Under ex-Redskins assistant Williams, Saints' defense marching to a different tune

By Les Carpenter
Sunday, October 25, 2009

METAIRIE, LA. -- Here it was the first day, the first meeting, the very first minute, and Gregg Williams already was making people uncomfortable. He stood before the latest underachieving defense to be put in his charge -- this one the New Orleans Saints' -- and he glared. His words crackled off the walls in a curt western Missouri twang. It was the initial session of what the NFL calls a voluntary conditioning program, and he had just informed his new players that such a definition no longer applied to them.

"I believe 1,000 percent in this being a voluntary offseason program, and if you happen to be one of those who voluntarily chooses not to attend, I'm going to do every single thing I can to replace you," Williams said he told his players that spring morning.

He remembered this last week as he walked in a breezeway outside the Saints' practice facility. But the recollection did not make him smile the way some coaches would about their drill-sergeant acts. Williams does not do satire. He never had much of a need for bravado. He was always quite adept at spreading unease.

"He challenges you, but he does it in a way that [angers you] a little bit," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "You want to prove him wrong."

Then Smith paused.

"I think that's something we've needed," he said.

The Saints have been so close the past few years, with what might be the most gifted and imaginative offense in the NFL. There has always been a sense that if the Saints could just get a defense that was slightly better than average, they could go to the Super Bowl. Then came Williams, and the defense has gone from 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed to ninth. Now 5-0, the Saints are perhaps the best team in the NFC.

The defense is working because Williams's gibes, attacks and rants almost always seem to work. As a coach, he has mastered that perfect balance of devising brilliant schemes while touching the precise nerves that fuel a frenzy in football players.

"Attitude -- that's 90 percent what he's brought," defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. "Attitude. Attitude. Attitude."

As the Redskins' struggles continue this season, it's probably worth noting that in January 2008, one coaching hopeful at Redskins Park dearly wanted to replace Joe Gibbs as head coach. A man most of the Washington players endorsed. A man who desired the job so much that he waited for weeks, interviewing several times before finally being told the team wouldn't be hiring him.

So Williams left, heading off to become the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season and now for the Saints, leaving behind some of his most cherished assistants. Would Williams have made a difference in Washington? Would the Redskins still be 2-4 against a schedule of winless teams if he had never left?

The questions floated unanswered in the warm Gulf Coast breeze. He is here now. The Saints are 5-0 in many ways because of him.

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