By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
When Gregg Williams was most irate on the sideline, screaming and yelling and fuming at his safety, Sean Taylor would defuse the situation with a sly smile. Taylor would remind his coach that the play was over, there was no going back and it was time to move on. When Taylor died Tuesday morning from a fatal gunshot wound, those words were with Williams again.
With Taylor clinging to life in a Miami hospital, Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, intended to stay up all Monday night awaiting an update from Florida. He returned home from Redskins Park to help his family members cope -- they were close to Taylor, too -- and dozed off around 5 a.m. while browsing the Internet for news. A call from owner Daniel Snyder woke him.
"Then I felt a presence, and the presence I felt was, 'Coach, that play is over, get on to the next. I'm watching you,' " Williams said after practice yesterday, welling up with tears several times as he spoke of Taylor's death publicly for the first time. "I've got a job to do, get on to the next. He's watching me."
Those words and that memory helped Williams focus again on football as he prepared his defense to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday without the team's best athlete and one of its dominant personalities. He must try to devise a game plan to replace the player for whom the defense was built around. Tough as it was, he led discussions about how to use the roster spot created by Taylor's death.
Taylor's love of the game and desire to compete have provided some solace. Williams and the team know Taylor would want them to play their best game Sunday at FedEx Field and fight to make the playoffs.
"By each period that we went through in practice, things were better," Williams said. "We were kind of able to escape for a little period of time . . . getting around the things we all have a bond on and love to play the game and love to compete. And today the practice was extremely energetic and we got back in true form and, to be quite truthful, that was part of the message I had with the defense [Wednesday], about our response to practice and our response to performance and our response to production and preparation. All that kind of stuff has gotten better. Really, each day will be a learning experience, and today was very good."
The defense said it is taking its cues from Williams and his assistants. "The coaches have been sensitive to the way guys are feeling, because they're feeling the same way," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "I'm sure a lot of times the coaches and players don't really know what to do in a situation like this, so you just kind of give in to your feelings. So if you need to cry, you cry, and if you need to talk to somebody, you talk to somebody. That's how the week goes on."
Williams pushed for the team to select Taylor with the fifth overall draft pick in 2004 and, even when he was admonishing Taylor behind closed doors for his missteps on and off the field, he was Taylor's fiercest public supporter, backing "some of his goofy decisions."
"There were a couple of times when I drew lines in the sand, and he appreciated that toughness and that discipline," Williams said. "He needed that, and to his credit he made some tremendous life changes, tremendous life maturations. I feel real good that I could lay my head down and know a couple of those things I asked him to do, he did it."
Williams said he gave Taylor the kind of tough love he gives his sons, Chase and Blake, who both got to know Taylor well. Taylor joked with the boys that "I get the [butt] chewings during the day, you must get them at night," Williams said. Chase Williams, the youngest son, began wearing No. 21 when the family moved to Virginia, "because his dad said Sean Taylor is the best player he ever coached," Williams said.
There were many similarities between the player and coach, their fierce nature on the field coupled with a reserved approach off it.
"There was kind of a synergy back and forth in those difficult times," Williams said, "and we built that trust and love for each other in the difficult times, so there was an even stronger bond in some of the less-stressful periods of time. He was a special young man."
But by Tuesday night, the day Taylor died, Williams and his staff faced the task of filling a roster spot, ultimately choosing to elevate linebacker Matt Sinclair from the practice squad. "We didn't frivolously assign him that spot," Williams said. "He earned that spot."
No one on the team, however, can do all that Taylor did, with second-year safety Reed Doughty getting the unenviable task of taking Taylor's starting spot.
"I'll never be able to replace Sean as a person or a player," Doughty said. "I can only go out there and do the best with the abilities I've been given, and try to honor Sean through that."
Williams had helped coax Taylor's defining season from him -- shining in a deep zone defense, daring teams to throw his way, finally pairing a refined discipline and impeccable technique with his natural gifts. The plan was for Taylor and rookie safety LaRon Landry -- another player Williams was adamant about drafting -- to form the NFL's most dominant tandem for years, embodying Williams's aggressive streak on the field. Eventually, perhaps, Landry will have to perform some of the feats that Taylor made look so easy.
"He's a bright young prospect, a bright young prospect," Williams said. "And I look at it as we all watched and saw some remarkable changes in Sean's game this year. It took us four years to get him there -- and some of those things weren't easy to get him there -- and LaRon's just in an infancy stage right now. But he's got a very good skill set to work with, and we'll just have to take it one day at a time, one week at a time, one season at a time."