By GEORGE WILLIS
Watching the New York Jets throughout the 2019 season, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the defensive coordinator should be the head coach and the head coach should simply be the offensive coordinator. I don’t expect that to change in 2020.
If you watched Gregg Williams, the veteran defensive coordinator, during practice at the Jets training facility in Florham Park, N.J., it was easy to notice his commanding presence that demanded his players’ attention and held them accountable. Whether it was warm-up drills or the defense going against the offense, Williams kept a keen eye, watching everything that was going on with his unit even when it appeared he wasn’t looking.
Williams, who turned 62 on July 15, is old school, so he often barked and growled demanding excellence on every rep. But he also laughed, smiled and seemed to connect with today’s millennial players who didn’t want to catch his wrath. He also is comfortable in his own skin, handling the media with ease, sprinkling his weekly media sessions with tales of his experiences and players encountered over his 30 years as an NFL coach.
It wasn’t surprising when Williams supported his safety Jamal Adams, who is embroiled in a contract dispute with the Jets. “I’m hoping everything goes well,” Williams told reporters last month. “I love coaching him and I’ve got his back.”
It’s hard to see head coach Adam Gase having the same impact or showing the same kind of support, especially for a defensive player. Having Gase, 42, as the head coach and Williams as the defensive coordinator seemed an odd pairing from the beginning. The jury is still out on whether it can be a successful tandem.
Gase was named the Jets head coach before the 2019 season to facilitate the development of franchise quarterback Sam Darnold. Even though he compiled a meager 23-25 record as the head coach in Miami, Gase got another chance because the Jets want to give Darnold the best chance to succeed. Whether he was the right coach for the entire team is a different story.
Truth is Williams was better at doing his job than Gase was at his in 2019. Williams lost linebackers Avery Williamson in the preseason and C.J. Mosley in the season opener, part of a league-high 21 players who wound up on injured reserve. But the Jets still managed to finish seventh in total defense, while Gase’s offense ranked dead last. Darnold never really got on track after being diagnosed with mononucleosis as the Jets stumbled to a 1-7 start and finished 7-9.
Gase will get another chance to prove his worth this season, while Williams hopes to have all his weapons healthy to produce the kind of defensive unit that can support an inconsistent offense. But should the Jets struggle and Gase’s job become in jeopardy, Williams would be a likely choice to be an interim coach, a position he handled well two years ago when he guided the Browns to a 5-3 finish after Hue Jackson was fired mid-way through the regular season.
Williams deserved the chance to be named the permanent head coach in Cleveland, but the Browns added to their long history of bad decisions by choosing Freddie Kitchens instead. Williams does have baggage. He had gone 17-31 as the head coach of the Bills in 2001-2003 and there was that 2012 “Bountygate” scandal with the Saints where players were paid for causing injuries to opponents. Williams paid for his mistake by being suspended for the entire 2012 season and the Browns paid for theirs by having to fire Kitchens after just one season.
If the Jets don’t get off to a good start and play winning football or if Darnold doesn’t look like he is making the kind of progress he should be making in his third season, don’t be surprised if Gase is fired and Williams is elevated to head coach. Maybe that’s the job he should have had all along.