For Gregg Williams, what it means to be a coach in the NFL is pretty simple.
“How do you make an average guy good, a good guy great, and if you have a chance to coach a great guy, he’s got to be great on your watch,” he said. “This is still a production business, and you have to get them to do that and people have to understand how to do that.”
Williams’ addition as the senior assistant/defense for the Tennessee Titans was the most high-profile move in head coach Mike Munchak’s offseason staff overhaul.
Based on his philosophy, though, it was the changes made to the group of offensive assistants that were the most important because it is there that the Titans have sought greatness of late.
Four times in the last five years the franchise used its first-round pick on players for the offense — running back Chris Johnson (2008), wide receiver Kenny Britt (2009), quarterback Jake Locker (2011) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (2012).
None of those four will have the same position coach as last season. Locker gets Dave Ragone, who was moved from wide receivers coach. Johnson gets Sylvester Croom, his fifth different running backs coach, and the wide receivers get Shawn Jefferson. Croom and Jefferson were with other NFL franchises in 2012.
Effectively, all of those moves will be judged by the performance of those particular players because if the Titans are going to end their four-year playoff drought they need their potentially great players to be great, or rediscover their greatness.
“Coach Croom was brought here to help Chris Johnson be the best back he can be and get back to our expectations for him, (which) are high,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. Coach Jefferson was brought in for the same reason — to evaluate those guys, to make Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, two first-round talents, and to make sure the production is what it should be, to demand and raise the expectation level.”
Jim Washburn built a reputation as one of the NFL’s best defensive line coaches in part because the first-round draft picks he got during his 12 seasons with the Titans, Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth, flourished under his tutelage. Kearse set an NFL rookie sack record that still stands and Haynesworth earned what was at the time the largest free agent contract ever given to a defensive player.
Washburn left in 2011 when the Philadelphia Eagles made him the highest-paid defensive line coach in the league.
Such reputations can be short-lived, though. The Eagles, who used two of their three most recent first-round picks on defensive linemen, fired Washburn before the end of last season.
For better or worse, the Titans’ offensive assistants and those recent first-round draft picks are, in a professional sense, married to one another. Roughly 50 percent of all traditional marriages in this country end in divorce but the Titans need to do better than that.
A look at the team’s critical 2013 partnerships and their chances to harmoniously co-exist:
COUPLE NO. 1
Running back: Chris Johnson
Running backs coach: Sylvester Croom
About the player: He can be maddeningly inconsistent in that he has the ability to break a big play at any moment but can’t always get the tough yards needed to keep an offense moving. Just look at last season when he had five games with fewer than 30 yards rushing and five others with more than 125.
About the coach: He was a groundbreaker as a college head coach and has spent the last four seasons as a running backs coach in the NFL. With St. Louis (2009-11) and Jacksonville (2012) he mentored some of the game’s best between-the-tackles runners in the Rams’ Steven Jackson and the Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew.
Instant analysis: Croom makes it clear that he will demand an attention to details. Johnson is an improvisational master who occasionally will break a long run by breaking from the play’s design. Somehow, they’re going to have to find common ground in a pairing that offers the potential to turn into a test of wills.
Outlook: The Titans have gone through their share of running backs coaches since they drafted Johnson 24th overall in 2008 — five, to be exact. Maybe that’s a coincidence or maybe it’s because he remains a big tease. If Croom can’t get his attention, chances are no one will.
COUPLE NO. 2
Wide receiver: Kenny Britt
Wide receivers coach: Shawn Jefferson
About the player: There have been times in the last few seasons when Britt has been arguably the best wide receiver in the league. Those moments have been all too fleeting, though, having not lasted for more than a couple weeks. A steady string of injuries and off-the-field issues have stunted his development as well.
About the coach: He played 13 years in the NFL at the position so he brings a wealth of practical experience to the job. His credibility is enhanced by the fact that he worked with Calvin Johnson, who
unquestionably was the NFL’s best wide receiver in 2012 when he set a single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards.
Instant Analysis: It is difficult to know how much of Johnson’s success was due to Jefferson and vice versa. The latter also worked with Roy Williams, the seventh overall pick in 2004, and that experience probably will serve him better when it comes to the mercurial Britt, who needs to take a more professional approach to the job.
Outlook: It seems unlikely that Britt will put together the Hall of Fame career of which he seems capable. If Jefferson can figure a way just to keep Britt healthy enough to play a full 16 games, that would be considered progress.
COUPLE NO. 3
Wide receiver: Kendall Wright
Wide receivers coach: Shawn Jefferson
About the player: He is small, shifty and reliable but failed to take advantage of his speed last season, when he tied for the most receptions by a rookie. Simply put: He did not turn enough short throws into long gains as evidenced by his 9.8 yards-per-catch average. In his case, there are no questions about his attitude or work ethic.
About the coach: While Jefferson basks in the glow of Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season, it should be noted that veteran Nate Burleson had a career year with him in 2011 and in 2007 the Lions were the only team in the NFL to have four wide receivers with at least 650 receiving yards. Thus, there’s reason to believe he can keep all his players engaged.
Instant analysis: Jefferson’s playing experience will allow him to impart some of the subtleties of the position that perhaps his predecessor, Dave Ragone, did not understand as well. Wright made a relatively smooth transition to the NFL as a rookie and it makes sense that his development will continue with a greater understanding of the finer points.
Outlook: Given the amount of attention Britt will demand, it’s possible Wright will be overlooked at times. Then again, he doesn’t seem to be a guy who needs to be told repeatedly what to do. One time might just cover it.
COUPLE NO. 4
Quarterback: Jake Locker
Quarterbacks coach: Dave Ragone
About the player: He waited his turn throughout all of 2011 after he was picked eight overall then got knocked around last fall in his first year as a starter. Injuries — one to his left shoulder and many to his offensive line — certainly did not help things, but question about his accuracy followed him from college and have not vanished at this point.
About the coach: A quarterback who spent several years as an NFL backup, his limited coaching experience includes one year as a quarterbacks coach in the UFL and two seasons as the wide receivers coach for the Titans. He is energetic and innovative on the practice field and the Titans’ wide receivers were better under his direction.
Instant analysis: Locker is not Ragone’s responsibility alone. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains will play a big part in the quarterback’s development, but Loggains too is young and relatively inexperienced. All three will have to grow into their roles together or — as so often happens in the NFL — they quickly be considered old news.
Outlook: Ragone will create drills designed to refine Locker’s footwork and mechanics. If the accuracy issues are just a part of his makeup, there’s only so much a coach can do and he never will become the franchise quarterback the team wanted and thought it got when it drafted him.