NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans turned quite a few heads when they hired Gregg Williams in early February and gave him the ambiguous title of senior assistant coach for defense.
Williams had been recently reinstated by the NFL following a year suspension for his involvement with the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate, where players were reportedly encouraged and compensated for injuring opponents.
Then again, Williams returning to the Titans’ fold was considered a no-brainer too, especially for those who follow the team that gave him his first professional coaching job in 1990 (quality control assistant).
As the Titans’ wrapped up their third week of Organized Team Activities last week, Williams had yet to be made available to the media since his initial Feb. 7 news conference. But his presence — and voice — can be heard throughout the team facility and practice field, and his return has many wondering about the overall responsibilities of his job while working with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray.
In fact, there are many who wonder that while Gray might have the title, it is Williams who was hired by Mike Munchak to lead a defense that gave up the most points in the NFL last season — and most in franchise history. It was one of many reasons the team posted a disappointing 6-10 record.
“Gregg is his own guy,” Gray said of coaching alongside Williams. “Gregg is not going to bow down to me and say, ‘Oh, well, this is Jerry’s guy. I’m trying to be a servant.’ You know, Gregg is going to be Gregg, and I will let him do that.”
There is certainly history between Williams and Gray. While rising through the Houston Oilers/Titans ranks from 1990-2000 from coaching special teams to linebackers to eventually being named defensive coordinator in 1997, Williams had Gray on his defensive staff the last four seasons.
When Williams was named head coach at Buffalo in 2001, he took Gray with him as defensive coordinator for five seasons. When Williams was fired and re-surfaced as Washington Redskins defensive coordinator (2006), he added Gray as secondary coach.
So, the first 13 years Gray coached in the league, he did so under Williams’ leadership. That has now changed with Gray being the boss.
Or has it?
“You kind of have two strong guys,” Gray said. “One guy is going to do this, and the other guy is going to do that. Then, we find that balance. And really, that’s what we’re really trying to get right now.”
Williams has always been a fiery coach. By the end of his run with the Titans in 2000, the team had arguably the best defense in the NFL, ranking first in overall defense and second in scoring defense. And he had become that hot coaching commodity from former coach Jeff Fisher’s staff destined to be a head coach, sooner rather than later.
Gray stills sees in Williams what got him to where he eventually landed, including in 2009 helping the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator.
“I think the players like that,” Gray said of how the players are reacting to Williams’ style of aggressive coaching. “The guy I’ve coached with, he’s always been that guy. The guy I was with in Buffalo and Washington and now here, I see the same guy.
“I see a guy who cares about his job and cares about the players and who understands what his role is and tries to get the players to be the best they can be.”
The addition of Williams and several key free agents, especially former Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, is all about a shift to more accountability and an increased sense of urgency. Other defensive free agents signed include safety George Wilson (formerly of Buffalo), defensive tackle Sammie Hill (Detroit), end Ropati Pitoitua (Kansas City), linebacker Moise Foiku (Indianapolis) and tackle Antonio Johnson (Indianapolis).
For Wilson, he understands the link Williams and Gray brings for natural reference to the heyday of this team’s stellar defenses, especially the one that landed in the Super Bowl for the 1999 season. Those seasons are very much the gold standard for the Titans and a desired replication for the defense.
“It would be premature for me to come up and say that we’re back to what the Titans were in 1999 and 2000 when they were making their runs,” Wilson said. “That is certainly the expectations for this defense. Coach Williams was here at that time. There are references in our defensive room about those times.”
Wilson can’t help but notice all the reminders around the team’s facility to such former Titans defensive standouts as defensive end Jevon Kearse, strong safety Blaine Bishop and cornerback Samari Rolle, to name a few.
“Every day, I walk from the locker room to the weight room, I make sure that I spend some time looking at all those images that are up on that wall,” said Wilson, who played for Williams and Gray in Buffalo in 2005.
“That is a part of this franchise’s history,” he added. “That is what we are trying to get back to. That’s the mindset. That’s the expectation. And that’s what we are working toward day in and day out.”
Just how Gray and Williams work together in reversed roles with Gray — on paper, anyway — now being the boss will go a long way in whether this porous defense of the past two years can band together and help produce a winner.
“Gregg has always fit in. That’s the thing about Gregg,” Gray said. “… It’s probably just like here’s a piece of puzzle, and you put the puzzle back together. And it’s good.
“We get a chance to work together, kind of sound things off each other. He’s great at things that I know I am not good at, and I am good at things that I know he is not. I think it’s a great mixture.”