Before the start of the 2004 season, Gregg Williams found himself defending the Washington Redskins' defense on a regular basis. How would that small and starless defensive line hold up? Besides Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, who would rush the passer? How could the team get through a 16-game season with so little depth? Why didn't he sign more high-profile players?
Williams, recalling the inquisition with his usual sarcastic manner, had a query of his own for the doubters: "How come I didn't just cut my wrists and lay in a hot tub of water?"
In the end, the Redskins survived a rash of injuries -- including losing Arrington for most of the season -- unearthed a weekly supply of new starters, dominated most teams they faced with Williams's hyperaggressive schemes and finished the season ranked third in the NFL in total defense. So now, Williams has only one question to answer: With middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot departing via free agency, how can this defense do it again? But for the coaches, merely duplicating last year's success is far from good enough; they are consumed with forcing more turnovers, causing more sacks and, most importantly after a 6-10 season, winning more games.
"We want to take the ball away," Williams said. "The best defenses of all time were feared because of the take-away possibilities, and that's a team game. I've said this a couple of times already in this training camp -- in order for this defense to win games, and in order to win more than the six games we won last year, we've got to shorten the field for the offense, and that's causing fumbles. Fumbles usually have more field position racked up with them than an interception that happens downfield. We've got to cause more fumbles. That has to be a focus of how we play this year, and we didn't do a good enough job of that and we're very critical of that as players and as coaches."
Even duplicating last season's defensive records would be an accomplishment. Pierce and Smoot were vital members in 2004, and Pierce in particular was the fulcrum of the group, an extension of Williams on the field and the general on that side of the ball. Journeyman Lemar Marshall, one of last year's heroes, takes over at middle linebacker after playing on the outside previously, while veteran cornerback Walt Harris, who was still recovering from career-threatening knee surgery this time a year ago, goes from being the nickel back to a starter. This defense no longer has the element of surprise working in its favor; it faces several of the most potent offenses in the NFL, and some wonder if all of last season's glory will change the no-frills essence of what was a collection of castoffs and unknowns.
After another offseason and training camp spent working with the team, Williams anticipates further progress.
"This year it's been a lot of fun to see what we can actually do with them," Williams said, "because they comprehended an awful lot last year, and we've been able to grow quite a bit in the offseason with several new things coming into this year."
Last year, Williams and his staff had to sell the players on their ability, convincing them they could play at an elite level and playing upon the fact that they had been discarded by others. Now, in essence, the chore is to convince these same players that they are not as good as everyone says they are, that they must work even harder and believe even more fully in the power of this defensive system. It's a topic Williams and his assistants drill home on a daily basis -- "Now people know about you," Williams tells his players. "It's your obligation to take the next step."
"They're very, very hungry," Williams said. "Real pros, you don't have to worry a lot about motivating. Real pros, they always have that striving to be better, to be the best, and our guys have a really good attitude in the classroom. They're harder on themselves than I am on them, and that's when you know as a coach that you've got the right environment, the right culture, in your room because they demand more out of each other than a real hard-nosed coaching staff. And this is a hard-nosed coaching staff."
The mentality of the defense began to shine through in the third preseason game of 2004, a 17-0 victory in Miami. Williams and his staff identified changing the culture here as their biggest chore upon arrival, and it was no secret that the Redskins had gained a soft reputation under former coach Steve Spurrier. Opponents did not fear playing them and they lacked the abandon that Williams requires. But against the Dolphins, there was a tenacity and swagger to their play; the players were beginning to assume the personality of the coaches, and a special season -- at least from a defensive standpoint -- was on the horizon.
"It's an attitude," Williams said. "Defense is more than schemes. It's more than just the techniques of playing, you've got to play with an attitude, and you look at all the really, really good defenses that have been in the National Football League -- all the different nicknames and stuff -- there was a lot of fear, there was a lot of respect by the opposition because of how that defense played with an attitude. And we played with an attitude from that [Miami] game on, I thought."
It turned out to be a perfect melding of players and system, and Washington's coaches have said repeatedly that the most important job they do is identifying the right parts to fit their schemes. They shun the suggestion that the system makes the player.
"No question, it's all about execution," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "Schemes have not won a game in this league in 100 years, I don't think. It's all about execution. A lot of times people try to write stuff like this guy had a phenomenal scheme; a scheme is nothing if guys don't execute. There's only so many defenses that people run, and there's only so many offenses, but the teams that execute it on a daily basis are the guys that are successful, and that's how it always comes out. I haven't seen a coach in a long time run out on the field, or defense a pass or have to make a tackle. Players do that, and you can draw up all the schemes you want: If guys aren't detailed and competitive, if they're not intense and competing, then it's all for naught."
On this defense, the common denominator is finding players willing to put team goals ahead of individual gain -- not always the norm in this era -- and play with a uniform ferocity. That characteristic is often more easily cultivated in those who have gone undrafted or been released.
"Gregg Williams has a system that works to everybody's benefit," said lineman Joe Salave'a, who spent a year out of football before signing in 2004. "But of course you've got to have a nucleus of guys willing to buy into it, like any other system. Look across the board: We don't have a lot of blue chippers. We've got guys who are overachievers or have been cut by other teams, like myself, and for some reason we're all able to buy into this system and excel in it."
That is not to say that the men with whistles have nothing do to with fueling such competitive fires. Even after signing with the New York Giants, fierce division rivals, Pierce cannot help but rave about the mentality Williams and his staff instilled.
"Everybody on that defense loves Gregg Williams," Pierce said during the offseason. "That's why I fought so hard, because of Gregg Williams and the relationship he has with the players. . . . I wish him all the best."
There is something to the salesmanship qualities of the staff that makes so many players want to be a part of it. Their knowledge, enthusiasm and intensity have spawned a legion of willing followers. They condense information for each position, filter out the abstract and reaffirm the same principles over and over.
"It's the way they kind of use stats and do things that make sense," defensive tackle Brandon Noble said. "It's not hard, it's not difficult, it's not complicated. Once you get into the whole thing it's easy to understand where they're coming from, and at the same time, obviously Gregg's defense has been successful pretty much everywhere he's been, so that makes it easy -- when it's proven -- to kind of buy into it."
Last season may have been Williams's best coaching job, and only enhanced his pedigree as one of the league's top defensive minds. Several members of his staff declined other jobs to stay here, and that group is filled with former coordinators, and surely, future coordinators and head coaches. They returned because they are far from satisfied, and have implemented new packages aimed at wreaking more havoc in the backfield and keeping opponents guessing. Williams has changed with the times -- going from a man-to-man style in his earlier days with Houston to a zone blitzing hybrid today -- but the fundamentals he teaches and what he looks for in players has not.
"I always tell him that if you knew all this and you coached like this when I was in the league," said Joe Bowden, a coaching intern with the Redskins and a linebacker for Williams in Houston in the early 1990s, "then I still might be playing. But what he wants out of players hasn't changed: It's going to be his way, you've got to be tough and smart and you need 11 hats on the ball. And if you don't buy into his rules -- it doesn't matter if you're a first-round pick or how much you make -- then you won't play. And in today's football, it's not always like that."