Like a rock ‘n’ roll group getting back together for a reunion tour, those who know Jeff Fisher said he wanted to “put the band back together” for one last run at the Lombardi Trophy when hired by the Rams in 2012.
Fisher brought trusted aides Dave McGinnis, Chuck Cecil and Gregg Williams with him, coaches who had enjoyed much success working for Fisher over the years in Tennessee. However, Williams didn’t last long thanks to the “Bountygate” scandal in 2012.
But after Williams’ year-long suspension by the NFL and then a season as a senior assistant with the Titans, he finally is reunited with Fisher. The band is back together.
“It’d be no greater thing for me than to say this is my last move,” Williams, 55, said Thursday during his introductory news conference as Rams defensive coordinator. “I’ve had an opportunity to work and coach at a lot of good organizations in the National Football League, and I really look forward to working for this organization right here. And potentially retire right here and win an awful lot of games.”
Fisher and Williams won a lot of games the last time they worked together. In the four seasons that Williams was Fisher’s defensive coordinator — from 1997 through 2000 — Tennessee went 42-22, won a division title and played in Super Bowl XXXIV against coach Dick Vermeil’s Rams.
That level of success was more impressive when you consider that the first two seasons of that mini-run — ’97 and ’98 — Fisher’s Tennessee team was in the midst of arguably the toughest franchise relocation, from Houston, in NFL history.
In 1997, Tennessee played in Memphis, which just a few years earlier had fallen short in a lengthy and costly bid to land an expansion team.
Still smarting from that civic setback, the good citizens of Memphis didn’t exactly embrace the Oilers/Titans. In ’98, the Titans finally made it Nashville but played at Vanderbilt University.
With Williams orchestrating a snarling, aggressive defense, the Titans posted back-to-back 13-3 season in 1999 and 2000. That ’00 squad finished No. 1 overall in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.
“We had good players,” Fisher recalled. “When you’ve got good players, and you put ’em in the right position, and don’t ask them to do things they can’t do, they’ve got a chance to be productive. And philosophically speaking we share the same ideas as far as that concerned.”
Williams parlayed that success into a head-coaching job in 2001 with Buffalo, and continued a trend that followed him.
In Buffalo, Washington, and New Orleans he also had a top five defense. If you expand it to top 10 defenses, Williams has had six top 10 defenses in 15 seasons as a head coach or defensive coordinator.
Regardless of how you feel about Williams’ indiscretions (Bountygate) or eccentricities (collecting playbooks), he has a top-shelf résumé. Fisher would like nothing more than for Williams to add to that résumé in St. Louis and recreate some of the magic they concocted together in Tennessee.
It has been 14 years since they last worked together, and Williams doesn’t want to live in the past.
“The late ’90s, it was a different game,” Williams said. “The game has evolved. ... We’ve got to get ready to play the 2014 version of the National Football League.”
It’s all about continuing to adapt, improvise and evolve Williams said, as the game evolves around you.
“If you’re not looking to improve and get better, you get passed by in this league,” Williams said. “You’ll get avalanched in this league.”
The last thing Fisher wants is for the Rams to get avalanched in the ultra-competitive NFC West. With that in mind, Fisher wants to lock Williams in his office all offseason concocting lethal defensive schemes. Kind of like a “Mad” Mike Martz, only on defense.
“I told Gregg that this time around he’s gonna be the Mad Scientist,” Fisher said. “He’s not gonna do a lot of player evaluations. I’m not gonna take his time up and have him evaluate unrestricted free agents and get ready for the draft. I want him to take this defense and run with it. And let us handle that part.”
For those wondering what Rams player reaction would be to the hiring of Williams, Fisher got an immediate reaction two weeks ago when the initial reports came out during Super Bowl week.
“My phone was blowing up,” Fisher said. “Guys were excited. Really excited. And that’s good to see.”
One of the cornerstones of the Rams’ defense, linebacker James Laurinaitis, was in the athletic trainer’s room at Rams Park that day. Fisher came downstairs and personally told him the news.
“The football business is a crazy business to say the least,” Laurinaitis said. “Whatever direction Coach Fisher and Les (Snead) and Kevin (Demoff) and everyone wants to take this organization, I’m fully behind it.”
Snead is the team’s general manager; Demoff, the executive vice president for football operations and chief operating officer.
“Coach Fisher knows what he’s doing,” Laurinaitis said. “People are excited that they’re going to be able to play for Gregg now. That’s what I thought we were going to do a couple years ago. I’m excited for the opportunity, because everyone I’ve talked to ... they said by far he’s the most fun coach they’ve played for.”
Included in that group of players, Laurinaitis said, are current teammate Jo-Lonn Dunbar and former college teammate Malcolm Jenkins. Both played for Williams in New Orleans.
Asked if he had any qualms about playing for Williams given the Bountygate revelations, Laurinaitis said, “I think that’s a thing of the past, and I think Gregg has learned from it and changed.
“He’s one of those coaches that you’re gonna buy into his program, and he’s gonna have your back. You’ll have freedom as a football player to make decisions on the field and adjustments. It’s not just, ‘Hey, this is X and O, and you’re gonna go here no matter what.’ ... You love playing for a guy that gives you freedom to be a football player.”
Interesting comments because there were locker-room whispers late in the season that since-fired coordinator Tim Walton had a rigid approach and didn’t seek or encourage input from the players.