By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
No matter where Gregg Williams goes, the memory of Sean Taylor is with him. A coin bearing Taylor's likeness, which Williams began carrying after Taylor was killed in November, remains in his pocket every day, a constant reminder of the ties the longtime coach still has to this area and franchise.
Williams's four-year tenure as Washington's defensive leader ended in January, when owner Daniel Snyder eliminated him from the running to replace Joe Gibbs as head coach and released him from his contract. But a piece of his heart always will be in Ashburn, he said, with recollections flooding back this week as Williams, now the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, travels to FedEx Field to face the Redskins in Thursday night's preseason finale.
Williams, 50, has kept a low profile with the Jaguars -- he was hired almost immediately after leaving the Redskins -- and has addressed the Jacksonville media once. But Williams spoke before the start of training camp about his lingering relationships in Washington, his feelings for Snyder and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato (praising both) and his desire to be a head coach again, possibly even with the Redskins. After a traumatic 2007 season, Williams is relishing the relative tranquility of Jacksonville, but not forgetting a player and team that touched him at his core.
"Sean lives with me every single day, and I feel very strongly about that," Williams said. "I took a lot of knocks defending him early on, and I'm so proud and happy for people now to see what I saw for so long, behind the scenes. That was a great young man, and I still have a difficult time dealing with this. Sometimes I choke up and tear up thinking about him.
"I really feel he's with me every day. That's a unique relationship we had, probably one I'll never have again with any other player. Our personalities matched so much. He was all football, every single second. I've never been around someone that intense and that inspired about being the best as he was. He wanted to prove it every single second of the day. I miss him. I miss him a lot, and the experience we went through last year at the Redskins made us closer, all of us there, as a football team, but more importantly as an organization."
While Williams's time in Washington ended when he was let go with a year remaining on his contract, his presence can still be felt at Redskins Park, through the players and coaches linked closely to him and the style of defense still being played. He spoke often of his desire to change the Redskins' culture on defense, getting away from the selfishness and laziness that had characterized previous teams and ushered in a sea change in both effort and execution.
Williams said he takes pride in how his charges rallied to reach the playoffs in the aftermath of Taylor's murder above all else, and his life was changed indelibly by his years here. Williams had the opportunity to work under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, led the defense to three top 10 finishes, forged lifelong relationships with friends and colleagues in this area and still owns a house in Loudoun County, where the family celebrated high school and college graduations and grieved after Taylor's death.
There are daily reminders of that life cut short -- mementos in Williams's office in Jacksonville as well as on the field. He will see another young safety quickly close on the ball downfield -- often Jacksonville's Reggie Nelson -- and think of Taylor. Reminders are everywhere.
"I didn't fully realize until several months after his passing just how close Sean was to my two sons," Williams said. "The youngest is still in high school [Chase Williams is a star linebacker entering his junior year at Loudoun County High School] and wears No. 21. I never thought about why, then I asked him one day, and he said, 'Dad, you always said that Sean was the best player you've ever coached, so I wanted to wear that number, too.'
"My oldest boy [Blake, an entry-level coach in Jacksonville] did two years of internships with the coaches in the secondary in Washington and developed such a close bond with Sean. I never knew it, but they talked two, three times a week during the season. And when he finished his undergraduate work at Princeton, and wrote a 152-page thesis, I took a look in the acknowledgments, and there's a page dedicated to his and Sean's relationship, and I'm reading it with tears running down my face realizing how close they were."
Williams worked to earn Taylor's trust and was one of his biggest boosters in the organization. Even at times when Taylor refused to return Gibbs's calls, he regularly reached out to Williams, team sources said. Williams urged Taylor to make positive changes in his life, putting family first after his arrest in Florida in 2005.
"There have been a lot of people to come out of the woodwork who act like they knew him, but they didn't," Williams said. "They didn't know him, and that's okay. They can say they knew him, but what really matters is I want people to understand and rejoice that he was a tremendous young man who made a lot of changes to better the people around him and better himself, and I'm not sure a lot of other people would have worked as hard at making those changes as he did."
Williams may no longer be with the Redskins, but his influence remains. Though Snyder let him go, the rest of Williams's staff remains. Greg Blache, Williams's top assistant, runs the defense, and though league sources said the relationship between the two is strained -- Blache agreed to take Williams's job before Williams had been informed he was being fired -- and they no longer speak, Williams praised the promotion of Blache and was proud his assistants got contract extensions in Washington.
"It couldn't have gone to a better person," Williams said of Blache. "He's been very successful in that position before, and was a top person I identified when I came to Washington of wanting to have. I think the Redskins did a tremendous job of promoting continuity there. And I do take great pride in the fact my staff is still there, and they will do an outstanding job in all the things they are responsible for. That's something [Redskins Coach] Jim Zorn does not have to worry about."
Williams and Blache may not exchange pleasantries Thursday, but there will be plenty of hugs before the game. Williams has not talked to Gibbs in months, but remains in regular contact with many of the defensive players and staff. Bonds go beyond football (when defensive end Phillip Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of camp last month, one of the first calls to his cell came from Williams), and they continue to share life and family experiences.
The crux of the defensive roster was brought in on Williams's watch, and although Blache is streamlining the system, Williams's terminology and many of his philosophies still apply.
"I still talk to [Williams], a lot of the guys still talk to him," said cornerback Shawn Springs, who found refuge in Williams's office last season when his father, Ron, suddenly fell into a life-threatening coma. "But yeah, we miss him, too. Gregg is a great father figure, a great guy to talk to, and somebody I shared a lot of things with."
Linebacker Marcus Washington said: "Gregg definitely leaves a legacy behind here. We learned a lot about football and different concepts from him and tried to play with his attitude, where he's always ready to go and is very aggressive. His leadership definitely reflected our attitude, and he passed that down, and now we're just building off of it."
Safeties coach Steve Jackson and secondary coach Jerry Gray played and coached for Williams, with their coaching identities very much forged by him. "Transition is a big part of this game," Jackson said, "but people have friendships and relationships, and those transcend the business."
Players and coaches campaigned for Williams to get Gibbs's job, and at the time of his departure, Williams's agent, Marvin Demoff, raised concerns about ESPN reports citing anonymous Redskins sources that Williams had disparaged Gibbs during the interview process, calling them a "smear." During his exit interview, both Snyder and Cerrato told Williams they had nothing to do with the ESPN stories, Williams said. Snyder and Cerrato declined to comment for this story.
Snyder's choice to promote Cerrato to the top football position a few weeks after Gibbs's retirement signaled to many within Redskins Park the end of Williams's candidacy to become head coach. Several team sources said there was friction between the men. Williams, however, thanked Cerrato for taking an interest in his family, attending some of his son's high school football games, and wished him well in his new position.
"Every year that Vinny has been there Dan Snyder has given him more and more to do," Williams said, "and now it's his time to step up there and take the reigns and show the Redskins fans that he's able to handle every aspect of the organization. That's what his title says he's able to do there, and I appreciate the relationship I had with Vinny when I was there."
Williams lauded Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville's head coach, and the personnel department. Since leaving Washington, Williams also has focused on his foundation -- GreggWilliamsFoundation.com -- and on his new team.
He reviewed every snap of Jacksonville's 2007 season, learned the Jaguars' terminology and adapted his defense to that verbal framework. He eliminated about two-thirds of the existing scheme and incorporated some of his ideas.
Living on the beach in Florida with Blake is great, but being away from his wife, Leigh Ann, and Chase is not easy (Williams's daughter, Amy, is entering her freshman year at Belmont University in Nashville). The family did not put its home on the market, with Chase thriving on the field and in the classroom (he is being eyed by NCAA powerhouses) and Williams on a one-year contract in Jacksonville.
Should the right opportunity emerge, Williams would consider being a head coach again (he coached Buffalo from 2001 to 2003). And Williams said he would not hesitate to answer the phone should Snyder reach out to him.
"I'll always remember the time I had there, and who knows, maybe I'll be back there again one of these days to coach again," Williams said. "I have a very good relationship with Dan Snyder, and I really enjoyed my time there, and I wouldn't discount saying I could come back through there again. I've got a lot of good years left in the NFL, and I loved my experience there and loved the Redskins and loved the Redskins' fans. It was a great experience, and to see it unfold again, well, you never know what can happen in this league."