By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
On a personal level, when Redskins Park is in the rearview mirror and he allows his gruff coaching exterior to relax, Gregg Williams had to be stung when an anonymous player ripped his coaching style and defensive strategies in a story on ESPN.com last weekend.
But if Williams, who is paid more than some head coaches, has been bothered by the player's comments, he isn't letting it show. A fierce and demanding presence who is not inclined to reveal any weakness or much public emotion beyond his exhortations from the sideline on game day, he saves introspection for home, for quiet moments with family or halftime chats during his daughter's high school basketball games, those close to him say.
It obviously helped that his players delivered their best performance of the season Sunday, shutting down the Carolina Panthers using the same coaching tactics that were criticized in the article. And he has little time to dwell on anything other than preparing for quarterback Michael Vick, with Washington's slim playoff hopes on the line.
Still, sources close to Williams say he was hurt by accusations that his team had quit on him. With the Redskins (4-7) facing a big game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Williams was not in an expansive mood yesterday during his weekly session with the media.
"I'm not talking about that article," Williams said.
The unidentified player questioned Williams's tactics, techniques and personality, but the coach has changed nothing about his approach this week, players and coaches said. Williams has maintained that while he has failed to call the right play on occasion and hasn't made the best adjustments in the second half of games, the success of his defense depends on execution during games. Before Sunday, the Redskins, who have the highest payroll in the NFL, routinely dropped possible interceptions, missed open-field tackles and committed costly penalties.
Williams says that when players follow the system, make tackles, hold onto potential interceptions and play with passion -- as they did in the 17-13 victory over Carolina -- they will win more often than they lose.
"It's nice to be able to get a W after how hard you work," Williams said.
Nor did Williams address the matter with his defense, team sources said. The defensive players discussed the ESPN story at a players-only meeting, team sources said, agreeing to put it behind them, and did not anticipate any changes. Some said that to do so would invite failure ("Gregg is who he is," one veteran said, "and he's had a lot of success doing what he does.").
"He hasn't changed and he shouldn't change," veteran defensive back Troy Vincent said.
The unidentified player was also critical of Williams for allegedly allowing safeties and cornerbacks to meet separately for the first time this season. But the coach said assertions that his meeting routines are "unprecedented" are "incorrect."
"I've been doing this for a long time and we're meeting the same way we've been meeting for a long time," Williams said. "They're two different positions and I've been doing those for a long time on a lot of different staffs and Buddy Ryan's staffs. You do that. Everybody looks for time to get their position coach, and then there's combination times when the entire defense meets."
Williams has been an NFL coach for 17 years and has been a defensive coordinator or head coach every year since 1997. He is a proud disciple of Ryan, a defensive mastermind who was not above slapping a player or fellow coach around, and preaches old-school football with a profane edge in an era of multimillionaire players. But he also asks players about their family lives, offers encouragement and remembers birthdays, team sources said.
While his approach can grate on players and wear thin, Williams has succeeded, going to the Super Bowl with Tennessee in 2000, with the Titans leading the NFL in total defense. In 2003, as head coach in Buffalo (where he went 17-31, with players souring on him at the end) the Bills ranked second in defense. In his first season leading the defense in Washington, 2004, the Redskins ranked third. They were ninth last season before dropping as low as 30th much of this season.
Some players have clashed with coaches this season -- the relationship between free agent bust Adam Archuleta and coaches appears beyond repair, team sources said -- and more than one player has vented privately about the coaching staff's verbal lashings as the on-field miscues mounted.
But everyone at Redskins Park also realizes Williams was given a mandate. Coach Joe Gibbs concedes essentially all authority over the defense to Williams. He has been integral to key personnel decisions on that side of the ball, earns a salary around $2.5 million a season, and will receive $1 million if he is not named Gibbs's eventual successor. All of the coaches received three-year contract extensions after the 2005 season as well, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Williams will have an immediate opportunity for more vindication Sunday. The Falcons (5-6) are at a crossroads, too, dropping to the fringe of the playoff picture after four straight losses, and with a leader who has been engulfed in controversy since making an obscene gesture to fans after a loss Sunday.
Vick is the least predictable player in the NFL, capable of making moves on the run with an improvisational flair no one can match or stop. His passing is suffering -- Vick is completing just 51 percent of his passes and the Falcons' passing game ranks 31st overall -- but Vick rushed for 166 yards or just 12 carries last week and is capable of winning games solely with his running ability. Last week Williams made containing Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith the focal point of his game plan, and he has done much the same with Vick this week, players said. The Redskins aim to prevent Vick from goading them into undisciplined reactions; they must follow their assignments and do what they can to prevent Vick from getting outside the tackles, where he can scramble for huge gains.
"If he gets outside, he can hurt you in a lot of ways, and he hurt New Orleans last week doing just that," end Phillip Daniels said. "We've just got to go out and play our game, contain him, keep him in the pocket and hopefully good things happen. You're not going to keep him in there all day long, but if you can contain him for the most part you'll probably have a good game against him."
Staff writer Howard Bryant contributed to this story.