and the course of the ballgame," Williams said. "He's been in playoff hunts before and knows how we have to keep them fresh and get them back healthy, and we did. And once we got them back healthy the plan was to let the big dogs hunt, and the big dogs have been hunting very well."
Against Dallas, Daniels batted a pass up that Griffin intercepted to set up Washington's first score. Against New York his timely sack for an 11-yard loss eventually forced a field goal and helped preserve an eight-point lead. And Sunday he sacked and stripped Eagles quarterback Koy Detmer, with safety Sean Taylor returning the fumble for the final touchdown. In 2004, Daniels was never himself, suffering season-ending groin and wrist injuries, and only recently has he been the force Blache envisioned.
A commitment to fitness guided Daniels's ascent. He shed eight pounds, and for the last month has been wedded to a regimen of tablets, supplements, herbs, fiber and teas. Daniels said he will not reveal the specifics of the mixtures until after the season, but he is a firm believer in its results.
"I want it to be my secret for now," Daniels said. "But I feel a lot better, so much quicker. I've just been cleansing my body and I feel more energy, healthier. The injuries I had last year early in the season, they were still there, but now they're healing at the right time, and I'm making this push."
Even with his newfound glory, Daniels is very much a lunch-pail type. All of Washington's linemen have been unwanted someplace else -- several were never drafted and released elsewhere -- and none crave individual accolades. They were assembled in Blache's image, and with everything on the line, have made him proudest.
"I think the biggest thing is there are no egos on this D-line," said end Demetric Evans, who willingly took a pounding as a tackle when injuries arose.
"We don't have that 'star' player, so no one is bickering about getting sacks, and no one is bickering about getting one-on-one rushes. It's more of a team effort, and guys are still excelling in this system, and I think that means a lot not only to us, but to the coaching staff, and it shows what Greg has done to help build that kind of chemistry."