Old tenets key start of new era for Cecil

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With Jim Schwartz's staff assembled in a meeting room back in 2001, the first-year defensive coordinator asked the coaches to do something simple: Jot down some ideas on your defensive philosophies, about what's important to you.

Chuck Cecil had been the Tennessee Titans' defensive quality control coach for a week. He sketched out his thinking, and like the rest of the staff, passed his sheet to Schwartz.

Turns out it made an impression.

At some point Schwartz passed Cecil's write-up to Gregg Williams, whose move to the head job in Buffalo had created room for Schwartz to become coordinator. And Williams liked it, too, enough that he held on to it, pulling it out and revisiting it from time to time as he went from Buffalo to Washington to Jacksonville to New Orleans.

In February at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, not long after Schwartz got the top job in Detroit and Cecil was promoted to replace him, Cecil chatted with Williams.

"He said, 'Remember all those things that you wrote on those notes?'" Cecil said. "He said, 'Now is your chance, don't back out now.'"

That stuck with Cecil, and later he asked Williams for a copy. And Monday, standing in front of the veterans of the defense for the first time, Cecil recalled what he wrote.

"I just tried to let them know how I felt about the game of football and some of the things we expect out of Tennessee Titan defenders," he said Wednesday in his office.

"... The first one was, 'Go hard or go home.' That's the way I signed all my autographs over the years. That's a staple for me. I mean, if you're not going to play hard, we've got no use for you. Go home, there is no room for you here. You don't have to be talented to play hard. If you can't play hard, I don't care how much talent you have. Play hard and then we'll figure out the rest of it."

A no-nonsense type who's kind of shy, Cecil brings an intensity to the job that the defensive backfield knows well -- he was their position coach for the past two years, and three of his starters went to the Pro Bowl last season.

Those who saw and watched seemed to like his method of introduction.

"He basically said, 'A lot of people have been wondering, who is Chuck Cecil?'" nickelback Vincent Fuller said. "And he broke it down. He told us what he was about, he gave us some quotes that he has lived by, played by, and they definitely said 'This is our guy, this is our leader and we're going to go fight for him.'"

Said defensive line coach Jim Washburn: "He's a shy person by nature, but the way he got up and talked? I'm 59 years old and I can read body language and it was good. That was a really nice message he delivered."

It's too easy to look at Schwartz and Cecil and contrast their paths to prominent coaching positions and their resumes.

Schwartz has an economics degree from Georgetown, likes to apply Moneyball-style thinking to football stats, leans heavily on probabilities and preparation, and doesn't often feel a need to find ways to charge up his guys.

Cecil was a fourth-round draft pick, played seven season in the league as a safety and went to a Pro Bowl. He was on a Sports Illustrated cover that asked "Is Chuck Cecil too Vicious for the NFL" and still carries the sort of fire that made him effective.

It's too simple to call Schwartz a game analyzer and predict Cecil will make defensive calls more on gut. And if that line of thinking paints Cecil as not smart, it's unfair.

"The smart guy did leave town," he said. "He's the head coach in Detroit right now. There is no arguing that. Am I as smart as Jimmy? I don't know. I can't tell you that. By the way, I'll get back to you after I'm a coordinator for eight years if I'm lucky enough to do it."

Said Washburn: "I think people are missing the boat on how smart Chuck is. Jim Schwartz is a smart guy, I don't think anybody in football worked harder than Jim Schwartz. He did everything times two. And I think Chuck is the same way. I think Chuck is just as smart as Jim, he's just as committed and he's going to put his own mark on this defense."

You'll see additional spillover from my long talk with Cecil in the AFC South blog over the next couple weeks.

A few things you should know up front:

  • He understands the interest in him, but repeatedly mentioned how the Titans' defense is not about him, it's about the players and the position coaches who will be with those players much more than he will be.

  • He loved working under Schwartz, learned a lot and buys into much of the same thinking, but he's not going to try for a second to be a replica.

  • He won't automatically call more blitzes that compromise coverage if the front four is getting its typical pressure on the quarterback.

And when the Titans play at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, he may be calling the defensive signals for the first time in a meaningful game, but it will hardly be the first time he goes through the process, dialing up schemes and fronts, coverages and pressures.

He's done it some already, but he intends to do it lot more. He'll sit in his office and call up a random game, he'll assess the down and distance, the personnel and the tendencies of the opposing offense, he'll consider what they did on the last play and he'll make that call in his head.

He will roll the film and watch the play unfold, asking how what he called would have worked, computing how what the defense on the field did worked.

"Was that defense good against the play they ran?" he said. "Are you in Cover 2 and they're running the ball? That's advantage them. Now they run it and you're in an eight-man front. Advantage me."

Satisfied he's thought the situation through, he will move on to the next scenario, lubricating the process so it happens quickly and naturally when it counts. Come the preseason and regular season, he'll continue to play games on film, looking specifically at the teams the Titans are preparing for.

How many games does he intend on playing this way?

"Between now and Pittsburgh, I will play probably a couple hundred games like that, that's how you go through it," he said. "And the calls have been made bef
ore the game even starts."

That's what installation and game-planning are about: Against this, we'll run that. Cecil said 80 or 90 percent of the calls he makes will be predetermined, direct dialups from his call sheet based on the Titans' system and plan for what the offense is doing.

Only five or 10 times in a 70-play game does he expect gut to play a part, does he imagine he'll say he's got an eerie feeling about this play and call for something that strays from script.

Cecil has coached from the booth since he joined the Titans. The plan now is to work from the sideline, as did Schwartz and Williams.

Proximity will eliminate any time lapse involved in sending instruction from upstairs, and he'll be able to look players in the eye and have in-game conversations that may be simple instructions to settle down, but can be crucial.

When it comes time to evaluate his defense on film, to assess its play, Cecil will want to use more than his eyes, said Fuller. He'll want to imagine what things sounded and felt like.

"Film doesn't have any sound, but he wants people to be able to feel the pain that we inflict when we hit people out there," Fuller said. "We know from him being our defensive backs coach that he's an aggressive, aggressive coach and he wants a physical, attacking, fast but smart defense."

We'll have to wait to see what tinkering Cecil does with Schwartz' framework, with 10 of 11 starters still in place from a 13-3 team. Linebacker Josh Stamer has an inkling the defense could see more hitting drills that could lead to it being more physical and maybe tackling better.

"Chuck is the true essence of physical football, that's how he played the game," he said. "That's why he is getting inducted to the College Hall of Fame. Everything you think about football -- mean, hits, physical -- that's all what he projects on to us. And I think that's what our defense will be this year."