Tennessee coach Mike Munchak knew he'd have a bullseye on his back when he stuck his neck out and hired Gregg Williams as the team's senior assistant on defense (that's the real title) last month. So many questions surround the hire, and will surround it, until the Titans begin playing and we can all judge whether Williams, whose career on the field and off went down in flames his last year in New Orleans, was a smart import to help Jerry Gray run the Tennessee defense.
For now, Williams has much to prove. He has to prove he's not out to maim offensive players, for one. He has to prove he can gain the trust of a group of players, many of whom don't know anything about him other than the scurrilous audio recording that featured him saying before a 2011 playoff game in San Francisco that his players should "kill the head'' of Frank Gore -- and that he orchestrated the payment system with the Saints that ruined the team's 2012 season. And he has to prove he can be a team player on a coaching staff now, subservient, after years of being a coordinator or head coach.
At the league meetings last week in Phoenix, I asked Munchak to explain the hire. And Munchak, who is often alarmingly disarming when discussing his decisions, was blunt when talking about Williams -- the good and the minefields. As when he discussed Williams' incredible confidence as a coach and playcaller ... confidence bordering on blind cockiness. Munchak and Williams were recently talking about how to defend the read-option, the increasing use of the spread offense, and the hurry-up stuff so many teams are using. "Gregg's reaction when we were talking about how to stop the new stuff is, 'Let's hope they run that against us.' No matter what it is, it's 'Let's hope they do that.' ''
Munchak thought for a second. "That's been Gregg's blessing,'' he said, "and that's been his curse."
Of course -- because in his last year in New Orleans, Williams' blitzes were abject failures. His risk-taking against San Francisco turned out to be part of the Saints' downfall that day, including one that left the left side mostly naked when Alex Smith took off on a long end-sweep touchdown. Munchak, and the Titans, hope Williams' brash all-or-nothing schemes will be tamped down working with coaches less inclined to throw so many risky blitzes at the quarterback.
As for the other stuff, Munchak went into a fairly long monologue about why he hired Williams, and why he thinks he's the right man at the right time for a defense that allowed 375 yards a game -- and a league-high 29.4 points per game.
"The stuff Gregg said, I heard him say it a hundred times, going back to when we [the Oilers] hired him as a quality-control in 1990. I never thought he crossed the line. It was just the way he talked. Rah rah. No one ever thought he meant to hurt anyone. If I didn't know him, his words would probably be a problem. But I knew Gregg. I'd heard it all before.
"He doesn't mean to go out there and actually hurt somebody. When you read the words on paper, knock the guy out, you want to hurt him, I don't think players' minds go there. They don't want to end someone's career. They want to make a guy uncomfortable. They want to take a guy out of his game. Not to hurt someone. I never saw it as, 'Go hurt someone.' ''
I said: "What about, 'Kill the head?' ''
Said Munchak: "To me, that's more, 'Get in his head.' Make a guy question and wonder about his ability. Then he's not going to play so well. That's not where I go with it. I know that's not where he went with it. Words obviously can get you in trouble. I think it's smart that the league makes you responsible for the words that come out of your mouth. The culture does have to change, and he understands that.
"I talked to [Titans line coach] Bruce Matthews, I talked to guys on our staff. It was just me looking into it at first. I thought I was getting numb to it. I talked to the commissioner. The more I thought of it, I thought, 'This would make sense.' But I asked Bruce what he thought. He played 19 years, he's not into the rah-rah crap. He said, 'He didn't mean to do that. He didn't mean what he said.'
"When I talked to Jerry Gray, he smiled and said, 'I think that's a great idea.' I think Gregg's going to make Jerry a great football coach.
"But you don't want to bring in someone to hurt your team. So I talked to players. They were good with it, the ones I talked to. I couldn't reach out too much because I didn't want it to get in the media. There's no doubt there's healing needed in this situation. He made mistakes. He didn't run from that. Did he say things where he should have stopped? Yes. Did things get out of hand? Definitely. He admitted it. He said, 'That's my fault. It's on me.' He took responsibility, was suspended, shut up, didn't say 'Poor old me,' even though it wasn't all him, realized he had to change his ways, and he'll do that, I know he will. People believe in second chances, but most of 'em don't want to be the first to give a second chance. But we were in the right spot to do it. He grew up with us, used to yell at the guys like he was a coordinator. He'd banter with them every day. Guys loved it.
"As I went through the process, I kept looking for the bump in the road. If I found one, I would have stopped it. But I never found one."
I told Munchak that the one thing he could look forward to is more competitive practices. Drew Brees said the first year Williams was in New Orleans, the Super Bowl season of 2009, practices were as tough as games, because Williams made them that way.
"I know that,'' said Munchak. "I've seen that. I'm hoping when Jake Locker gets off to a great start he'll stand up in a press conference and say, 'I am getting challenged in practice more than I ever have in my life.' ''
So we'll see. We'll see if Williams can let Gray keep the coordinator reins without feeling threatened, and we'll see if Williams can temper his quote-unquote enthusiasm. The world will be watching.
Now for your email:
WHY NO LOVE FOR URLACHER? "Not so much a question but a statement. Funny that you wrote, quoting Brian Urlacher, 'I like to think of myself as a regular guy, except I play football for a living. I try not to be an arrogant turd out there.' I think his arrogance is why you don't have more Bears fans in such an uproar, no pun intended, about him being cut. He has become extremely arrogant over the last few years while being on the field less. I don't speak for every Bears fan, but I know I'm not that heartbroken over him not staying with the team.''
-- Josh Sheibe, Pico Rivera, Calif.
Define 'extremely arrogant.' He's been critical of the fans a couple of times. He thinks the fans have short memories. You know what I think of great players in decline who lash out two or three times? I think: big deal. He's done far, far more good in his time in Chicago than bad.
ON THE CROWN OF THE HELMET RULE, SORT OF. "If safety is an issue when will it be illegal for that stiff arm to be to the facemask? If a lineman does it the penalty is hands to the face, if a defender does it the penalty is a facemask, if a runner does it then it is just a running back being tough. I would think being punched in the head by a 200-pound-plus running back at full speed is just about as dangerous as him lowering his head into my chest.''
-- Scott, Fort Lauderdale
An open-hand stiffarm to the face or helmet is okay. I can't say that I've seen many punches in the helmet by a stiffarming ballcarrier over the years.
MORE ON THE CROWN. "Re: the new crown of the helmet rule. I agree with all five points you offered in MMQB, and yet I still disagree with the new rule. One of the main reasons I disagree was the fifth point you offered. The officials will screw up calling this over and over. How is adding a rule, that everybody knows will be very hard for officials to call, a good idea? Where does the front of the helmet end and the crown of the helmet start? There will be players running at full speed and often with multiple players involved, officials are going to routinely mess this call up.''
-- Kyle Dell, Winnipeg
How about your Jets, Kyle? (And I don't mean "New York?'') They are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Back to football: The new rule is going to be tough to call, for sure. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get a dangerous play out of the game. Let's see how the season goes before assuming the officials are incapable of calling a play, in the open field, where one player lowers his head and uses the top of the helmet as a battering ram on an opponent.
SEVERAL TEAMS DO THIS. "Do you think the Ravens make a concerted effort in free agency to focus on free agents who were cut and who are on the street, as opposed to free agents whose contracts expired? Based on the free agents the Ravens have lost (Kruger, Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Reed) the Ravens would probably be in line for something like two compensatory fourth round picks and a compensatory fifth round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.''
-- Joe, Chicago
Too early to assume where the 2014 compensatory picks will be, but I think Kruger and Ellerbe give them an excellent shot for at least one fourth-rounder and a fifth-. I like your thinking a lot. Look at how New England has done it. They've often focused on cut guys rather than players at the end of their contracts. Smart thinking, Joe.
ON THE SCHEDULE. "Another loser in the Baltimore schedule controversy is the local economy. Having witnessed it firsthand after the Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007, the shot in the arm that the first-NFL-game-of-the-season festivities provide to local vendors cannot be understated, not to mention the fun and raucous atmosphere that deserving Ravens fans will be deprived. It's the biggest bummer to hit the Inner Harbor since HBO canceled The Wire.''
-- Tim, Indianapolis
It was only a matter of time before a downtown with either a shared stadium situation or baseball and football stadiums close together (Detroit, Seattle, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh) would have a baseball game on the Thursday night before the start of the NFL regular season. That's life. Nothing anyone can do about it. But it is too bad the Ravens get robbed of that ability to put on an immense civic show in September.