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Defensive staff tackles challenges
They came from different backgrounds -- one has moved 14 times since 1974, one got his start as a junior college coach in California.
They came with different levels of experience -- one has been coaching since 1968, another since 2001 after an NFL playing career.
But they all came to Washington in February 2004 for the same reason: They wanted to work for Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams.
And so former coordinators Greg Blache (defensive line) and Dale Lindsey (linebackers) returned to their position-coaching roots, Steve Jackson (safeties) followed Williams from Buffalo and DeWayne Walker (cornerbacks) came from the Giants.
With varied skills and myriad experiences to draw upon, the staff proved instantly compatible and effective. Williams and his staff helped the Redskins' defense finish third in the NFL in yards allowed, including first against the run.
"I have a lot of admiration for what they did last year," Gibbs said. "They were a new staff and third-best defense in the league, and we didn't do what we should have done on offense to help them."
Even with the fine performance on defense, the Redskins were 6-10. This year, the coaches have had to find replacements for free agent defections Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot, craft a role for LaVar Arrington and continue to foster Sean Taylor's development.
The staff is prepared for this season's challenges.
Lindsey, a member of 15 pro football coaching staffs in four leagues, knows a lot about the details that make up a solid staff.
"This is a [darn] good one," he said. "It has a lot of experience and has guys from a lot of different places, so there is a lot of different outlooks, and they can present information that can make a difference in how a player plays."
How they came together
The formation of the Redskins' offensive staff had an old home feel. Gibbs brought back Joe Bugel, Don Breaux, Jack Burns and Rennie Simmons and hired former player Earnest Byner.
On defense, only Blache and Lindsey (Chicago from 1999 to 2001) and Williams and Jackson (1991-99, 2001-03 with Houston/Tennessee and Buffalo) had worked together. The process started when Williams spurned seven other job offers to join the Redskins. Gibbs gave Williams the freedom to hire his own staff.
Williams wanted to bring his Buffalo defensive staff with him to Washington, but the Bills allowed only Jackson (and special teams coach Danny Smith) out of his contract.
"Fortunately for us, they would not let him interview the other coaches, and he started talking around," Lindsey said.
Williams said he went 3-for-3 in his first choices: Blache, Lindsey and Walker. Kirk Olivadotti was retained from Steve Spurrier's staff.
Lindsey is in his second stint with Washington -- he coached the linebackers in 1997-98 -- and was San Diego's defensive coordinator in 2002-03. Blache had spent the previous five years as Chicago's defensive coordinator, and Walker was on Jim Fassel's staff with the Giants for two seasons and also worked for Pete Carroll with New England and Southern Cal.
Williams exhibited his willingness for new ideas by hiring two former coordinators.
"That also shows how confident he is," Lindsey said. "He brought in guys with experience, and he wants to know what you know. He listens more than he talks sometimes."
The defensive staff said they were on the same page right away, something that surprised Gibbs.
"You get new guys and put them all together, and you figure somewhere in there you're going to have a problem," he said. "But they all fit together."
Said Williams: "It's a hard profession behind the scenes, and you have to make sure you get along."
They needed to get along last season because of the adversity they faced.
First, came the tinkering. The Redskins soon signed cornerback Shawn Springs, linebacker Marcus Washington, defensive end Phillip Daniels and defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin; later added linebacker Mike Barrow, defensive tackle Joe Salave'a and cornerback Walt Harris; and drafted Sean Taylor. All but Barrow remain on the roster.
Once the offseason program began, Williams said the staff's focus shifted and their chemistry began to show.
"We made a declaration as a coaching staff: We no longer were going to talk about what the guys we had could not do," he said. "We had to challenge ourselves to mold a defensive system to fit the guys we had."
The mold was broken and reshaped several times during the season. Even as the Redskins' defense continued to flourish, players kept getting injured. Arrington missed 12 games, Daniels and safety Matt Bowen 11 weeks apiece and Barrow never played a down.
In their place were Pierce, Lemar Marshall, Ryan Clark and a host of unheralded defensive linemen.
"It was remarkable that we had to do it so often," Williams said. "We had to change throughout the season, week to week, because of the injuries. Only a veteran staff could do that."
It required a veteran staff that was similar in philosophy and work ethic to Williams, Jackson said.
"Knowing Gregg, I knew he would hire like-minded people, so it didn't take long in the meetings to know we were on the same page," Jackson said.
"We enjoy and respect each other, and you see that in the meetings," Blache said. "I've been on staffs where guys respected only one or two guys. Here, any guy that has an opinion is respected."
When the staff meets every morning at 8:30, each coach takes a turn mapping out concepts and giving his opinion.
"Gregg is very receptive to new ideas," Lindsey said. "He doesn't feel that the only way is his way and that something has to be etched in stone. That makes for a nice feeling when you go into a meeting because you can express yourself without feeling that you'll be shot down."
Eight starters -- Griffin, Salave'a, Marshall, Pierce, Washington, Springs, Smoot and Clark -- had career years in 2004 when the Redskins ranked among the top five in eight major categories.
"The end result up here is how well your guys play," Gibbs said, "and they played so, so much better than we thought was possible last year."
Pierce and Smoot have departed, but can the holdovers duplicate their performance this year?
"There's a great leadership nucleus in that locker room right now," Williams said. "They're harder on themselves than I am on them, and that's when you know, as a coach, you have the right culture because they demand a lot more out of each other than this staff, and it's a real hard-nosed staff."
Blache and Lindsey are the two most seasoned hands with a combined 44 years of NFL coaching experience. With his hat slightly askew, Blache preaches technique to his defensive linemen. Lindsey's edgy persona has earned him two nicknames -- Blache calls him "Sergeant Slaughter," and Marshall said Lindsey reminds the players of "Hank" from "King of the Hill."
"If you listen to him, you become a better football player," Marshall said.
Together, the veteran coaches have mixed well with the younger coaches (Olivadotti is 32, Lindsey 62) to help players like Marshall become every-down performers. Now the goal is to maintain the statistics while adding a few more victories.
"This is as close to Utopia as you can get in this business," Blache said. "If we can win a few more football games and make a run, I don't know how this would get any better."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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