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.
"I feel for those guys on the Redskins," Williams said. "We signed a lot of those guys as free agents on my side of the ball when I was there, so I feel for them.
"I agonize with them."'Just so happy'
Williams offered no bitterness about not getting the Redskins' job, saying he and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder "were good friends" and that he is grateful Snyder let him out of his contract before naming Jim Zorn the coach so Williams could grab the Jacksonville job, the last open defensive coordinator's position that winter.
"I thank Dan for letting me do that," he finally said. "He had a thought process for what he was looking for in things; I'm a pretty strong personality, and I have the ability to say things. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.
Then without even a pause he added, "I'm just so happy I'm here at the New Orleans Saints."
It can't be easy. Leaving the Redskins meant leaving behind his family for at least two years as it was decided his son Chase should continue playing football at Loudoun County High School. There isn't time for many flights home. He must communicate with his family by text message and webcam. And while his older son Blake is an offensive assistant with the Saints, there is still a detachment he never wanted. He gets tapes of Chase's games made on video equipment he said he purchased for the school, yet it is not the same as being there, the way he would have been if he were the Redskins' coach.
But the absence has allowed him to concentrate on the Saints. In the offseason he said he spent up to 20 hours a day in his new office, designing schemes, attacking problems. This week, much of the talk in New Orleans is about how the Saints' newly inspired defense faces a unique challenge with the Miami Dolphins' Wildcat offense.
It would perhaps be a bigger difficulty if Williams hadn't been working on stopping the Wildcat since the spring, if he hadn't been working on defensive formations to stop the Wildcat in minicamps and if he hadn't slipped Wildcat preparation into regular practices before each game -- just in case.
This is something he has always been able to do well: design new schemes for each opponent. Already this season, he has used 27 alignments.
And yet the Saints needed something more than a great tactician for its defense. Otherwise their coach, Sean Payton, never would have fired the previous defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, one of his best friends. Nor were new schemes the reason Payton offered to take a $250,000 pay cut so the team could afford to hire a defensive coordinator he barely knew.Still relentless
The Saints' defense needed something more than some new formations, something more complicated, something edgier.
When Williams was first hired, linebacker Scott Fujita didn't know what to think. The new coach seemed brazen, sure of himself.
"He's definitely got a swagger about him," Fujita said with a laugh.
Then Redskins defensive end Andre Carter, a friend from college, called him. Carter, to Fujita, is a voice of reason, one of the few players whose word he trusts.
"I would play for that guy any day," Carter told him.
"That's all I needed to hear," Fujita said.
From the beginning, Williams was relentless. The players, no matter how established, got the sense they were all competing for their jobs again. It created an unease, some of them said. They were being pushed in a way they never had been before. It was not a pleasant sensation. But then they realized they were swirling around the field in ways that were new, attacking, aggressive. Whatever discomfort they might have felt in believing their jobs to be in jeopardy was transferred to their opponents in games. Suddenly, teams can't run on the Saints anymore, with opponents averaging just 83 rushing yards a game. They have one of the best red-zone defenses in the league and have allowed 18 points a game, ninth-best in the NFL.
"It was same with the Redskins -- you got to go from being a scout team defense to a real defense, and so much of it is attitude," Williams said. "I think Rex [Ryan] has done a great job of that in New York [with the Jets]. You got to go in and coach with an attitude first. They see that in yourself and that kind of filters down through the players, and the players play a little bit better than they are because they're playing with confidence as opposed to playing with paralysis. You can't be afraid to make a mistake."
Which is why he stood before the Saints that first day and vowed to do his best to get rid of anyone on the defense who didn't want to be a part of the conditioning program. But as much as he did it to make them uncomfortable -- to create the tension they seemed to crave -- he also did it as a test. He wanted to see if anyone dared to challenge his edict, not as an affront to his ego but rather out of a lack of commitment.
No one stayed away.
Attendance, he noted, was 100 percent.
"These guys have done everything I've asked them," he said. "I haven't made them do anything. They've wanted to do that. And it's so critical. When they want it more than you want it, you've got a chance to change it. If they don't want it more than you, now is the difficulty of coaching and teaching because you want it more than them. These guys showed me I have to ramp up, and I have to elevate what I teach them because they want it more."
In the end, maybe this is all the coach so gifted at reaching his players at their most primal level has ever wanted: people to understand his fire.