The Washington Redskins had a wonderful day yesterday: They hired a man who will bring the team a defense. Ray Rhodes is as good as you can do in hiring a defensive coach. Once upon a time, you felt blessed to have Buddy Ryan or Richie Petitbon. Now, Rhodes is at or near the top of any list of defensive assistants. From San Francisco to Green Bay to Philly, Rhodes has built defenses that attack, that disrupt, that play with mean intentions and nasty attitudes.
He's a hard-nosed, old-school, cussin', glaring, man's man who can rub some of today's prima donna bonus babies the wrong way. And that's exactly what the underachieving Redskins defense needs. Ray Rhodes is brass knuckles and steel-toed boots. And you can bet the Redskins defense won't be marshmallow soft next season. I didn't always get the feeling the defensive players were willing to sacrifice themselves for the newly departed Mike Nolan and his defensive scheme. If they don't sacrifice for Rhodes, they'll be road kill. Nolan, and Ron Lynn before him, tried nice-nice with these guys. Now it's time for a coach who will come out swinging. He's accustomed to his defenses finishing in the top 10, not the bottom two.
The first thing Rhodes said yesterday when he was introduced as the team's new defensive coordinator is that he knows there is big-time talent on defense here. The second thing Rhodes said is that he is going to pressure those players to perform a whole lot better.
"I want them more aggressive," he said. "We will be the aggressor. Some guys want to play a chess match. My way is to disrupt, throw your body around, give your body up, don't pace yourself. Did you see the way Tennessee played Sunday? Did you see the way Tampa Bay's defense played? I watched that and I got excited. I want to make it a baseball score. Offensive coaches don't like that, but that's what I'm looking for."
Rhodes has a great advantage in that he knows much of the defensive personnel already. As head coach of the Eagles, he played the Redskins eight times between 1995 and 1998. He coached Dana Stubblefield as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 1994. Asked about Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson, and what he can do to get more production from the starting tackles, Rhodes said, "The talent's there with those two guys. . . . We gotta find the button or whatever it is."
Without calling the defense an underachiever, Rhodes communicated the point just fine. "The offense was ranked where?" he asked. Told it was No. 2 in the NFL, Rhodes said, "And the defense was ranked where?" Told the defense ranked No. 30, Rhodes said, "That doesn't work. Something's wrong with that picture. I've got to raise that bar."
The thing that drives most folks crazy about the defense is that it keeps making many of the same mistakes over and over again. I doubt that will happen with Rhodes. He has this way of getting a player's attention. "When I tell a guy to be in a gap, be in the gap, not a foot off," he said. "You have your butt where I said to be."
A lot has been made of who interviewed Rhodes first, where Norv Turner was in the loop relative to Vinny Cerrato and Dan Snyder, blah, blah, blah. Who cares? He's here, he's happy to be employed again. And Norv made a great observation about Rhodes, who had to coach the 49ers defense while Eddie DeBartolo sat in the Big Chair. "Where some people might be intimidated by Dan Snyder, he's used to that."
Rhodes made very clear he could do without all the nonfootball responsibilities that go with being head coach, like chatting up the media. He said more than once that what he missed as head coach was the hands-on coaching, working individually with players on the details and fine points of playing, stuff head coaches usually don't have time to do. It's not like he didn't have some success as head coach. In 1995 as a first-year head coach, Rhodes was coach of the year. The Eagles were 20-12 his first two seasons, but only 9-22-1 the last two. A crazy number of injuries, some incredibly bad personnel decisions and perhaps Rhodes's my-way-or-the-highway approach were a bad recipe. The 8-8 season that led to his firing last month in Green Bay was uglier than it should have been.
Players whom Rhodes went out of his way to accommodate, most notably 15-year veteran LeRoy Butler, stabbed Rhodes in the back, complaining publicly about his style and methods. Desmond Howard criticized Rhodes in a recent Web site piece, even though it was Packers boss Ron Wolf who had decided it was time to cut Howard. The criticism was always vague, but always damaging. And as a result, Rhodes finds himself back to running a defense.
On the 49ers teams of the 1980s, Rhodes coached the defensive backs. He went to Green Bay to coordinate the Packers defense in 1992 and 1993, back to the 49ers in 1994 as the coordinator with a team that won a Super Bowl, and has been a head coach since 1995.
He was the New York Giants' 10th-round draft pick in 1974--resourceful enough to lead the NFL in yards-per-catch in 1975, then become a starting cornerback two years later for the Giants. How many guys in the modern era of football can lay claim to seven touchdown catches and eight interceptions? He played seven seasons in the NFL on guile and toughness, on being in the gap when his position coach told him to--not six inches to the left--which is why he coaches the way he does.
"The kind of approach Ray has taken his entire career is the kind of approach I'm looking forward to Ray instilling in our football team," Turner said.
He should know. As an assistant for the Rams, Norv had to go against Rhodes in San Francisco. As an assistant in Dallas, Norv had to go against Rhodes in Green Bay. As coach of the Redskins, Norv has had to go against Rhodes in Philly.
Norv gets a man to whom he can entrust his defense. They won't need a consultant to come here a month into next season. Foge Fazio is another respected old pro who will probably get more from the linebackers than most assistants could. It was a calm, especially upbeat Norv Turner who at the end of the afternoon said, "I don't think we could do more to help our team in one day."