Jeff Fisher doesn’t like to make immediate decisions after the season ends. He likes to get away from football for a couple of weeks to let the emotion of the season fade away.
So it was mid-January, about three weeks after the conclusion of the regular season, that he thought about making a change at defensive coordinator and bringing back Gregg Williams.
“I gave a lot of thought to the future and the direction of our defense, and I have to say I was a little bit uncomfortable,” Fisher said. “As a result of that I reached out to Gregg (Williams) probably late January, and we spent several days together discussing the past, putting the past behind us.”
They then started discussing the present and the future of the Rams’ defense.
“So Gregg and I came to terms with a lot of things,” Fisher said. “We worked out an agreement, and just prior to that as the process was moving forward, I made the difficult decision to let Coach (Tim) Walton go.”
That in a nutshell is how Fisher arrived at the surprising — and bold — decision to re-hire Williams. Williams was formally introduced Thursday before a big crowd of media and Rams employees.
Williams can go on and on — and on — when addressing the media. Some might say he loves to hear himself talk. But he suddenly grew tight-lipped when asked how he and Fisher patched up their frayed relationship.
“Those are things that are between Jeff and I,” Williams said.
The answer was so abrupt it resulted in a few seconds of awkward silence. To his credit, Fisher connected some of the dots in remarks after the formal press conference.
“First off, his handprint was all over the Tennessee defense, you could tell,” Fisher said. “We had common opponents throughout the year.”
After completing his one-year suspension for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans, Williams joined the Tennessee defense this past season as senior defensive assistant. With Williams on staff, the Titans’ defense was noticeably improved in 2013.
“In our preparation against him it was obvious that he had gone in there and had a significant impact,” Fisher said.
The Rams lost their Nov. 3 game to Tennessee 28-21, easily the season’s most frustrating defeat.
When all was said and done, watching that Tennessee film and losing to the Titans, showed Fisher that Williams hadn’t lost his touch.
Fisher also knew that in terms of the playbook, it would be a very easy terminology switch if he re-hired Williams because of Williams’ time working for Fisher in Houston/Tennessee.
And lastly, Fisher said, “I just felt strongly about pulling together.”
As in pulling their relationship back together. It unraveled for several reasons starting with the fact that Fisher was surprised to learn the depth of the “Bountygate” misdeeds after hiring Williams the first time around in January 2012. Specifically, the cash “bonuses” for hits that resulted in a player being carted off the field or hits that sent players out of the game entirely.
For another, by the time Williams’ indefinite suspension came down — during the second week of March 2012 — it was too late by league policy to interview defensive coordinator candidates that were under contract with NFL teams.
That severely limited the hiring pool, putting Fisher in a tough spot.
Williams’ son Blake, who had been hired as linebackers coach, became the team’s de facto coordinator in 2012. No one doubted Blake’s football knowledge. But his people skills rubbed a lot of people the wrong way at Rams Park, to the point where Fisher didn’t need a few weeks to make a decision at the conclusion of 2012. Blake was told right away that he wasn’t being retained.
(By the way, Blake will not be re-joining his father this time around in St. Louis.)
By all accounts, Fisher and Gregg Williams weren’t on speaking terms after that. But all those issues apparently were addressed and put to rest during the time they spent together late last month.
“I think I caught him by surprise by initiating the conversation and the contact,” Fisher said. “Again, like I said, we spent a couple days together and at that point I was convinced it was gonna work.”
Before making the hiring official, Fisher got a thumb’s up from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“Who not only endorsed Gregg but also felt that Gregg would be a good move for this organization.” Fisher said.
And lastly, there was the matter of informing Walton that his services no longer were required after just one season on the job.
“We played real hard, and we were near the top of the league in sacks,” Fisher said. “We improved throughout the season. ... The arrow’s going up with this defense. And I just felt like Gregg was the person to make sure that happened.”
Contrary to gossip put out by at least one national media outlet, Walton was never stripped of play-calling duties. He called the plays when the defense played poorly and did so when the defense played well.
In 2011 when Fisher was out of football, he watched Walton coach in training camp for Detroit, on a Lions staff that included Fisher’s son Brandon (now on the Rams’ staff). Fisher was impressed with Walton to the point that he tried to hire him onto his first Rams’ staff in 2012.
“I was absolutely impressed with Walton. Yes,” Fisher said. “Tim is an outstanding football coach. As I mentioned to Tim when we had the discussion — and the best way that I could put it to Tim and to you — is that Gregg was my first choice and Tim was my second. And I have a chance to go get my first choice, and that was it. It had nothing to do with Tim.”
(Well, maybe Fisher’s third choice if you throw in Rob Ryan. But Fisher’s respect for Walton is real.)
“When you sit in my seat at the end of the hall, oftentimes there’s very difficult decisions that need to be made,” Fisher said. “And that was one of the more difficult decisions that I’ve made.”