By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, February 4, 2010; D01
The game should simply be called "Quarterback" the way professional football is played now. You get/develop a championship-caliber quarterback if you can. Then it becomes a matter of whether you can protect yours and pound theirs. The New Orleans Saints have a great quarterback in Drew Brees.
But the greater mission than scoring points in Sunday's Super Bowl is getting enough pressure on Peyton Manning enough times to make the difference in the game. And to do that, Saints Coach Sean Payton hired Gregg Williams, one of the NFL's leading practitioners in quarterback harassing.
If Williams's defense can force Manning into a couple of interceptions and perhaps a fumble, if his defense can hit Manning early, or better yet early and often, the Saints can win. That's the formula; either get the ball back for Brees to score, or have the defense score itself. If his defense is successful Williams will be Buddy Ryan to Payton's Mike Ditka. And that will likely put Williams back on the short list of head coaching candidates.
It will give him feelings about the Super Bowl that can replace the memories of coming up one yard short in 2000 when his Titans nearly stopped the Rams and The Greatest Show on Turf. Though Williams has said here all week he bears no ill will toward Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for passing him over for Jim Zorn -- I can't imagine how Williams keeps the smirk off his face over that decision -- the fact is it'll underscore how bad a call the Redskins made.
Of the Redskins, Williams said this week, "At that point and time, Dan Snyder was not looking for a dominant personality like me."
And Williams is certainly that. His mouth, not one of the players', is the one Sean Payton has worried about this week, which is why the coaches joked about sending Williams peanut butter and sand before Tuesday's media day.
When asked to tell a story or two about his coach's motivational techniques that were safe for mainstream viewers and readers, Saints safety Darren Sharper said, "All the ones I've got are X-rated. Maybe some are R-rated. I don't think I have anything PG-13 from Gregg Williams."
Sharper thought for a while and said, "Wait, I've got one. One of his favorite sayings about hitting a guy is, 'We want a guy to bounce twice when we put him down.' "
Some sensibilities were hurt early in the week, before the Saints even arrived in Miami, when Williams seemed to hint that he wanted his guys to hit Manning right through the whistle, damn the consequences.
These, above all else, are times that lead the NFL to protect the quarterback at all costs. Those enormous TV ratings the league is getting now speak partially to an even more television-friendly product, one in which the famous QB puts up 40 points a game and risks less than ever. The QB shall not go down, and he certainly shall not go down hard. Count me as one of the people who hates the new No Defense Football League, but it's here to stay. Williams, like Jets Coach Rex Ryan and whoever seems to be coaching the Ravens' D, are the dinosaurs, the holdouts, the absolute last people on earth who think it's okay to slam a quarterback to the ground.
You want to know what Williams believes? The same things he did with the Redskins, the Bills before that and the Titans before that. "I told my son," he said, "every single time you finish a game you want them to remember your name. You want them to remember your jersey number. And if you're fortunate, amnesia might not let them remember a couple of hits you put on 'em."
Asked the game plan for Sunday, Williams says, "We're going to play nasty. Look, if you ask me a question don't be afraid of the answer."
He says Sunday's plan will adhere to the model, "Live on the edge, play on the edge, never hurt the team." And what does that mean in regard to Manning? He says, as always, "pre-snap and post-snap penalties, can't have them. But we're aggressive and we're not going to apologize for being nasty. All great defenses have to be feared. If you're not feared as a defense you aren't any good."
Colts linemen all re-stated the obvious Wednesday, that Williams brings pressure with blitzes. The Saints rarely line up and just go head-to-head with an offense play after play. But his defensive packages and theories remind the Colts protectors of the Jets, whom the Colts have played twice in six weeks, and the Ravens, whom the Colts also beat in the playoffs.
The Saints want to create confusion. They want to, in order, hit Manning in the mouth, and take the ball away from him. And what about penalties for hits that are deemed too hard because of the rules protecting quarterbacks? The Saints will take the 15 yards and keep swinging.
Frank Reich, the longtime Bills quarterback and now the Colts' quarterbacks coach, has a pretty good read on Williams. "His aggressive personality is pretty evident," Reich said. "The confidence he has in what he's doing is evident. You study a season's worth of film and sometimes you think, 'Okay, we've got this guy figured out.' But let me say, I think Gregg's a guy who could potentially come into a game like this and give you something you haven't thought through. He's the kind of personality who will take a dramatic chance."
Several of the Colts seem to feel this way, that Williams knows Manning beats the hell out of blitzes, that it takes six pass rushers, not five, to really knock him out of his rhythm, that Manning is the best in the league at figuring out where a defense is vulnerable. Increasingly, there's a feeling that Williams may back off Sunday and come with Plan B, at least initially.
But Sharper, the future Hall of Fame safety who has played in a variety of defenses in his career, says that rules changes favoring offense have changed professional football so much in recent years that quarterbacks like Manning have to be played differently than when, say, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense terrorized the league.
"When I first came into the league," Sharper said, "defenses paid so much attention to yards allowed. Back then you didn't even want a team moving into the red zone. But now, with defenses put at such a disadvantage by the rules changes, you have to create takeaways.
"You have to give your offense more chances, which we're happy to do with Drew or score with the ball yourself, which has become a greater emphasis over the years. You can't sit back and try to smother an offense like the Colts have every play. Football isn't that game anymore."
That, of course, is probably the truth of the way the Saints will approach playing Manning. The case for throwing Manning a change-up is that he's studied the Saints' defense more than they've studied him. But Williams isn't planned on being outworked, not this week.
He's studied videotape of Manning going back to when he, Williams, was defensive coordinator of the Titans when they played Manning, when he was head coach in Buffalo when the Bills played Manning. Williams will watch Titans vs. Manning, but not the Titans' loss to the Rams in the Super Bowl. Too painful.
"I've never watched that game," he said, "and every time it comes on TV I turn it off."
But Williams admits the defeat made him a better coach along the way. The question is this: good enough that he, not Peyton Manning, will look back in 10 years and have fond memories of Super Bowl XLIV?