THE LOST SEASON | A Drop in Performance
Coordinator Assumes Old Defensive Crouch
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
As a young man growing up in the Kansas City suburb of Excelsior Springs, Mo., he was always the most important athlete -- the quarterback, the pitcher, the point guard. This mattered to Gregg Williams because each role came with prestige, a trust in his leadership that was implicit even if those outside the game never understood the subtleties of his charge.
And yet these were the ones he worried about, the ones who saw him hanging around the locker room every day, sized him up in his cleats and dismissed him with the phrase he hated most.
The Washington Redskins' assistant head coach for defense, the man who holds the option of being the next head coach when Joe Gibbs leaves, carries the scar left from those two words. He refers to it as "a chip on my shoulder." He says this one night last week as he sits in his corner office at Redskins Park with the blinds pulled down, surrounded by tidy shelves of binders and notebooks. His desktop is impeccable, scrubbed gleaming clean with prim piles of books and papers. If a machine playing game tapes didn't sit on a shelf behind him, you might think he doesn't even use this desk.
But Williams is organized. He keeps background on every assistant coach in the league, tucking the information into blue folders that hang without moving in his desk drawer. He keeps these, he says, in case he "ever gets stupid" and wants to be a head coach again in the NFL, as he was for three seasons in Buffalo. Not that he does. No way, not now, he says in his clipped western Missouri accent, in which words such as "you" come out as "ya." He is here for Gibbs because he wants to be around Gibbs, because he sees Gibbs as the best person at pulling men together that he has ever known. He wants to learn from this.
He has a goal: to learn something from every practice he ever coaches. He signs his signature large and neat because he once saw Jim Kelly, the Bills quarterback, do the same thing and asked why. Kelly told him, "If you can't read the name, does that mean the person isn't proud of who they are?"
Williams is proud of who he is, of the defenses he has made, of the awards he has won that he chooses not to display in his office -- a fact he makes a point of noting. He talks confidently about the speaking engagements he does all over the country, talking about leadership, authority, teamwork -- basically anything the organizers request.
He doesn't want any of this publicly known because he knows it will probably be misconstrued and add to a growing legacy of a coach too smug, too elitist, who thinks he is three steps ahead of everybody else. But he eventually relents because he isn't some rock-headed lug from Excelsior Springs. He doesn't have to be a football coach, you know. And in some way he wants people to understand that, too.
Maybe it wouldn't have been an issue had the Redskins defense he maneuvered, twisted and cajoled into the No. 3 overall ranking in 2004 and No. 9 last year not tumbled to 31st this season -- signaling an alarming trend for a man known for his defensive genius: As the team has added players he's chosen, its performance has deteriorated. Another time, this season might have been written off as simply bad luck, a shrug at injuries at key positions or an admission that the Cover-2 defense he and others have used successfully in recent seasons might be cycling into ineffectiveness.
But a story appeared on ESPN.com in November quoting an anonymous player, believed by many in the Redskins organization to be safety Adam Archuleta -- a player Williams desired in free agency -- attacking Williams for being arrogant and accusing him of destroying a good defense to satisfy his own ego. Essentially it said the kid from Excelsior Springs who never wanted to be the dumb jock had become too smart for his own good.
How Much Blame?
The story was widely read around the league. Williams said he was flooded with text messages from players so vehement in their support that he joked they were putting together "hit squads and assassination squads."
The piece seemed to wound him. More importantly, it led many in the NFL to wonder: How much of this Redskins season might actually be his fault?