NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In a blue sports coat over a lighter blue shirt, a skinny Gregg Williams with a dark goatee but a wisp of gray in his hair re-emerged into the public eye of the NFL Thursday afternoon.
The primary offender in Roger Goodell’s case against the New Orleans Saints in a pay-for-injury scandal, Williams has a one-year contract with the same franchise with which he started his NFL coaching career.
He said he spent the past year quietly talking to teams and football organizations starting from Pop Warner on up. He traveled to destinations like Thailand, working at orphanages in impoverished villages. He attended all 13 of Virginia Tech’s games to see his son play. And he generally reorganized his life.
The man who hired him as the Titans' senior assistant/defense, Mike Munchak, emphasized the Titans wanted Williams looking forward, not back.
While Williams didn’t address anything specific about the league’s bounty case, he did speak in detail about his time away.
“You learn an awful lot about yourself under the most difficult circumstances, some of the most stressful circumstances,” he said. “You learn a lot about your family and friends too. And one of the things I’ve always kind of chosen to do is take any kind of situation and turn it into an opportunity to improve.
“One of the things that I really did this year was focus on as many self-improvement things as I could. It was a great study year. It was a great year to lose a lot of weight and get back healthy. It was a great year to travel.”
He spoke of his passion and love for football, and how grateful he is to be back.
And he knows he’s got a reputation to restore and he expects to be effective.
“Dealing with people I’ve always been very good, dealing with difficult people I’ve always been very good,” he said.
During his suspension, I thought too much was made of the idea that Williams could never gain the faith or trust of players in the NFL again if he got another chance.
I argued that players have little choice about who’s in front of them delivering the message, and if they choose not to follow it, a team could easily replace them with a player who would.
Williams faced multiple questions about his ability to be effective in his return, and said something similar, but far more gently.
“Every day is an interview,” he said. “And each person you meet, each person you start building relationships with, trust comes from how you’re dealing with them. The players that you deal with in the National Football League, the most important thing they want is: Can you help me get better? Can you help me keep my job one more day? Can you help me win games? Can you help me make more money?
“I think that all those things will come about. I’m not afraid to garner trust, I’m not afraid to start new and do anything I have to do.”
Later he circled back to the theme: “Ninety-nine percent of the people I come into contact with are pleasers.”
Williams talked about getting an average guy to good, a good guy to great, and said when you have a great guy “he’s got to be great on your watch.” I saw him do a lot of that when he was an Oilers-Titans assistant and I was on the beat for The Tennessean from 1996 through 2000.
After he left, as head coach in Buffalo, as coordinator in Washington, as coordinator in Jacksonville and as coordinator in New Orleans, he produced some good defenses and helped plenty of players. But he also got sidetracked sometimes -- by his ego, by a bit of a showman's need to perform, by talking in a meeting room about killing the head or taking out an ACL. (Remind me, was that a bullhorn or an air horn he used while walking through the Bills' dorms to wake players at training camp?)
If he has truly reorganized his life and if he gets back to the basics and can help make players better again, the Titans will get a payoff for their faith.
On some other key topics:
Big hits: Williams doesn’t think the Titans' defense will draw an extra spotlight or that big hits by players he coaches will fall under greater scrutiny because of his background.
I like to think the league’s officials will be fair. I think the media will look especially closely at anything that could be construed as iffy, and while that may not be fair to the defenders making those hits it’ll be a fact of life for this team for a time.
Power: Munchak said Jerry Gray is the defensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator will call plays, but he also slid in a “right now.” Gray has worked under Munchak in nine of his 16 NFL seasons and said he welcomes Williams.
“When Mike asked me, that was an easy decision,” Gray said. “I said bring him on. We’re probably more like brothers than anything.”
The thing is that Williams has always been the older brother, the coach with more power. And now it’s the younger brother who’s technically got more power.
Things like that don’t flip really naturally. It’ll be fine if the Titans rebound to play well unless there is a debate over credit. If they don’t play well, there could be more strain.
It’s all about sharing and sorting through opinions for the good of the team.
Style: Williams was always a loud coach, who thought he could put players under stress in practice that would help them handle stress in games. He branded one young pair of defensive backs with the Titans “Dumb” and “Dumber.”
“I’ll need to change some things verbiagewise, some things tactwise, yeah,” he said when asked about altering his style. “I’m excited about doing that. The bottom line is still getting the player to perform … I’m looking forward to some of the newer ways you need to do things.”
Competitiveness: He said the thing he missed most was the competition of a Sunday afternoon or a Monday night.
There are other things he could do in life, but he wouldn’t cherish them the way he cherishes coaching at the highest level.
“I’m a competition addict,” he said. “I enjoy that aspect of competing. I’m not going to apologize for that, the aspect of competing in that way. I’ve got to make sure it’s done in the right way and those are the things I’m anxious to get started about doing.”
Philosophy: Both Gray and Williams will talk about shaping the scheme to the talent. All coaches do.
But Gray’s defense last year was often passive, with the guys in coverage playing far off receivers. Williams’ best defenses were known for his trademark aggression.
“I’d rather be aggressive than passive,” Williams said. “Sometimes the fastest approach to getting a job done is being more aggressive. And that can be style of defense, scheme of defense, attitude of defense.”
Later he talked about the necessity of a blend to the talent level and a mix of bend-don’t-break to go with aggression that fits best for the Titans' defensive roster.