On Gregg Williams and his recent history of non-great defenses

As first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Titans have met with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams about becoming an assistant head coach. Williams is currently under suspension by the NFL for his role in the Saints' Bountygate scandal, but has received permission to talk to teams about a new job. Jim Wyatt indicates that if Williams is brought on, Jerry Gray is expected to remain the defensive coordinator. Gray and Williams have worked together in the past, including in Williams' past stint as defensive coordinator with the Titans, in Buffalo, and in Washington.

Williams' hire is likely to be a controversial one for several reasons. First, his role in the Bountygate scandal, when under questioning by NFL officials he went ahead and named names of players who had a role. Regardless of your feelings about that, NFL players may understandably feel constrained in their dealings with him. Williams will have to deal with the issue forthrightly to establish a bond with his players. Fortunately (or not), the Titans do not seem to have a strong leadership core in place that Williams will have to work with and through in selling his message to the team in whatever position he ends in.

Second, Jeff Fisher reportedly attempted to hire Williams for another stint in Tennessee after Jim Schwartz left to become head coach of the Lions. One of Williams' conditions of hiring it seems, though, was that the team hire his son Blake as an assistant. This apparently run afoul of Bud Adams' anti-nepotism rule, and when the Saints would indeed hire Blake Williams along with Gregg, father and son went there. Fisher did hire Blake as his linebackers coach in St. Louis, but he was fired after the 2012 season for his arrogance and failure to get along with players. As I noted recently, the Titans seem to have a full complement of coaches, and there doesn't seem to be a job for Blake, at least right now.

Third and most importantly, Williams has in recent years coordinator mostly not very good defenses.

 

Even before the Bountygate scandal broke, he was very likely on his way out of New Orleans, as the Saints had one of the league's least effective defenses in 2011. They ranked 24th in yards allowed, though of course with a prolific offense they had plenty of chances to give up yards. More importantly, at least to me, they ranked 28th in Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA, coming out below average against the run and, especially, the pass. By FO metrics, that 2011 Saints defense was actually less efficient than the 2012 Titans defense. They came out a little better against the run, but worse against the pass.

 

Why were they so bad against the pass? Well, lack of interceptions had something to do with it. The Saints intercepted only 1.4% of opponents' passes that season, worst in the league. But Williams is renowned for his team's ability to force turnovers, you say? Well, that was right, or at least it was in 2009. The Saints that year did have a lot of interceptions, but that stands out as particularly anomalous. Looking at years outside of 2009, though, Gregg Williams defenses have not intercepted very many passes. Chart? Chart.

Team Int % Rank
2011 Saints 1.4% 32nd
2010 Saints 1.8% 32nd
2009 Saints 4.5% 3rd
2008 Jaguars 2.8% 15th
2007 Redskins 2.3% 27th
2006 Redskins 1.2% 32nd
2005 Redskins 3.0% 15th
2004 Redskins 3.5% 14th

The record is pretty plain: Gregg Williams defenses do not do a good job of forcing interceptions. You have to go all the way back to his previous stint as Titans defensive coordinator to find a second season where a defense he coordinated ranked in the top ten in that category.

Given that Williams is known for getting pressure, his teams must sack the quarterback a lot, right? Well… let's have another chart!

Team Sack Rate Rank
2011 Saints 6.0% 25th
2010 Saints 6.3% 16th
2009 Saints 6.3% 17th
2008 Jaguars 6.2% 14th
2007 Redskins 5.6% 27th
2006 Redskins 4.6% 32nd
2005 Redskins 6.4% 23rd
2004 Redskins 7.0% 17th

Methodological note: for sack rate, I'm using Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which accounts for opponent and, at least as important, down and distance. For some reason, defenses that face more passing attempts and third-and-longs get more sacks than teams that face fewer passing attempts and lots of third-and-short. Put into this proper context, Williams hasn't coordinated a good pass rush since the 2000 Titans.

A defensive coordinator known for pressure whose defenses don't force interceptions or get sacks doesn't seem like much of pressure coordinator to me.

Even though Williams hasn't actually done a good job at any of the stuff he's supposedly actually good at, has he done a good job otherwise? Well, let's see what DVOA thinks of his performance since the Redskins fired him after the 2007 season.

Team Def. DVOA Pass D DVOA Run D DVOA
2011 Saints 28th 26th 21st
2010 Saints 10th 10th 10th
2009 Saints 17th 9th 29th
2008 Jaguars 24th 29th 9th

Is there much of a trend there? Not really. Did he improve teams? Well, the Saints did improve his first season there, while the Jaguars went from average to below his first season there. He's put together a good run defense, except when he hasn't. The pass defense has been ok thanks to interceptions (2009), pretty good even without interceptions (2010), and not very good at all thanks in part to almost no interceptions (2008, 2011). Both teams got slightly worse the next season, though of course the Bills got a lot better the season after they fired him (and Jerry Gray). He got his Super Bowl ring with the 2009 Saints, and had a good gameplan for the Super Bowl, but I'd say that those are some pretty mediocre defenses he's coordinated lately.

Is Gregg Williams, despite what his defenses have done lately, actually a good coordinator? Maybe. If you're Mike Munchak, knowing you're facing playoffs or bust, do you really think it's a good idea to hire somebody whose defenses don't intercept the ball and don't get sacks, and who also has head coaching experience, in case the team decides to fire you during the season? If you're a Titans player, are you eager to listen to a guy who got fired in his last stop and hasn't run a really good defense since Zach Brown was in 5th grade? Then again, Gregg Williams has worked for Bud Adams' franchise before while Mike Munchak has been there, so welcome aboard!

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