Reeling Redskins awash in troubles

Updated: November 26, 2006, 6:53 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN The Magazine

They're irrelevant by Thanksgiving again, and somehow there hasn't been steam coming out of Joe Gibbs' ears. I covered Gibbs in the '80s, the glory '80s, when losses were like death, when he micromanaged, when he used to bring in his struggling players and offer them a bible. One year, the punt team couldn't cover a kick, so he hired a second special teams coach. One year, a player anonymously ripped his methods in the press, so he called a team meeting and ordered the mystery player to raise his hand. Nobody did. He might've been cut.

Williams: Team still with me
The Redskins' defense responded in Sunday's 17-13 win over Carolina, flying to the ball more than it had all season. The secondary didn't bite on double moves or pump fakes, the safeties stayed deep, Carlos Rogers was flawless, the defense generated a pass rush on Jake Delhomme without blitzing, and the maligned Sean Taylor ended the last two Carolina drives with a tackle and an interception.

Whether the anonymous quotes in Friday's column (left) rallied the unit is unclear, although someone in the organization printed them out and passed them around the locker room Saturday morning. At their team meeting Saturday night, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs simply asked the players to keep their grievances in-house.

"We tackled, we tackled well,'' defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said after the game on Comcast SportsNet, "and I don't care what you call on defense. If you don't tackle well, you're not going to perform very well or you're not going to produce very well...There are some prideful men in that locker room. Getting back to the basics and the fundamentals part of it&our players rose up, and give them the credit."

Asked if the defense still believes in him, Williams said, "Yeah, they're diehard Redskins, and when you have strong character kind of players and the kind of people we've gone and tried to bring in here, they'll rise up and do those things.''

Still, Rogers insinuated the anonymous quotes did what the coaches couldn't do all year: rile the defense.

"My biggest thing is, we're in this together, the coaches and the players, and whatever is said about Gregg, we say it to ourselves as a defense," Rogers said Sunday. "We've got his back, we know he's got our back ... Being 3-7, you're going to get a lot of things written about you and a lot of people want to break a team up further than it was."

Added safety Shawn Springs: "Yeah, Gregg is arrogant, but so am I. I like the confidence he brings to the team, and I personally felt that whoever said it [anonymously], should've came out and said [who he was]. Now one thing you know about me, if I feel that way, I will go and tell the coach that, because I've developed that type of relationship with Gregg and Coach Gibbs and Steve Jackson ... And some things in there are probably very true. They are true. Some things are true in there. But the thing is, we are still a family."

That's ancient history now, because Joe Gibbs is 3-7 and, by all accounts, a grandfather figure at Redskin Park. You ask players what they think of him, and they say, "Good dude." If Joe Gibbs was 3-7 in 1987, nobody would've been saying "Good dude" -- they'd have been cursing him for the three-hour practices. Joe, the first time around, would've fixed this by now, but instead he appears to be a burned out coach again, who is allowing his defensive coaching staff to run amok.

For whatever reason, this stubborn, controlling, innovative Hall of Fame coach has chosen to be more of an observer this season, to be a CEO, to let his millionaire coordinators earn their keep. That's why the team doesn't have his smashmouth mentality anymore, his fingerprints. I asked an Indianapolis Colts defender what he thought of Al Saunders' Redskins offense, and he said, "Gimmicky." I asked a Redskins player what he thought of defensive guru Gregg Williams, and he said, "Arrogant. Thinks he invented the wheel."

It is a fractured team that, frankly, needs the old Gibbs to intervene. A year ago, when the team was 5-6, he held player meetings, got the pulse of the locker room and rode Clinton Portis and a stout defense to the second round of the playoffs. It was vintage Gibbs; he personally willed them to January. But now, on Thanksgiving weekend of '06, it's apparent last year taxed him way too much. He doesn't call plays anymore. He may or may not have the pulse of the locker room anymore. And he may or may not be fuming about it anymore.

So that's where we are, trying to understand why the Washington Redskins are the biggest flop, the biggest turkey of the season. You originally could've argued for Miami, or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, but not any longer. Miami's gotten hot behind Joey Harrington, and Tampa Bay lost its starting quarterback early, and Pittsburgh's suffering through a predictable post-Super Bowl malaise.

So, no doubt, that leaves the Redskins. Forbes Magazine keeps saying they are the most valuable NFL franchise, the Yankees of football. Their offensive and defensive coordinators earn approximately $5 million a year combined, their budget is the moon, and owner Dan Snyder's jet -- Redskin One -- is probably already fueling up to greet Nate Clements and Dwight Freeney on the first day of 2007 free agency.

They are money-driven, but not always money-wise, and the decisions to throw cash at every problem, or free agent, or coach, has created ego and narcissism. It's not necessarily Gibbs' fault, because he didn't draw it up this way or imagine it happening, but the almighty dollar has created too many power trips at Redskin Park, or as one Redskins player said, "Too many chiefs and not enough indians." Naturally, heads, or chiefs, may roll this coming offseason, including Williams' and some of Williams' staff. But that's getting ahead of ourselves, ahead of how this all came about.

To simplify matters, and to understand this year's 3-7 record, you have to go back to Gibbs' first comeback year of 2004. On offense, he put his old band together, bringing back coaches Don Breaux, Joe Bugel and Rennie Simmons, all good, loyal, stand-up guys who played huge roles in the Super Bowl years. They were all affable workaholics, and humble, too, but when they returned for Gibbs' second stint, they appeared bumbling and overmatched, stuck in 1983. And from what I'm told, no one felt that more than the defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams.

Williams told people that the offense was almost "high school" that first year. Gibbs, Breaux and Bugel were practically holding caucuses before every play call, continually wasting timeouts, and the defense was forced all year to carry the team. And in all fairness, Williams' group was spectacular. He used about three basic defenses and coverages, blitzed from all angles and asked his players to fly to the ball and play uninhibited. They were the No. 3 defense in the NFL, and a young middle linebacker named Antonio Pierce, an undrafted free agent from Arizona, was the absolute key to the unit. An injury to Michael Barrow forced Williams to move Pierce inside, where he'd never played before, but Pierce was smart, got people lined up, played sideline to sideline and was particularly fierce against the run. It was a pleasant surprise, and with the ball-hawking rookie safety Sean Taylor free to roam the field behind him, it was a physical, championship-type defense.

Williams, who'd been fired the previous year as the Bills' head coach, had a ton of adulation tossed his way, and his swagger at Redskin Park was unmatched. He liked to tell people that he'd only agreed to take the job if Snyder "didn't stick his nose" into personnel matters, and Snyder -- who wanted to win in the worst way -- had agreed. That gave Williams a feeling of invincibility, and considering the egg that the offense laid that year in comparison, he probably deserved to feel that way.

But it was a blind confidence, and when Pierce became a free agent after the 2004 season, and talks began to stall, Williams, according to Redskins sources, claimed Pierce was "replaceable." It was the first hint of arrogance under the new Gibbs regime, a sense that Williams felt it was his system, not the players, that dominated offenses. Cornerback Fred Smoot was also a free agent at the time, and again, Williams felt Smoot was expendable, even though losing a starting linebacker and a starting corner would necessitate an extensive defensive overhaul.

Of course, that made a mess of the draft. Instead of selecting the pass rusher they needed -- Shawne Merriman or Demarcus Ware -- they had to waste their first-round pick on replacing Smoot, and took a shot at Auburn cornerback Carlos Rogers. All their other picks basically went to Denver in a trade to get Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, and so they had to replace Pierce from within. That meant Lemar Marshall, a career outside linebacker and converted DB, had to move inside for 2005, which was an outright risk.

But actually, again, Williams overachieved. Marshall played the pass better than Pierce did, although Williams did have to scheme more to stop the occasional bleeding on defense. He went often to Cover 2 defenses, meaning his safeties would play deeper, and his front seven would have to stop the run themselves. In other words, no "eight men in the box" to stop the run. But Tatum Bell and Tiki Barber exposed that run defense early, and the safeties were told they had to step up and stop the run from Cover 2, until the front seven got their act together. The insertion of LaVar Arrington into the run defense (for Warrick Holdman) helped get that solidified, although Arrington was again a clear victim of Williams' ego. Arrington was the highest-paid defender, and prone to freelancing -- he acted like he was bigger than the team -- and Williams was there to humble him. He made him a scapegoat, and wouldn't even talk to him at times, but once Arrington finally shut his mouth and acquiesced, he got to play. Was he an impact player anymore? No. But he helped stop the run, allowing them to play the Cover 2, and the defense went on a late-season tear to help get hobbling quarterback Mark Brunell to the playoffs.

The Skins finished as the No. 9 defense in the league, and Williams was naturally an absolute god in the minds of fans, and to some degree, Gibbs and Snyder. It's likely he would've been a front-runner for the Rams', Vikings' and Texans' head coaching jobs, but the Redskins tied him up with a ridiculous three-year contract worth a reported $8 million and a promise that if he didn't replace Gibbs as head coach, he'd earn another cool million. Well, that was power, and when it came time to recruit prospective free agents, Williams was heard bragging that he made more money than the head coaches he was recruiting against, that he carried more lumber than some head coaches in the league. Whether it was true or not, he believed it, and the players believed it, and that's how this all started heading downhill.

The first thing Williams did was wave goodbye to Arrington after the 2005 season, and deservedly so, because Arrington wasn't worth his contract or his griping. But Arrington was still, other than Taylor, the Redskins' most physical player, and he'd been disrespected by Williams publicly. And that's what didn't sit well with the teammates Arrington had left behind. Some players said they felt Williams never took the blame around Redskin Park, just passed it on, and now that he'd just received this jumbo pay hike, he was going to be even more incorrigible. The players felt it. They saw him jettison another cover corner, Walt Harris, who's intercepting passes now in San Francisco, and steady Ryan Clark, who has Troy Polamalu's back in Pittsburgh now, and veteran safety Omar Stoutmire, who's starting in New Orleans. They saw a revolving door. Again.

So that takes us to now, takes us to a Gregg Williams defense that is ranked last -- last! -- in the NFC. Opposing quarterbacks have a collective 103 passer rating against them, and on third downs, the Redskins give up a first down 43.5 percent of the time. They can't get off the field, and now it's the offensive coaches who have to be wondering if Williams is "high school."

Daniel Snyder
William E. Amatucci Jr./WireImage.comDaniel Snyder isn't one to be patient with a struggling team.
The problem, according to a notable Redskins player, is a scheme, a staff and a play-calling regimen that is flawed and predictable, and a sense that Williams is on too much of a power trip to adjust.

"Why are we the 30th defense in the league? I think coaches got arrogant, I think Gregg got arrogant," the player said Tuesday, asking not to be identified. "They thought they figured it all out. They thought, 'We can win with scheme, we don't need players.' Don't be mistaken, this is a player-driven game, and so you need players. Any time in life when somebody thinks they've got it all figured out, it's going to come and get you. It's going to come and get you … the sentiment is a lot of guys are mad because the coaches think it's all about them. They think they're f------ geniuses, thinking they can just let guys go and get away with handling people badly."

To be specific, Redskins defenders, particularly in the secondary, have regressed, Taylor being the main culprit. Out of the University of Miami, Taylor was arguably the most-talented cover safety to enter the league in years. His first preseason game, he intercepted two passes, returning one for a score. But he's been tinkered with so much now, Redskins players say he no longer plays on instinct.

A lot of Taylor's woes can be traced a lot to the hiring of Steve Jackson as Redskins safety coach. Jackson came with Williams from Buffalo, where he was a lower-level defensive coach, and Jackson supposedly was hurt when Williams chose DeWayne Walker as his main secondary coach in 2003 and 2004. He wanted the job himself, and when Walker left after the 2005 season, he assumed he'd get it. But Williams' old defensive coordinator in Buffalo, Jerry Gray, had just become available, and Williams hired him. Jackson was ticked.

So Williams threw him a bone, a bone which has literally torn up the secondary. He made Jackson safeties coach and Gray cornerbacks coach and allowed Jackson to run his own meetings. That means that the Redskins' safeties and corners do not meet together, which is practically unheard of.

"Talk to any coach in the league, and ask them, 'Have you ever heard of corners and safeties not meeting together?'" the Redskins player says. "They'd say, 'What are you talking about?' That's crazy. But ever since minicamps, OTAs, training camp, we hadn't met as a secondary. On the field, the corners will start making a call or doing something, and the safeties will be, 'What are you talking about? We didn't go over that.' So now the corners are expecting help in certain situations, and the safeties aren't getting there in time. And people got beat in the secondary.

"Everybody was saying they had to start meeting together. So the last three weeks they have. But 40 percent of the time Steven Jackson's not in the meeting. Because he pouts, because Jerry's running the meeting."

On the field, Jackson's (and presumably Williams') techniques aren't working, either. The innovators of Cover 2, such as Monte Kiffin and Tony Dungy, want their safeties staying deep, 2 yards inside the numbers and staying squared up. They want them reading the quarterback and breaking downhill on everything.

But Jackson began teaching Taylor and Co. not to read the quarterback, but to read the receivers' breaks and releases and react accordingly. He wanted them to be aggressive out of Cover 2, to help on the run, even though Cover 2 is not known to be a run-stopping defense. Williams wants to call it a lot because, ideally, if you can stop the run with a Cover 2, you have the best of both worlds, because it's specifically designed to prevent the deep ball. But Jackson kept exhorting Taylor and his early-season safety mate, Adam Archuleta, to be aggressive playing the run out of the Cover 2, and they began to get beat on the play-action pass repeatedly.

According to the Redskins player, Jackson then began berating his players profanely -- although he tends to go lighter on Taylor -- and they reached bottom in Philadelphia, when Donte' Stallworth beat Taylor deep for an 84-yard touchdown. Witnesses say that at that point, the other defensive coaches became officially peeved at Jackson for making Taylor "play like a robot," and for turning him into a confused, regressing player who now tunes out coaches and teammates.

"And then Steve Jackson began pouting at practice," the player said. "He pouts at practice. He'll stand by himself and won't coach anybody. This last game in Tampa, we had a player at halftime go up to him and say, 'Are you going to just sit there and pout, or are you gonna f------ coach your guys up?'"

Williams, in the meantime, has not backed off of calling the Cover 2, perhaps out of stubbornness. And the rest of the league has clearly caught on.

"Guys are saying teams have figured Gregg out, his M.O.," the Redskins defender said. "They know he's going to play the run with Cover 2. They know he's going to come and blitz [leaving corners on an island] on third down, and none of our blitzes are getting there anymore. We're trying to get too cute, we're trying to reinvent the wheel, instead of understanding what wins football games.

"Gregg Williams, I don't understand. They're so arrogant around here, they think they can stop the run in Cover 2. When it's an obvious running down, he calls Cover 2. That's a seven-man front. They're going to get 4 yards a carry every time. There might be some games where, hey, we're playing the crap out of the run in Cover 2. Well, that's great. Then, you call it. But when you're getting gashed Cover 2, Cover 2, and they come out in two tight ends, two running backs, and one wide receiver and we're in Cover 2. … And if we don't call Cover 2, we blitz. And you live by the blitz, you die by the blitz."

Gregg Williams
Getty ImagesGregg Williams has led the Redskins' defense since being fired at Buffalo.
There have been myriad scapegoats, too, all players that Williams asked for. Scapegoat No. 1: Andre Carter. He was brought in to rush the passer, but players say Williams calls so many run stunts, he's not being allowed to do what he does best: speed rush.

"Last year, the D-line started playing well when they straight started rushing the passer," the player said. "They could beat guys one on one and get in a rhythm and tee off. Now, we're trying to get too exotic, so we've got Cornelius Griffin doing exotic stuff, who doesn't rush on third down anymore basically. … All these stunts and games? The D-linemen are just saying, man, just let us go, just let us go."

Scapegoat No. 2: Archuleta. Bears coach Lovie Smith, Archuleta's former coordinator and mentor in St. Louis, badly wanted him in Chicago, and Archuleta preferred Smith, too. But the Redskins offered the richest deal ever for a safety, and Archuleta accepted it -- according to his agent Gary Wichard -- because Williams promised him he'd blitz him more than Smith, that he'd keep him in the box. Instead, Archuleta's blitzed only a handful of times, and has been benched for Troy Vincent and now Vernon Fox.

Wichard says that Jackson and Williams haven't spoken to Archuleta since the Redskins' bye four weeks ago, and that rookie Reed Doughty, who's been mostly inactive this year, is getting reps ahead of him in practice this week. That means Archuleta, who signed for a $10 million bonus last spring, is on the scout team, which baffles plenty of NFL executives.

Scapegoat No. 3: Rogers. He's the cornerback that was left on an island on the go-ahead touchdown Sunday against Tampa Bay's Joey Galloway. Williams blitzed and missed, costing the team the score. Afterward, Williams took public blame for the call, a rarity, but a Redskins player said, "No, he didn't. In meetings, Carlos still heard about it."

So what you have, according to one Redskins player, is a fractured defense that isn't playing passionately for Williams anymore. After making examples of Pierce, Smoot, Arrington, Harris, Clark, Stoutmire -- and now Carter, Archuleta and Rogers -- the morale appears beyond repair.

"I think guys are fed up, man," the Redskins player said. "This is what I heard. Guys are talking. They're saying that's why Gregg started losing the team in Buffalo. Because guys got sick of it, sick of getting disrespected. There's a difference between being hard and coaching and disrespecting people all the time and calling people out. He started calling three or four guys out in the team meeting the Saturday night before the Philadelphia game. Just calling certain guys out for certain behavior and this and that. We're talking about 12 hours before the game, and you're calling different guys out for stuff? On- and off-the-field stuff? Just talking mess, going through your rant or whatever. Man, look, guys are getting fed up. And they're saying, a lot of guys in Buffalo, his last year in Buffalo, a lot of guys started popping back to him, popping off to him. Because you can't be a Buddy Ryan anymore in this league. You can't do it.

"And Gregg Williams says all the time, it's not my money. If Gregg was the one writing the checks, I don't know if he'd handle it that way. But he says it in meetings. He gives us speeches about, 'If you don't know what to do, you're going to be standing next to me on the sideline, I don't give a f---. That's where you're going to be. I need to be able to trust you. Hey, it's not my money. I don't care how much you make, I don't care who you are, I'm not the one writing the check, you need to know your assignments, know what to do.' That's what Gregg says. I wonder how Snyder would feel if he heard that one."

Snyder, according to sources, knows all about this, and, there is a sense the front office will push to replace Jackson and perhaps even Williams next season. At the same time, Williams still has supporters in the organization, too. They say the players ripping him have axes to grind, that Williams isn't the one whiffing on tackles and botching coverages. They say it's horrendous that one angry, anonymous player won't go on the record with his complaints, and they point out Williams hasn't played with a full roster all season. For instance, Williams has had to operate much of the year without a healthy Shawn Springs, his best corner, and without safety Pierson Prioleau, who was going to start for Archuleta on opening night until he tore his ACL on the opening kickoff. It doesn't help, either, that linebackers Marshall and Holdman aren't tackling well (Marshall's coming off of shoulder surgery), and there are some defensive players who aren't afraid to point the finger at themselves.

"You can't argue with Gregg Williams because we were No. 3 and No. 9 [in total defense] in previous years, so you can't argue that he's not a good coach," defensive end Phillip Daniels told the Washington Post last week. "The thing for us to do as players is we've got to look at ourselves in the morning to say, 'What can I do to help this team?' Whether it means studying more or anything little, technique and stuff like that, we've got to do it all right for it to work. And right now I don't think all the guys are doing all their technique and studying as hard as they need to study."

The question has been whether the CEO, Gibbs, will address this, and, apparently, he has decided to become more hands-on again. He has been preoccupied with the offense, concerned that Saunders isn't pounding the ball enough, frustrated by injuries to Portis and receiver Santana Moss and resigned to the fact that strapping Jason Campbell is his future at quarterback. But on Wednesday, he couldn't ignore the team's general malaise any longer. In his regular team meeting, he essentially stomped his feet for the first time since last season, told his players they aren't playing physical enough, that it's time to play more smash-mouth, that everybody would be evaluated from here on out. Whether he was talking about the coaches, too, who knows? Whether he will start from scratch defensively next season, who knows? But with Williams obviously unable to stir the passions of the defense, Gibbs had little choice but to butt in.

Of course, whether the problems are solved won't be clear until late December. But if they collapse again, what will the Hall of Fame coach do next? Call another meeting and ask the angry, dissenting players to raise their hands? That would be so 1980s of him. That would be a start.

Tom Friend, a senior writer at ESPN Magazine, covered the Washington Redskins for the Washington Post from 1987-1989.