Gregg Williams gathered his defense around him before the start of training camp last week and was enveloped in a mass of shoulder pads and helmets. The Washington Redskins' assistant head coach-defense was no longer visible to the outside world, but to anyone within a 100-yard radius, he was clearly audible.
"We will be the best-conditioned defense in the league," Williams commanded. "There will be no lack of focus. . . . Never ever, ever, ever think you are tired."
Williams's intensity defines him. The look in his eyes as he bounds about Redskins Park is one of complete concentration, whether on the field or in a news conference, and his attitude and tone convey that anything less than a full effort from his players will not be tolerated. As the man Coach Joe Gibbs chose to run the defense, Williams is doing all he can to make his passion and aggression rub off on the players. Williams, 46, came to Washington after three years as a head coach in Buffalo to rebuild a defense that ranked 25th in the NFL last season. He believes his mission is to expunge a culture of losing and push the players on a daily basis in meetings and on the practice field.
Washington has been a short stop for defensive coordinators in recent years, with the team changing its staff and schemes seemingly each offseason. When Williams watched tape of the defense's performance from 2003, he knew a total reshaping was in order. The Redskins' technique was flawed: They tackled poorly, lacked an intimidating presence and, most troubling of all, did not play with the speed and physicality he covets.
"We're not playing a real peaceful game," Williams said. "We're playing a game, on defense especially, that's one of aggression and we have to change a mind-set here defensively, and in order to do that it comes from the top down and I've got to be the first to picture that and then they'll take it from there.
"I made it clear what I expect from my first meeting [with the players] on. I didn't disappoint them. I was aggressive in the first meeting, and I'll be aggressive from every meeting on until I'm someplace else. That's just how it's going to be, and I think they'll appreciate that it's not old hat. It's fun to see their focus when they come into a meeting, and my understanding is possibly there was a lack of focus here last year."
For Williams, every day is game day.
"If you have a bad day or a bad practice, Coach Williams will let you know about it the next day when you go in for the defensive team meeting," nose tackle Brandon Noble said. "There's no question that you know where you stand at all times, and that's what you want as a player. You're either doing it right or doing it wrong, and somebody is telling you about it one way or the other, and you need that sometimes -- that kick in the butt -- to get you going, and this defense definitely needed that. We need to have that accountability and the coaching staff has done a good job of instilling that in us."
A few years after graduating from Northeast Missouri State, Williams applied for his dream job, the head football coach at Excelsior Springs High School, near Kansas City, Mo., where he played quarterback. It was 1984 and Williams, age 25, had been a top assistant coach at the school for three years. He had been the big man on campus there only a few years before that, and the head coaching job had gone to someone on the staff. But toward the end of the interview, Williams was asked what he would do if he did not get the job, and immediately he knew the position would go to someone else.
If he had been hired, "I never would have left" Excelsior Springs, Williams said, but realizing his greater ambition, he told the head of the athletic department that he was doing him a favor by not hiring him.
"I told them, 'You know what, I want to coach college ball, and maybe I'll coach pro ball at some point in time,' " Williams said. "And they just snickered."
Williams was driven.
He ended up getting hired to coach Belton High School in Missouri and ran a strong program there through 1987, then began sending resumes to college coaches. Jack Pardee, the coach of the Redskins from 1978 to '80 and Gibbs's predecessor, was coaching at the University of Houston at the time and was looking for bright young coaches who would work cheap. Pardee had limited resources and a graduate assistant opening; it was a glorified internship with horrendous hours and paid $5,000 a year, but Williams leapt at the opportunity and moved his family to Texas.
"I found a real gem in Gregg Williams," Pardee said in a phone interview from his ranch in Texas. "He was already a successful coach in high school, and he had a young family, and it kind of puzzled me why he would want to take the job, which was no pay and a scholarship for one season, but Gregg wanted to get to the next level and, of course, he proved himself pretty quickly."
Williams pushed Pardee to be put with the defense to grow as a coach, and after one season as the graduate assistant, Williams was brought on staff. Phyllis Pardee, Jack's wife, was a vital resource to Leigh Ann Williams.
"They're like my own children, we adore them," Phyllis Pardee said. Williams says Pardee "is like a second father to me."
In 1990, Pardee was hired to coach the Houston Oilers and he brought along his staff from the University of Houston. After two years as the team's quality control coordinator, Williams took over the club's special teams and then was promoted to linebackers coach. In 1997, a year after the Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans, he was named the team's defensive coordinator, and by 2000 he was considered one of the most innovative assistants in the NFL, with the Titans leading the league in total defense and allowing the third-fewest points since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978.
That led to Williams being hired in Buffalo as head coach. While the team compiled just a 17-31 record in three years under Williams, the defense improved dramatically each season. Last season Buffalo ranked second in the NFL in overall defense, and the defense and special teams placed in the top five in nine categories.
"Gregg has a lot of confidence in what he's doing over there" on defense, Gibbs said, "and he's got a style of play there that's been pretty successful and hopefully that carries over to the Redskins."
Williams's defense is a patchwork of his influences. Pardee ran the defense that former Redskins coach George Allen instituted during his tenure in Washington; defensive guru Buddy Ryan was also part of Pardee's staff; and Jeff Fisher, who replaced Pardee as coach of the Oilers in 1994, honed his defensive philosophy in San Francisco under George Seifert. From that amalgam of styles came Williams's system, which includes several of his personal touches.
Speed, particularly for linebackers, is a must in Williams's system given the amount of ground they cover. He believes in multiple rotations -- "If we dress 25 guys on defense, all 25 will play; how much they play is predicated on how well they practice," Williams said -- and rattles quarterbacks by moving players into different sets, making it difficult to gauge precisely how the defense is playing and where blitzers are coming from. In the end, though, the goal is the same: get to the passer and inflict pain.
"It means a lot to a defense if you can come into a game and people are already worried about you," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Receivers are definitely going to have their heads on a swivel when they come across the middle. Quarterbacks are going to have nervous feet back there because they know guys are coming to get them. We're going to try to strike fear in offenses."
The defense will be very active, almost always in flux, and a gifted specimen such as linebacker LaVar Arrington could line up as an outside linebacker, defensive end or even somewhere near a safety.
Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, who spent the past nine years with Jacksonville, faced Williams regularly as a divisional rival. Even after years of reading these schemes, Brunell said discerning exactly what Williams's defense is up to remains a chore.
"It's all about disguise," Brunell said, "and their defense does a great job of making you think you see one thing, and in reality it's an entirely different defensive look you're seeing. That's as creative a defense as you're going to see. Gregg has got every blitz known to man."
Williams, one of the NFL's highest-paid assistants at $1.2 million per year, spent the offseason identifying players who had the attributes to shine in his system. Free agent linebackers Washington and Mike Barrow, defensive lineman Phillip Daniels and cornerback Shawn Springs topped that list, and game-breaking safety Sean Taylor was too irresistible for the Redskins to pass up with the fifth overall pick.
Once the players were in place, the real work began. Melding them into a cohesive unit and getting them acclimated to the more abrasive ways of Williams and his staff -- most of whom have worked as defensive coordinators before -- was a top priority. "The behind the scenes of what we're doing, changing the attitude and changing the culture, that's as important as any scheme we're running," Williams said.
"He's a really charismatic guy, a really intense guy," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "He's really just a straight-to-the-point coach. There's no sugarcoating or beating around the bush. It's like, 'This is what I want, this is what I have to have, and either you are going to give me this or you can go somewhere else.' And I think that is what we needed here, point blank. I love that about him. He brings out the best in you."
It remains to be seen how well the Redskins will continue to respond to those tactics over a long season. Williams says he has never seen a group of players so eager to be coached and knows he must balance the positive and the negative. Being intense and aggressive can be utilized as a reinforcement technique as well.
"Can I be aggressive in a positive manner?" said Williams, who has moved into a home in Leesburg with his wife. "Can I be exuberant and enthusiastic on this is how we want it? That's the give-and-take, and I've got some decent public speaking skills. I've spoken nationally over 1,000 times or so, so I check the environment; I'm checking the temperature of the room every day, and it's easier to be hard on them when things are going good, and when things aren't going good, you'd better find a way to sugar them, and I know that."
The coaches began to see the change in the players during minicamps. They were learning the defense and applying it on the field. They asked the right questions in meetings. Their swagger was back as they taunted the offense during drills and boasted about their abilities.
"You could see the lights come on, but not all at once," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "Guy by guy, you could see one guy bought in, then another bought in, and then finally you could see the ball start to roll. But right now, I can't tell you that everybody has bought in 100 percent.
"No, we still have a couple of guys who don't really believe, but they'll find out when we get into it that this isn't lip service. There will be a couple of guys who are shocked when we open up against Tampa and they're not in the lineup because they don't know what to do, or they're not in the lineup because they don't fight as hard as we want them to fight every instant of the way, and then I think if they're still here they'll figure it out."