FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Gregg Williams loves to talk about culture and, no, he’s doesn’t mean fine arts or classical music. He’s into football culture, that ever-elusive mind meld that occurs when every player and every coach commit to winning and each other. Some coaches go a lifetime without experiencing it. Williams had it good last season with the Cleveland Browns. He performed a damn miracle as their interim coach, bringing hope to the Factory of Sadness. But when it came time for the big promotion, he got passed over and booted out.
Somewhere in his soul, perhaps beneath the molten lava and steam, the New York Jets‘ defensive coordinator has to feel a sense of disappointment, maybe anger. He can try to unleash that fury on Monday, when he sics his new culture club on the Browns at MetLife Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Maybe, when he speaks to reporters Friday, Williams will bare his true feelings about the matchup. Then again, he doesn’t need an old-fashioned revenge play to get his pulse racing.
Explaining his internal wiring, Williams said, “I might have a beer or two every once in a while. I never had a tobacco product in my mouth — no drugs, no nothing — but I’m a competition-aholic. Not only me, but every one of these cats.”
Williams, 61, is trying to implant his personality into the minds and hearts of the Jets’ defensive players. When he met with them for the first time in the spring, he spent the first three days talking about his philosophy, his rules, his standards — his culture. They did that before discussing X’s and O’s or executing a blitz on the practice field. Culture, Williams has said many times, is the reason he keeps getting hired.
Williams does visualization, showing photos and videos of lions and other wild animals, sometimes graphic scenes of them attacking another animal. The message is hardly subliminal and it might conjure up thoughts of his role in the old BountyGate scandal, but his objective is to “live on the edge,” as he tells his players.
“This can be a dangerous defense, like a pride of lions or a pack of wolves,” safety Rontez Miles said.
The Jets will look to build on an encouraging but incomplete performance in the opener. The defense created four takeaways, scored a touchdown and a safety, but it allowed the Buffalo Bills to score 17 unanswered points in the final 19 minutes of the game. Williams invoked his 24-hour rule, telling the players they weren’t allowed to talk about the game after 4:30 p.m. Monday.
In their day-after meeting, Williams dissected their mistakes with high volume and high intensity. As usual.
“Gregg will be one way and one way only, and that’s ‘Go!'” nose tackle Steve McLendon said.
Linebacker Jordan Jenkins said, “The expectation is the same, no matter what. We’re going out there to demolish, destroy anybody we line up against. It doesn’t change.”
Williams can be hard on his players, something he learned a quarter-century ago from Ryan. Sometimes you have to break down a player before you can build him up and create mutual trust. He spent only one year with Ryan (Houston Oilers, 1993), but they stayed close and Williams called him every Memorial Day until he died in 2016. He’s a lot like his mentor — cocky, bombastic, smart, relentless and country tough.
“He’s like an old-school, southern coach,” said Jenkins, who grew up in Georgia and played for old-school, southern coaches (Williams grew up in Missouri). “You’re not going to finesse your way in anything. If you can’t whup nobody’s ass, you’re not going to make it in this league. That’s how we go about our business.”
Williams instilled that mentality in the Browns as their defensive coordinator in 2017, but the team was awful and bottomed out with an 0-16 record. After a 2-5-1 start in 2018, they fired Hue Jackson and made Williams the interim coach. Skeptics wondered how his fiery and brash coaching style would play in the big chair, but he surprised many by staying composed and presidential, so to speak.
He led the Browns to five wins in their last eight games, more victories than the perennial laughingstock had compiled in the previous three seasons. Williams had a strong case for the permanent job, but Browns ownership opted to promote the offensive-minded Freddie Kitchens because of his success with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Kitchens brought in his own defensive staff and Williams was out of a job after pulling off the most impressive turnaround since Marvel Comics.
“I don’t think revenge will be on his mind,” former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “I think he’ll use what he knows about their personnel, and that will be an advantage for the Jets. That’s how he will approach the game.”
Bowen is a Williams-ologist. He played two seasons for the man (Washington Redskins, 2004-05), and has a great appreciation for his relentless drive. He recalled a game from 2005, a 52-17 win against the San Francisco 49ers. Bowen missed a gap assignment on a running play, allowing Frank Gore to break a long run late in the game. It didn’t matter because it was a Redskins blowout, but Bowen heard about it the next day in the defensive meeting.
“He showed the play seven or eight times, calling me out,” Bowen said. “I was melting in my chair.”
It was painful at the time, but Bowen understood the message. Williams sets a standard, one that is impossible to reach. The Jets had four takeaways in Week 1, but he told the players it should have been more.
The Jets, looking for an ass-kicker to establish accountability in the locker room, hired Williams and gave him autonomy on defense. The players quickly learned that thick skin is a must because he doesn’t hesitate to call them out in meetings. Don’t like it? Tough. He established a “Feelings Report,” which is displayed in the meeting room. If a player gets his feelings hurt and complains, he goes up on the report.
“It’s definitely an intense meeting-room environment,” defensive end Henry Anderson said. “It’s different than a lot of meetings I’ve been in, but you stay focused and you stay locked in the whole time.”
Jenkins said, “It’s loud. It’s intense. Nobody is slouching. Everybody is focused and ready to learn. By no means is it a happy-go-lucky meeting.”
If a player gets caught dozing?
— #TakeFlight (@nyjets) September 6, 2019
“I’m glad we haven’t seen that,” McLendon said with a laugh. “I want to keep it like that. I don’t want to see that part.”
Miles said, “There’s no way in hell you can fall asleep. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.”
The Williams doctrine includes three rules: Be on time, touch all lines and buckle your chinstrap. He’s serious about the chinstrap. He’s been known to fine players who don’t abide by the rule.
He wants his players to be competition-aholics, too. In his utopia, there’s competition “every second of the day.” An example of that occurred one day last week, when safety Jamal Adams, trying to one-up his coach, beat him to work. That ticked off Williams, but it was a lose-win for the coach. Part of him was thrilled to see one of his defensive leaders up with the birds and watching film.
“He demands greatness,” McLendon said. “He doesn’t ask for it, he demands it.”
Williams surrounds himself with believers in the Williams Way. Six of his eight assistants played for him or coached with him on other teams, creating a cult following. It’s Gang Gregg, and they help spread the word.
This season will be a challenge because the cornerbacks are suspect and there isn’t a proven sack artist in the front seven. When this was mentioned to Williams, he smiled.
Prepare to be “shocked,” he predicted.