Awhile back, Saintsational Dave proposed that we run a story on defensive rebirths under first-year coordinators—how often does it happen, and what can we expect?—and asked me if I would take it on. After giving it some thought, I came to the conclusion that there were far too many variables involved, and that we couldn't expect the experience of a different team, with different personnel, a different coach, a different system, playing different opponents, to meaningfully apply to the upcoming Saints season.
What we could do, however, was look at Gregg Williams' own past, and try to discern any patterns that might be there. Williams took over as defensive coordinator for three teams: the Oilers/Titans, the Redskins, and the Jaguars (He also served as head coach of the Buffalo Bills—but since he had duties there other than the day-to-day management of a defense, we're not going to count that experience. Gregg would probably rather put it behind him as well.).
First, some history
Williams began his career as a coordinator in 1997, when he took over the Oilers' defense in their first year in Tennessee. The season before, they had earned an 8-8 record, and their defense was ranked 16th in scoring. (Note: all rankings in this article are based on what I believe to be the only realistic measure of a defense: points allowed, rather than yards allowed. Nobody ever lost a game because they gave up too many yards.) At the end of that first season, the Oilers had the same 8-8 record as the previous year. Their defense had shown modest improvement, and was now ranked 12th. The defense would show steady improvement, eventually reaching the Super Bowl after the 1999 season, and would be the NFL's #2 defense in 2000. It was after that season that Williams was lured away by the Bills.
In 2004, after being dismissed in Buffalo, Williams was made defensive coordinator in Washington. The year before, in Steve Spurrier's final season, the Redskins had ended 5-11, and had a wretched defense, ranked 24th. Williams was able to turn them around in his first year. The Redskins ended up improving only to 6-10, but it wasn't the fault of the defense: they were ranked 5th. In subsequent years, however, they sank to 9th (2005) and then plunged all the way to 27th (2006), before rebounding to finish the 2007 season as the 11th-ranked defense.
Following the 2007 season and the retirement of Joe Gibbs, Williams failed to win the head coaching job, so he left Washington with one year left on his contract. Jacksonville picked up that contract, and he served his final season as defensive coordinator of the Jaguars. It wasn't a stellar performance: the Jags, the 10th-ranked defense the year before, fell to 21st. At the end of the season, Williams was a free agent, and was quickly snapped up by the Saints.
Now we come to the main question...
Why did things happen the way they did?
First off, I think we should dismiss the 2008 season. It's not that we can consider it an aberration; it's that we don't know what to consider it. Williams was attempting to install a new defense on a team headed by a strong-willed, defensive-minded coach (Jack Del Rio) whose philosophies of scheme and personnel differed from his own. It was a situation of oil and water trying to mix. On top of that, the team's locker room imploded mid-season, and Del Rio never really got it back. He ended by banishing his top defensive star, linebacker Mike Peterson, first from the field and then from the team. Under those conditions, it would have been difficult for anyone to succeed.
Taking only the experience with the Oilers/Titans and Redskins, then, here are a few things that stand out. These are only tentative conclusions, and they're offered with a great deal of trepidation. For one thing, coherent stats are—unbelievably—still difficult to find. For instance, one of the best measures of defensive effectiveness is takeaways—but the NFL doesn't keep that stat. If you go to NFL.com, you can find sortable stats, and rankings, for interceptions—but not for interceptions, fumble recoveries, and blocked kicks as one category: takeaways. Why this should be, I don't know; maybe they're understaffed, and too busy planning their move to London. I know what it's like to be stretched thin, so I can sympathize.
Another problem is the relevance of the stats: how closely does what happened in Nashville in 1997 really relate to what happens here in 2009? I'm afraid the answer can't be known. But we can take our best guesses; and what follows is really nothing more than that.
In 1997, the Oilers' only defensive star was Pro-Bowl safety Blaine Bishop. The line-up that season was virtually identical to that in 1996. Williams accomplished a modest improvement with the same personnel; and in subsequent seasons upgraded the personnel gradually until he had his best unit in his fourth season. By that time, he had added stars Jevon Kearse and Samari Rolle, and every position on the front seven had turned over at least once. There was, in other words, a measure of continuity, but the overall turnover in personnel was still nearly total.
Gregg Williams takes a mad scientist approach—something of a grand New Orleans tradition—to his personnel.
By contrast, Williams' first season in Washington was marked by radical, immediate personnel changes. Between 2003 and 2004, the starting front four changed completely (Renaldo Wynn remained, but was switched from weakside to strongside); the linebacker corps was totally revamped (in part due to LaVar Arrington's knee injury in the fourth game); and three-quarters of the secondary changed, due to the trading of Champ Bailey, the drafting of Sean Taylor, and the emergence of Ryan Clark. The improvement in the defense was dramatic.
But the personnel turnover didn't end. By 2006, only Taylor, cornerback Shawn Springs, and linebackers Lemar Marshall and Marcus Washington were left from the 2004 starting lineup; Arrington had been benched, and Adam "Extinction Level Event" Archuleta had taken over as strong safety. Williams made major changes again in 2007: the Redskins replaced Archuleta with LaRon Landry, and replaced Marshall at middle linebacker with London Fletcher. The impact was immediate, and Washington climbed back to the 11th spot in the defensive rankings.
What should we take away from all this? That Williams has almost a mad scientist approach to his lineup. If the Saints' starting defense two years from now looks anything at all like the 2008 defense, I think we'll need to do DNA testing on Williams to be sure he's not an imposter. It may be that he'll effect dramatic changes in our lineup the very first season, as he did in Washington; or he may take a more gradual approach, as he did in Tennessee. Either way, whoever impresses him most will be the starter: Williams isn't afraid to tinker. He's also not afraid to make mistakes: he'll pull the trigger quickly, and occasionally (as with Archuleta) he'll miss badly. We might even—hold onto your butts—we might even see the defense get worse the first season. Whether the Saints will follow the Titans' gradual slope upwards, or the Redskins' yo-yo paradigm, we have no way of knowing.
Williams has the reputation of bringing relentless pressure, using multiple fronts and personnel packages to confuse the offense. You would think such an approach, applied consistently, and executed by good players, would result in just scads of turnovers. You'd be wrong.
Hardly any of Williams' defenses have lived up to their reputation in terms of takeaways. Even in 2000, when the Titans were #2 in points allowed and #1 in yards allowed, they were tied for 14th in takeaways with 30 on the season. (By contrast, the Ravens—the top defense in terms of points allowed, and the eventual Super Bowl winners—had 49 takeaways). In 2004, his best year in Washington, his team ranked 22nd in takeaways—almost in the bottom quarter of the league! Only once in his years in Washington did the Redskins enter positive territory in turnover differential: in 2005, when they were +1. Of course, turnover differential is just as dependent on the number of giveaways as it is on the number of takeaways. But Washington was never all that bad at turning the ball over. In 2007, for instance—their worst year in terms of turnover differential—18 teams had as many or more turnovers. But only 7 teams had fewer takeaways.
The sole exception to this trend was the Titans' Super Bowl year of 1999, when they produced a whopping 24 fumble recoveries. Together with 16 interceptions, and low interception totals by Steve McNair and Neil O'Donnell, this put the Titans at +18 for the year—good enough for 2nd place in turnover differential.
Well, how about sacks, then? That pressure on the quarterback might not produce a lot of turnovers, but it surely results in a lot of sacks, right? Right?
In a word: yes and no (I didn't say which word). In 2000, the Titans produced 55 sacks, good enough for 3rd place in the rankings. During their Super Bowl season of a year before, they produced 54 sacks—again, good enough for 3rd place.
In Washington, Williams was not quite so successful. In 2004, his Redskins defense produced 40 sacks, good enough for 9th place, but below their #5 overall ranking. The next year, when his defense ranked 9th overall in points, they were tied for 20th in sacks, with 35. In 2006, when they were a dismal 27th in total points, they were an even dismal-er 32nd in sacks, with only 19. (No pressure, bad safety play, familiar result.)
Which way will it be in New Orleans? Again, there is no way we can know. That depends almost entirely on the competence of the personnel running the scheme. We know, at least, what Williams is going to try to achieve: he's going to try to knock the #%$&! out of the offense. Whether it will look like 2000 or 2006 is anybody's guess.
My own guess
The way the Saints have been adding and subtracting defensive players looks a lot more like Williams' first offseason with Washington than his first year with the Titans. And because I think our talent level is better than everyone gives us credit for, I'm predicting the Saints climb into the top half of the league in terms of points allowed. Based on figures from last year, that would mean an improvement per game of about 3 points. And in 2008, that would have given the Saints three extra victories (Denver, Chicago, and Carolina), and sent 2 more games (Tampa, Minnesota) into overtime. Assuming a split in those overtime games, the Saints would have ended the year with a 12-4 record. That's pretty much what I'm hoping for in 2009.
It's all on you, G-Dub. No pressure.