Scouting Gregg Williams

OK, since I’ve got a lot of stuff I’ve been holding onto, let me try to do this with less detail than my usual suffocating level:

1. In terms of on-field performance, hiring Gregg Williams is a smart move that will immeasurably help the Browns. Williams is a good coordinator– not a great one (I’ll get into why at the end)– who would improve almost any defense. In 18 years, he’s had:

  • Five teams in the top 10 in defense in the NFL
  • Seven others in the top half of the NFL in points

Williams would also want me to remind you (this is the kind of coach he is) that four of his six seasons where his team was ranked 20 or worse came in his first season coaching that defense.

Compared to Ray Horton– never had a defense ranked higher than #17, and whose clubs ranked 23rd, 27th, 29th and 30th in his last four years– Williams will be a quantum leap forward. Horton might have been the worst DC in the NFL; Williams will probably improve the defense by a TD a game (100 points).

2. Williams will benefit the team in four other respects.
Williams isn’t a great defensive coach because he only runs one type of defense. Thankfully for him, it’s the one fans love– a 4-3 where everyone rushes the passer on every play. The Browns will never lose a game where they stayed in coverage trying to protect a lead and got picked apart.

When the Browns lose, they’ll lose because they brought the house, but the opposing passer had just enough time to hit a receiver in one-on-one coverage. The defensive back will take the heat for leaving him open.

You still lose, but it looks like you were trying everything you could– even if what you did wasn’t the high-percentage play.

Second, Williams’s scheme is the kind of defense that players love to play. He’s always popular with his players, and it’ll be easier for the NFL’s worst franchise to attract and retain players.

Third, he has above-average intelligence and is well-spoken, so writers always get man-crushes on him. It’s the main reason he survived the bounty scandal– nobody wanted to drop the hammer on their best bud.

One of the Ryans would have gotten banned for life. They say hostile things and make enemies, so the writers are out to get them.

Finally, because defensive players become famous based on their highlight reels, Williams will make the Browns look like one of the NFL’s next great teams. In 2017, Jamie Collins will make the Pro Bowl, Danny Shelton will make his first trip, #1 pick Myles Garrett win be the Defensive rookie of the year, and one of those undisciplined pass rushers they’ve been stockpiling (Nate Orchard, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib) will hit double-digits in sacks.

3. Williams isn’t a typical assistant coach. Of course the Browns will take Garrett; Williams will insist on it. He’ll get his way because he got the Browns to agree to it before he agreed to come.

This fact is important: the Browns didn’t hire a guy who has to clear everything with Hue Jackson and say “Yessir” when Jackson gives orders. They outsourced their defense.

Let me give you a cutdown version of my career histories: From 1997 (when he became coordinator of the Tennessee Titans when Jeff Fisher was promoted to head coach) through 2000, Williams elevated himself to the rank of “Superstar Coordinator” and “Next Great Head Coach.” He ran a good defense, but the Titans were 12th, 12th, 15th (the year they lost the Super Bowl) and first (the year they were eliminated by the Ravens, who went on to win it all) in points.

Buffalo hired Williams as head coach and he bombed out, going 17-31.

He took over an 8-8 team from Wade Phillips (who was running a 3-4) and threw it out for his 4-3. The team went 3-13.In the off-season, Williams traded a #1 pick for for 31-year-old Drew Bledsoe (who had lost his job to Tom Brady) and went 8-8 the following year. It was smoke and mirrors; when they fell to 6-10 the following year (losing seven of their last nine games– the last two in blowouts), Williams was history.

Williams had a year left on his contract and was planning to bide his time and look for opportunities. But Washington owner Dan Snyder came to him with an offer. He was bringing back Joe Gibbs as head coach, and Gibbs didn’t have the energy to work 20-hour days. Williams could run the defense and have total control– pick the scheme, call the plays, have final say on the defensive roster spots and set the defensive part of the draft board. Plus, Gibbs would probably retire in a few years and Williams could take over.

Gibbs didn’t object because he was 64 and had been out of the league for 12 years. Plus, he’d always given defensive coordinator Richie Pettibon as much leeway as he wanted. It wasn’t that different an arrangement.

The plan failed. Gibbs had two winning seasons, but went 30-34 from 2004-07. Washington finished 5th, 9th, 27th and 11th in points– good, but not the dominating defense people expected. The team lost enough fourth-quarter leads to take the shine off Williams. When Gibbs retired, Williams was fired before Snyder hired Jim Zorn as head coach; he ended up spending the 2008 season working for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.

After the 2008 season, Sean Payton of the Saints offered the same deal Snyder and Gibbs had. Payton had won 10 games in his first year, then 7, then 8-8. He was going into the final year of his contrast and needed something better than he was getting from Gary Gibbs (who finished 26th in points allowed).

In 2009– Williams’s first season– the Saints went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl.

Frankly, I think Williams got far too much credit. He improved the team from 393 points allowed (26th) to 341 (20th). They improved from 22 takeaways to 39 (second in the league); people pointed to that. But turnovers are often a fluke. Very few coaches have built defenses that finish high year after year. In fact, New Orleans went back down to 25 the nest year.

After that championship, Williams almost certainly was heading for a second chance– one of those “Bill Belichick struggled his first time” hires. But New Orleans fell to 11-5 and lost the wild card game in 2010. After the season, reports about Williams offering cash to players who knocked the opposing QB out of the game surfaced,

Payton let Williams take the rap; he left the Saints at the end of the 2011 season to go back to Fisher (who was starting his reign of error with the Rams). He got suspended for the 2012 season and spent the 2013 season as a “defensive assistant” in Tennessee.

In 2014, after things had died down, Fisher re-hired Williams as coordinator– with the same understanding he’d had in Washington and New Orleans.

Somewhere along the way, Williams seems to have realized that his arrangement was a pretty sweet deal. Whenever Williams has been mentioned as a possible hire, there’s always discussion of what “his role with the team” would be. When a team hires someone else, the amount of control he will require always gets mentioned.

It happened when he was negotiating with the Browns. They gave him everything he wanted.

4. The hiring is a quiet, but very definite vote of “No confidence” in Hue Jackson. Jackson can spin this however he likes (reportedly he is). But the terms of Williams’s employment are so well-known that nobody I know perceives the hiring as anything but a demotion.

As a former executive pointed out, the Browns originally said Jackson would have substantial input into the roster. He chose his own staff (despite Haslam’s misgivings about Ray Horton), and had final say on the offensive players they added a year ago. By, by Jackson’s own admission, he no longer had that level of control

“Hue said he didn’t intend to make any changes after the season, but both coordinators have been replaced. As I understand it, the front office urged [Associate Head Coach and Quarterback coach Pep] Hamilton to take the Michigan job, so Jackson could focus on the offense. They told Jackson that Horton had to be replaced and he could pick either Wade Phillips or Williams. Whichever man he chose would be in control of that unit.

“Hue wants to use the first pick on [UNC quarterback Mitch] Trubisky, but the front office has made it clear that Garrett will be their first pick. This time, the organization is making the free agency decisions. Had Jackson had the authority he had a year ago, Terrelle Pryor would have gotten his multi-year deal when Collins did. I don’t expect him to get one.

“In any other organization, these moves would signal that the coach is has run out of chances– if he doesn’t win, he’s out. With the Browns, who knows?”

Is Jackson is trouble? A second friend who works with several teams believes Jackson is. He’s heard that Jackson told the Browns, during his interview, that he believed he could go 8-8 last year. Jackson reminded the front office that Marvin Lewis had taken the Bengals from 2-14 to 8-8 in his first year (true, although Lewis is a better coach). Jackson also thought the Browns (who went 6-10 in 2014) were much better than their 3-13 record. He thought the problem was mostly at quarterback, and he could fix that. Even if things went badly, he expected no worse than 6-10.

Apparently he also assured the front office, when he was lobbying for QB Cody Kessler in round three (much sooner than the Harvard boys wanted to take him) that Kessler would eventually be recognized as the best value in the draft. The better Dak Prescott (whom he passed up) got, the more it damaged Jackson’s credibility

He didn’t go 8-8 or 6-10. He went 1-15 and would have gone 0-16 if Mike McCoy had been a better coach. He also melted down in public; at different points during the year, he said a number of things that made him look bad.

My guess is that the Browns would prefer not to fire Jackson after two years, but they’re much less confident in his ability. Both his coordinators have left; the new defensive coordinator is a former head coach who has a better record (17-31 in three years, compared to 9-23) than bis nominal boss. (Which also would have been true if the Browns had hired Wade Phillips.)

5. Hiring Williams makes the tangled management system worse. The Browns still do not have a General Manager. Instead they have an owner who allegedly meddles in the personnel decisions.

The player personnel guy they hired (Andrew Berry) had a terrible draft. The only players who performed acceptably, given where they were taken, were DE Emmanuel Ogbah (a one-dimensional pass rusher) and G Spencer Drango (a banger with no special skills).

More to the point, the Browns just signed Kevin Zeitler to play right guard and extended LG Joel Bitonio. That leaves Drango (a tackle in colleg, but one everyone said would have to shift to guard in the NFL) without a position. Assuming that DE Myles Garrett is their first pick, he’ll take the primary pass rushing position that Ogbah had (Carl Nassib will probably get the other slot).

Sashi Brown, the man in charge of the team is a lawyer with no personnel experience– who made a mess of the salary structure when he was their salary cap expert. Paul DePodesta is a former baseball GM with no NFL experience. His specialty is analytics– but Jackson is an old-fashioned head coach who believes in doing things based on instinct.

Now the team has a defensive coordinator who does not answer to the head coach– and a staff that he hired (including his son). Williams has been in the NFL since 1990 (Jackson 2001), has more seasons as a coordinator (16 to 7), more trips to the playoffs, more sins in the playoffs, and two trips to the Super Bowl.

To make matters more interesting, Williams is a big believer in analytics. He uses statistics and computer analysis extensively. It is very likely that Williams will be able to work with the front office to a degree that Hue Jackson can’t.

My guess is that, if Jackson runs into trouble in 2017, Williams will be his replacement– and he’ll get a multi-year contract immediately.  And I’d guess that Williams knows it, even if Jackson doesn’t.

How these people will work effectively together isn’t clear. The reality is that they almost certainly won’t.

The bottom line

My opinion about Gregg Williams was formed long before I first heard his name. He belongs to a type of coach that I… well, let’s say my opinion, depending on the issue, ranges from “dislike” to “detest.”

1. Williams is a one-dimensional coach. He played quarterback in college, but he has never coached offense in the NFL or college. (He might have had some contact with it as a graduate assistant at the University of Houston or as an assistant coach at Excelsior Springs High School.)

Coaches who lack experience on both sides of the ball tend not to succeed. They lack the kind of comprehensive, hands-on knowledge that the great ones use to build champions. A successful head coach is able to talk about the nuts and bolts of playing each position– what body types he likes, what techniques players should use. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it is a factor.

If a coach has to hire other people to do that work for him– if he’s outsourcing, rather than delegating– it’s a weakness that can be exploited.

2. Williams uses only one type of defense. The most successful coaches have been the ones who can use any type of scheme, depending on the players he has– and have, at different points in their careers. The most successful ones use multiple schemes, depending on the situation.

The coaching tree that spawned Gregg Williams has always used a rush-heavy 4-3: George Allen, Jack Pardee, Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher all did it one way. That can be successful, but it usually hasn’t been– as that coaching tree demonstrates. Allen and Fisher lost Super Bowls in their only appearances; Ryan was 1-1 as an assistant.

3. Williams uses an “Us Against Them” philosophy. Every coach tries to make his players work as a unit– with everyone supporting each other and helping beat the opponents. Some coaches take it to extremes. Rather than “We’re all in this together”, they encourage players to think of the players on the other side of the ball as the enemy– even the ones wearing the same uniform.

Offenses and defenses have a natural antipathy. Offensive players have lots of individual statistics; defensive players have fewer. Offensive players were usually higher picks. They make more money and are more coveted in free agency. Offensive players are more popular with the media and fans. Offensive players have longer careers. Offenses usually have more white players.

And, because defenses are paid to tackle offenses, they tend to injure more players.

Some coaches use those facts to manipulate their players into being more aggressive. Sometimes it can be positive– offensive line coaches often say things like “You don’t have to stand there and let them hit you– you can hit them first.”  Other times it can get nasty and racial: “Don’t let those black bastards hit our quarterback.”

Defensive coaches tend to do it more. Jerry Glanville did it. Buddy Ryan and both of his sons do it. Jeff Fisher does it. Gregg Williams does too.

It’s a terrible thing because it splits teams. Whenever the offense fails to score– or turns the ball over– the defense gets hostile. Over time the attitude spreads to the offense– they get angry about every score, every big play allowed and every failure to make turnovers or key stops.

The worst example of what can happen occurred on the 1993 Houston Oilers, where Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan punched Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride. I did a profile of Jack Pardee (when I was going to write a much longer piece on Williams), where I went into this. Pardee, who fired Ryan after the season, put it nicely:

“Buddy was always an idiot. He put some good teams together — actually, he put some good defenses together — but he wasn’t a good team coach. He was always one of those coaches who put guys against each other.”

Jeff Fisher was one of the defensive assistants on that team. So was Williams. They both modeled their approach after Ryan. Their defenses have always been at odds with their offenses, which makes it very hard for the teams to pull together.

4. Williams paid his players to deliberately injure opponents. I don’t want to rehash the whole bounty scandal– if I do, I’ll get too angry. Williams can say what he likes, but he paid players a bonus for big hits– and he didn’t withhold the bonus if they committed a penalty or injured the opponent.

The basic fact is coaches have done this for decades. Not everyone is stupid enough to pay the players– so there is a record. But they give roster spots to people who do it, and make people starters. Enabling people to earn more money for hitting opponents works out to the same thing.

Great coaches do not do that. Many years ago, I talked to several coaches and GMs about a coach who used to reward players for putting people out of the game– first as an assistant, then as a coordinator and then a head coach. One coach put it very simply:

“Those opponents you try to injure are human beings. They have families who depend on them. If things had gone differently [meaning, in the draft or the off-season], any of them could be your players.

“That coach doesn’t respect those players, which means he doesn’t respect his own players and he doesn’t respect the game. He’s a failure as a human being. And it is why he has failed as a coach and will always be a failure as a coach.”

The coach he was talking about did have a longer-than-average career as a head coach, but he was a failure– losing lifetime record, more losing seasons than winning seasons and a losing record in the playoffs. With one exception (Chuck Noll), every coach who has been accused of teaching players to deliberately injure opponents does not have a winning record.

Saying that Noll was accused is not saying that he was guilty. It’s an interesting topic– evidence for and against– which I don’t have time to go into.

The bar for Gregg Williams is very low. All he has to do to be a success here is to outperform Ray Horton. That won’t be difficult. But I would not expect him to build a great defense– nor would I expect him to be a successful head coach if he does (as I expect) succeed Jackson.


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