Perry Fewell describes himself as a teacher, and his classroom at Redskins Park is filled with new students. His style is calm but firm, old-school but laid-back. His method?
“He likes music,” safety Phillip Thomas said. “He teaches through music.”
In his first offseason as the Washington Redskins’ defensive backs coach, Fewell has spent much of his time teaching new coverage schemes and principles to a largely-rebuilt secondary. Each concept is relayed in stages. Each lesson builds upon the next. Many are reinforced by song lyrics — Michael Jackson, for example. In most cases, music is Fewell’s guide.
“His teaching methods are a little bit different,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “But I like it, man. I think he’s going to be good for us. I think he brings a calmness to us, as a group.”
The Redskins had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL last season under previous defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. With a group of cornerbacks that were too young and safeties that were too old, they gave up 35 passing touchdowns, the most in the league, and 7.2 net yards per passing play, the second-most in the league. Morris is now in Atlanta, filling the same coaching role, and Fewell is tasked with turning a horrendous unit around.
A wave of new additions will help. This winter, the Redskins signed former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver and former Seattle Seahawks strong safety Jeron Johnson. They traded a sixth-round draft pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for safety Dashon Goldson. With Hall and strong safety Duke Ihenacho back from injuries, the unit should have an entirely new feel.
“We knew we had to do some work,” Fewell said. “We had to re-tool with some personnel. We thought we had some good young players that just needed to be developed, and then if we can mix it with some veterans that help them get some stability, some knowledge and know-how, we thought we could improve our secondary.”
Between the team’s numerous free agent additions, both in the secondary and along the defensive line, and the arrival of new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, Fewell joined the Redskins in the midst of a complete defensive overhaul.
That’s a good thing, he said. It paves the way for a fresh start.
“I can’t speak for what happened last year. I can only speak for what we have this year,” Fewell said. “But I think we have a really good group. We’re communicating well with each other, and there’s still a lot of growing to do.”
Fewell spent the past five seasons as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, helping lead them to a Super Bowl title in 2012 and interviewing for a handful of coaching jobs in the years since — including with the Redskins last year, when they eventually hired Jay Gruden. He was fired by the Giants in the offseason and drawn to Washington by Gruden, as well as an opportunity to stay in the NFC East.
Fewell also said a return to position coaching was alluring. The North Carolina native is now in the same role in which he broke into the league with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1998.
“Having fun, getting back in the secondary, being in the meetings every day with the players and being more of a position coach — it’s kind of refreshing to do that,” Fewell said. “Obviously, yes, I want to become a coordinator. I want to be a head coach again. But just being back in the secondary room, that was appealing.”
Gruden said Fewell’s familiarity with the rest of the division will help. His prior experience as a defensive coordinator should make a significant impact, too.
“One, he’s a great person. Very loyal guy,” Gruden said. “And two, he’s been productive where he’s been. He’s been in the division, he knows the division, he knows the opponents, knows the Giants, obviously. And [he has a] great wealth of knowledge.”
The defensive backs are still getting to know Fewell, but already they have noticed a difference in coaching styles. The 52-year-old Fewell is a self-anointed disciplinarian. Multiple players described him as “old school.” While Morris was more animated and likely to crack jokes, Fewell is more stern.
“Perry’s a little more business-oriented,” Ihenacho explained. “Both are great teachers. Both can relate to us and the DBs, and I enjoy both of them. It’s just a little bit different culture styles.”
Time will tell if that new style will benefit the Redskins secondary. For now, Fewell is focused only on doing what he believes he does best: Teaching new concepts to a largely new collection of players, and preparing for tests that are still several months away.