As the audio played of former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' speech to his team the night before the divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, all I could think was that the bounty scandal has gone from bad to worse and Williams might never coach again in the NFL.
Williams' disturbing dialogue being broadcast all day long on NFL Network is not the kind of publicity this great game needs. Even if his speech might be slightly taken out of context -- as we all know, coaches use harsh language at times to motivate players -- in the court of public opinion and in the court of Commissioner Roger Goodell, Williams does indeed look like a rogue coach.
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In fairness to Williams, every coach has used a boxer's analogy before as a way to motivate their players. But Williams clearly crossed the line in this speech, urging his players to take out the heads of their opponents -- not in the literal sense, but in reality. Williams urged his defense to play physical, play hard -- which is what every coach wants from his players. But instructing players to target prior injuries, to take out knees and ankles, to deliver extra shots in the pile -- that has no place in the game. Despite all of these brazen motivational tactics, his players did not respond, allowing over 400 yards and 36 points in a losing effort. The most physical team on that day was not the Saints, but the hunted 49ers.
Williams was reckless on the night before the game, but he was also reckless during the game. It was obvious to experts watching the contest that Williams was more interested in showcasing his play-calling skills in front of a large television audience than doing what was needed to win the game. The most destructive element on any staff is when a coach allows his ego -- or his personal ambition -- to get in the way of winning. It's a team game. Doing what is needed to win will make everyone shine, while seeking personal glory can prevent winning. As Colin Powell once said, "Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it."
When the Saints finally took the lead late in the fourth quarter of that playoff game -- in large part due to the defense being able to get off the field without allowing a score in eight of nine possessions -- Williams proceeded to turn up the heat and his defense allowed big plays. Never did I think there were bounties on Niners players, but I did think that Williams had called a horrible game. Two days later, his contract was not renewed. Maybe the burgeoning bounty scandal precipitated his ouster, and maybe he became too hard to deal with for head coach Sean Payton.
Bounties aside, Williams has always prided himself on being an independent contractor -- once hired, he takes sole control of the defense, without interference from the head coach. In the NFL, this model is never fully sustainable. It is important for every head coach to hire good coaches and let them work their craft -- as long as their philosophy is in sync with the top dog. Payton wanted an aggressive defense. In fact, he even paid money out of his own pocket to hire Williams. But the longer Williams operated independently, the further the distance grew between the two men.
Payton lost control of the situation and is paying a huge price. Does this absolve him of the crime? No, not at all. Does this mean he did not know all about it? Doubtful. But it is hard for me to believe that Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis were warned about the bounty investigation the week before the 49ers game and then allowed a stranger to record a meeting where Williams is clearly continuing the program. All these men seem smarter than that.
I hope that when these men visited Goodell in New York on Thursday, it wasn't to try to get their suspension reduced, but rather to demonstrate their remorse, their sorrow and their plan to never allow this to happen again. From this day forward, Payton must never allow an independent contractor on his staff. And when he does return, he must be more head coach than offensive play caller.
As for Williams, this audio will be hard for him to overcome. If he is given a chance to get back into the league -- which is highly uncertain at this point -- he'll have to find new ways to motivate players. Williams has a long road back. He has released a couple remorseful statements since the bounty scandal first broke, but his callous behavior demands additional public apologies. And the 49ers should be among those on the receiving end.