- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Gregg Williams drew as much criticism as the coach of the Buffalo Bills as he received praise as the mastermind of the Tennessee Titans’ defense.

But whenever the Bills struggled — and that usually seemed to be the case during his three-year tenure — Williams knew he had someone he always could count on: Jeff Fisher, his former boss with the Titans.

“Our relationship is real strong,” Fisher said. “Gregg and I talked through his experience in Buffalo, and I’m excited for where he is right now, working for a great organization and having a great experience with coach [Joe] Gibbs.”

Williams forged a top-10 defense in each of his first two seasons in Washington and helped the Redskins return to the playoffs last year for the first time in six seasons.

These days, it’s Fisher who needs the understanding ear of a friend. The 0-5 Titans visit FedEx Field on Sunday, destined for their third straight season with double-digit losses. Fisher now is at risk of losing the job he has held since November 1994.

“Jeff’s my best friend in coaching,” Williams said. “We try to speak once or twice a week. He meant an awful lot to me when I was going through some tough times at Buffalo. We’ve tried to talk quite a bit this year.”

Williams was serving as the linebackers coach when the Houston Oilers fired coach Jack Pardee 10 games into the 1994 season. Fisher, who that season had been named the team’s defensive coordinator, took over for Pardee on an interim basis.

Fisher and Williams became friends.

“I learned a lot from Jeff, and I think he learned a lot from me, too,” Williams said of their seven seasons together. “There was a lot of give and take. They used to call us Mutt and Jeff. I guess I was Mutt, more the intense guy. But Jeff has a tremendous competitiveness, too. That’s one of the reasons we bonded.”

Fisher promoted Williams to defensive coordinator before the 1997 season, the franchise’s first in Tennessee. Two years later, the Titans won the AFC Championship and almost beat the favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

Fisher and Williams the next season owned the NFL’s stingiest defense, a unit that allowed the third-fewest points in the league in a 23-year span. The Titans posted a league-best 56-24 record from 1999 to 2003.

The past few seasons, however, were a far different matter.

The Titans went 5-11 in 2004 and 4-12 last season. Fisher conceded this season would be a rebuilding year when he started rookie quarterback Vince Young in the fourth game.

Fisher’s future is uncertain. After all, Titans owner Bud Adams fired Pardee less than a year after the team went 12-4 and reached the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

“If Jeff’s not the top coach in the NFL, he’s in the top five,” Williams said. “He didn’t turn into a bad coach all of a sudden. There are some factors out of his control that all coaches go through when you have to get younger for [salary] cap reasons.”

Williams spoke from hard experience. He inherited a similar situation with the Bills, who finished 3-13 in his first year and a combined 17-31 over his tenure. Williams was fired after the 2003 season.

Not that Williams regrets that Fisher talked him into leaving the comfort of the Titans for the top job with the Bills.

“Jeff always stood right beside me during any difficult situation I had,” Williams said. “But he also gave me my head to let me develop into the coach I think I needed to be. He pushed me out of the nest. I wasn’t going to take the Buffalo job, but Jeff convinced me that it was important for the next development for me.”

Williams’ success during his first two years with the Redskins made him the NFL’s hottest coaching candidate last winter. He opted to stay put and could well succeed Gibbs whenever the Hall of Famer retires for good. And if Fisher happens to be looking for a job at that point, he will have to make only one phone call.

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