By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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?
"Gregg can be stubborn," said an NFL assistant who asked not to be identified because he considers Williams a friend and admires his coaching. "He believes he's the one who will make guys do things they haven't done before. He will say, 'Adam Archuleta might not be able to play in pass coverage, but he will for me,' or, 'LaVar Arrington can't do these things, but he will do them for me.' "
One of Williams's great strengths has been his ability to take the base "46" defense of his first NFL mentor, Buddy Ryan, and adapt it to whatever situation arises. For instance, when he was the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator in 1999, the season they went to the Super Bowl, his teams used lots of man-to-man coverage on pass plays. The next year, with a defense less suited to such coverages, he used almost no man-to-man. The Titans wound up with the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL that season.
Three years ago, when he joined the Redskins, he was able to take a pieced-together secondary, maximize a gem in undrafted linebacker Antonio Pierce and put together one of the best defenses in the NFL. "I'll give Williams his credit. A lot of us were surprised by what he got out of them, but there is not a lot of talent there," said one general manager who did not want to be quoted by name because he was speaking about another team. "They kind of did it with smoke and mirrors."
But Pierce became a free agent two years ago and left for the New York Giants in part, some around the team believe, because Williams thought he was expendable. One coach with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution said he doesn't believe Williams told Redskins owner Daniel Snyder that Pierce was irreplaceable. Had he done so, the coach said, Snyder probably would have matched the Giants' offer.
"That one's on Gregg. He got what he wanted," the coach said.
Williams maintains that he stays out of his players' financial affairs. He says he wants to know nothing about contracts and goes out of his way to not pay attention to the numbers. He thinks if he knows much about the contracts, his judgment as a coach might be affected. His job is to teach, he says, not worry about salaries.
Still, the coach said that Williams did not mind letting Arrington, a linebacker, leave via free agency along with cornerback Walt Harris and safeties Ryan Clark and Omar Stoutmire. The loss of Harris and Clark especially became problematic when Shawn Springs, the team's only true cover cornerback, was injured and couldn't play the season's first five weeks, leaving the team to use players such as Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph.
The moves failed miserably. Harris, now in San Francisco, tied for third in the league in interceptions this year with eight. Wright had one interception, while Rumph played in seven games and was released last week. Gone, too, was the buffer Clark provided for the moody but gifted safety Sean Taylor, who has not responded well to his friend's departure. At one point during the season, several Redskins players called Clark, now in Pittsburgh, to see if he had any advice on how to reach Taylor.
Worse were the players Williams wanted in free agency: Archuleta and defensive end Andre Carter. Both were big-name players whose shortcomings had become more pronounced in recent seasons.
Archuleta was so bad a fit he was yanked from the starting squad in the middle of drills one day in November. Troy Vincent trotted out to replace him and Archuleta barely saw the field in ensuing weeks. And nobody has ever told him why, he said.
Williams said he had as much say as the rest of the people in the organization over which players the Redskins signed, meaning when a transaction happened it was because everybody agreed it was the right thing to do, not just him. But the perception among many personnel people in the NFL is that Williams was allowed to pick his defensive players and then implored Gibbs to force Vinny Cerrato, the team's vice president of football operations, to get those players.
Either way, there was a sense in the locker room as this season started the Redskins no longer had the players on defense to keep up. "I think we need to upgrade the talent -- a lot," Springs said.The Other Side of the Ball
When the Redskins hired Al Saunders to run their offense last winter, one NFL assistant said Williams was troubled by the move, not from any dislike for Saunders but because he worried that Saunders's frenetic offense, which often produced touchdowns quickly, would put pressure on Williams's defense. With the pace of the game accelerated, the defense would naturally give up more yards and points and its ranking would suffer.
"I can't do this," the assistant said Williams told him. The assistant asked that he not be identified by name because he considers both men to be friends.
When asked about this, Williams said he has a high regard for Saunders going back to Super Bowl XXXIV, when Saunders's Rams beat Williams's Titans. In fact, Williams is convinced he's the reason Saunders is with the Redskins, having gone through his file on the coach while he himself was on several lists for head coaching openings last January. He decided if he were to be offered a job, Saunders would be his first choice for offensive coordinator, a fact he said he mentioned to Gibbs one day.
A few days later, Gibbs walked into Williams's office and said he had hired Saunders, shocking Williams, who never knew the Redskins were courting him.
"I hired him because of what you told me about him," Williams remembered Gibbs telling him.
Williams smiled. "He's here because of me bragging on him to Coach" Gibbs, he said.
Either way, to outsiders, Saunders's offense has in fact affected the Redskins' defense -- a lot. Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells mentioned as much in a New York Times magazine article in the fall. While watching game tape of the Redskins, he noted how little regard Saunders seemed to have for his defensive coordinator. The NFL assistant who said Williams fretted about the hiring has watched the Redskins this season specifically to see how Williams would deal with the faster pace of the offense. He agreed with Parcells's assessment, adding that it was the biggest reason for Washington's defensive collapse.
The same league assistant who spoke of Williams's stubbornness has broken down the Redskins' game tapes and said defensive players weren't getting time to rest because Saunders's offense was not putting together sustained drives, as it did in 2005. Either Washington scored fast or the complex system stalled, pushing the offense off the field after three plays. Neither was conducive to defensive dominance, the assistant said.
"Scoring points in this league is great," the assistant said. "But sometimes you can score too quickly."
Williams did not want to discuss the subject, saying he would never criticize another coach publicly. "We have a responsibility to play our defense," he said.
He said he has other beliefs as to why the Redskins' defense didn't work this year. Twice in a 1 1/2 -hour talk, he pointed out that the other teams in the NFC East made big offseason acquisitions that helped their teams become more explosive. And because his team has to face those defenses twice a year, the challenge was greater. The statistics support this, as Philadelphia and Dallas are among the top five offenses in the NFL.
In fact, seven of Washington's games this year were against the top six offensive teams in the NFL.
"The trend is more offensive production in the league," Williams said.'They Wanted Me to Be Hard'
Not long after he was named the head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2001, Williams was told what his mandate would be: The team's administration wanted a disciplinarian who would be tough on players. He already had a reputation for being a taskmaster with the Titans, but in the new job he was supposed to be extra brutal. "They wanted me to be hard," he recalled.
Williams took to the challenge with gusto. He barked out orders, swore profusely, laid out a list of rules and had everyone awakened at training camp to the blasts of a bullhorn. He made everyone run laps when somebody made a mistake. He snapped that star linebacker Sam Cowart should move from the outside to the inside without complaint because that's what he -- the coach -- wanted him to do. All of it was designed to make him the tough guy.
"Gregg did everything that was asked of him. He was a team player," said Tom Donahoe, who was the Bills' president at the time and hired Williams.
On the field, Williams managed to take a 3-13 team his first year to within a win of the playoffs the next season when it finished 8-8. But he also gained a reputation as being arrogant and removed. "He was not like that in Tennessee," said a league general manager who requested anonymity because he and Williams have friends in common. "A lot of people said he changed in Buffalo. He thought he was all that."
But things also happened in Buffalo, things that happen to a lot of head coaches but nonetheless seem to rattle Williams to this day. Like the time right after he finally moved his family from Nashville a few months after taking the job. They had been in their home for two days when neighbors invited them to a party. Thinking it was the right thing to do, they went. Almost instantly, he recalled, he was besieged by fans who kept him pinned in a corner, burying the new coach of the Bills with questions. To demonstrate this, he got up from his desk at Redskins Park and thrust himself in the corner of his office between the refrigerator and a bookshelf.
In his hand, he said, he held a can of beer from which he insisted he took no more than about two sips. He stayed for close to three hours, never leaving the corner. Nonetheless, two days later on sports radio, he said, it was reported that he was drunk, embarrassed himself, got into a fight with his wife and fell into a nearby pond.
It is clear the wound has not healed, even after nearly six years. He had been open, tried to show himself to people and felt burned by the experience. In a way, he went into a public shell and remained there until he was fired after the 2003 season.
"I'm not [exaggerating] on this story," he said. "If you talk about an edge to me or an arrogance to me, well, I do get my feelings hurt and I do have a sensitive side to me that I protect with an edge.
"Now that's on the air."
His face clouded and he leaned forward in his chair. "That story and the ESPN story had a lot of similarities," he said. "And yet I don't know, I don't know the truth of what is said [in the ESPN piece]. I know there is a motive. I know there's an agenda."
Then he snapped back in his chair with a stoic jerk of his head.
"I give it no credence," he said.'That Underdog Approach'
The irony about Williams's perceived arrogance is that many players actually love his posture. There is something in his bravado that touches the insecurities they have about their own careers. At any moment, an offensive tackle could roll over on a defensive player's leg, ending football forever. Players often view themselves as mercenaries, throwing their bodies carelessly across the field in a blind pursuit of winning until something either breaks or their damaged joints won't allow them to leap anymore.
Williams's hollering inspires them. If he walks into a meeting room, freshly pressed, with neat creases in his shirt and pants and promises them that he has a game plan that is guaranteed to bamboozle Sunday's opponent, they're all for it.
"I like that underdog approach," Springs said. "Gregg is a little 'we're going to get after them' in his approach. I like that."
"Gregg Williams is a very tough, very verbal coach. When I was there, I respected him a lot," said Pierce, now with the Giants. "He may be killing his players in practice, but he was the first guy patting you on the back after you've made a big play."
When asked why some players might seem to be turned off by Williams's approach, Bengals defensive tackle Sam Adams -- who played for Williams in Buffalo -- scoffed.
"Probably because they're soft," he said. "He's an aggressive, hard-charger. He's going to dog you as he sees fit. Some cats can't handle that."
Or as Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy, who also played for Williams with the Bills, said: "Guys don't need him to bring a pacifier to the game. This is a man's league."
Hearing these comments seemed to please Williams. He said that Ryan, his mentor, taught him to always be aggressive, to coach with a sneer. "You know what? They're going to look at your attitude and if you don't have an attitude, they won't have an attitude," he remembered Ryan telling him.
He said his friendship with Pierce is so close he's surprised no one has accused him of tampering because they speak on the phone so often. "Over half the teams around the league have players who have called me about getting back with us and miss the opportunity to be coached the way we coach," Williams said at another point.
He does not like to talk about jobs other than the one he has, and repeatedly professes his desire to keep working for Gibbs. Asked about why things didn't work in Buffalo, where Williams was fired after going 6-10 in his third season, the man who hired and fired him, Donahoe, said there were mitigating circumstances, namely more than $20 million in unusable salary cap space because of dead contracts that were still being paid out.
"He gets a mulligan for Buffalo," Donahoe said.
Last winter, with several head coaching jobs open around the league, Donahoe said he received five calls from teams that had Williams among their top two or three candidates. Donahoe figured a few more might phone again this winter. This season's Redskins defense won't change that, he said. Several other general managers agreed.
"One year can't make a difference," said Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson, who thinks Williams will be a head coach again. "Sometimes it's all image."
In his office, Williams looked at a notepad on which he had neatly jotted down ideas for this interview. He shook his head.
"How about this?" he asked. "What was perceived as discipline, intensity, pettiness, structure, attitude." He spit these words out. "All of a sudden, now that's the reason why our rankings are bad. You can't go from being right to wrong. You can't. You don't go from being a good coach to not knowing anything. So that's just part of the business. I understand that. I totally understand that."
And he sat there with the blinds pulled down, another evening growing late in the season when everything went wrong. The coach accustomed to having everything figured out had no answers.
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.