Moment in Miami showed Williams' shortcomings

It's not very often in the complex world of sports that you can point to a singular moment in time as the exact point that a season, or a coaching career, unraveled. <P> But for Gregg Williams, who was dismissed in the most polite manner possible on Monday, and the 2003 Buffalo Bills, pinpointing the second that things went south couldn't be easier.

It occurred at Pro Player Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2003. With the game scoreless and 14:11 remaining in the second quarter, Buffalo faced a second-and-7 from Miami's 13-yard line.

Already off to a 2-0 start, the two victories coming in the most impressive fashion imaginable, the Bills were poised to seize control. A win over the Dolphins, then seen as Buffalo's primary rival for AFC East supremacy, would all but erase the memory of Buffalo's stretch-run stumble a year earlier. Starting 3-0 would also push Williams' more notable blunders, like punting from New England's 32-yard line in the pivotal game of 2002, into the distant past.

Takeo Spikes' fumble recovery at Miami's 16-yard line -- the second turnover forced by Buffalo's defense on the night -- had the offense set to atone for Drew Bledsoe's interception on an earlier drive into scoring territory.

Bills offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had a full array of options available to him, most of which involved Travis Henry running the ball or Bledsoe throwing it.

But no.

Scoring in a routine fashion wouldn't have made anyone say, "What a great call!" or praise Gilbride's deft strategizing.

So he came up with something no one would expect. At least in theory. He had Henry throw.

As anyone remotely familiar with Buffalo's 2003 season knows, that turned out not to be such a good idea. Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain outfought several other Dolphins to come down with Henry's shot-putted attempt at a pass. Miami went on to win 17-7. Having posted 69 points during that 2-0 start, the Bills didn't score an offensive touchdown. That would become a common theme, with Gilbride's offense failing to breach the opposing goal line seven times during its last 14 games.

But there was plenty of time left in that game, you say. And 13 more games to follow.

True enough. On any number of levels, though, that one call epitomized Buffalo's season, and Williams' tenure.

Such trickery usually works best if the defense is wary of the run. Henry had carried precisely twice on the Bills' first three series, allowing the Dolphins to play the pass first and essentially set up a picket at the goal line.

Then there's Henry himself. His short, stocky build helps him squeeze through minute crevices in a defensive front, but doesn't help in seeing over it. His strong, but stubby fingers have been blamed for his fumbling difficulties, so he doesn't figure to make an ideal passer.

Still, Gilbride decided to put a crucial game in those relatively small hands. Because he knew better. That was a theme that would carry through October and November, when Buffalo's season still bore realistic hope for a playoff trip. While thousands of Bills fans across the country screamed at their television sets, Gilbride called for throw after throw after throw into the teeth of opposing blitzes and into overcrowded secondaries.

The low point came during the three-game losing streak surrounding Buffalo's bye week. The Bills scored a grand total of 21 points -- five field goals and three safeties -- while losing at Kansas City and Dallas and at home to Houston.

The Bills retained a mathematical shot at the playoffs for a month after the loss to the Texans, but let's be honest. If you can't even score a touchdown, at home, against a second-year expansion team, how far are you really going?

Were Gilbride's mystifying refusal to admit that Peerless Price no longer wore a Bills uniform the only problem pointed up by Henry's knuckler, you might be able to make a case for Williams (even though he was the second offensive coordinator chosen in three years by the head coach who didn't pan out).

Williams' post-game performance, however, demonstrated his most glaring shortcoming.

Asked about the play after the game, Williams defended Gilbride and the call. The interception resulted from A) the offensive line's failure to keep the Miami rush off of Henry; and B) the running back's failure to pull the ball down and make what he could out of the play after the line collapsed.

Oddly enough, he was right on both counts. But Henry never should have been in the position to make that decision in the first place. By blaming him and the linemen for not properly executing an asinine call, Williams showed everyone in the organization where his loyalty laid -- with his coaches, not the players.

He might have gotten away with that, if not for another post-game comment that his team was "out-physicaled" on both sides of the ball.

An irritating tendency toward coach-speak aside, there was more than a kernel of truth to Williams' words. The players certainly didn't want to hear it from him, however.

There are two types of coaches in the National Football League -- those who played the game at its highest level, and those who didn't. Williams falls into the second category.

Neither did Marv Levy, or Bill Parcells, or Mike Shanahan, or any number of other highly successful coaches. But they didn't act like they had, either.

Someone like Bill Cowher or Jim Haslett can get away with going nose to nose, spittle to spittle with one of his players, because he's been one of them.

If you, with apologies to Howard Cosell, "never played the game," you have to be a lot more careful about questioning their desire or toughness -- particularly in public.

Parcells can get away with such derision because he's Bill Parcells, winner of two Super Bowls and savior of four franchises, and counting. His barbs, like referring to then-rookie receiver Terry Glenn as "she" while both were with the Patriots in 1996, are tossed with specific intent, rather than as blanket excuses for his staff. And if you listen closely, they've become much less frequent as his hair gets whiter, or blonder, or whatever color it is these days.

Williams' work ethic and devotion were never in question. Those were all but meaningless without the ability to connect with the men he tried to lead.

"I don't know anyone who could be better organized or more prepared," Bills President/General Manager Tom Donahoe said after announcing that Williams' expired contract wouldn't be renewed. "(But) it didn't work."

Unable, or unwilling, to listen to what his players, the fans and even we dolts in the accursed media were saying about Buffalo's offense, Williams allowed Gilbride to continue calling plays that didn't work against defenses that were more than ready for them, right up to the bitter end of a season long since gone sour.

The schism between coaches and players grew by the week, capped by Gilbride's reported blow-up with guard Ruben Brown during the week before the season finale at New England. Anyone willing to argue that the Bills didn't quit on their head coach must have missed their shameful performance at Gillette Stadium.

"I don't think you can coach today in the National Football League if you can not adjust to change," Donahoe said.

Williams and Gilbride couldn't, or wouldn't. And as of today, neither is coaching in the National Football League.


From listening to Williams' first comments since joining the ranks of the unemployed, you'd think he'd won an Oscar.

The ex-coach thanked Bills owner Ralph Wilson, as well as Donahoe, his coaching staff, the front office, the players, the fans and the people who clean up the stadium after home games.

OK, I made up that last part. But it was a strangely classy display in what had to be an uncomfortable setting.

It was also the smart thing to do. Williams came to Buffalo with an impressive record as Tennessee's defensive coordinator, and figures to land a similar position somewhere in the next couple of months.

Exiting gracefully won't land him that next job on its own, but it won't hurt. Williams may not have been a great, or even good, head coach during his three years in Buffalo, but he didn't reach that position barely a decade removed from high-school coaching by being dumb.

That said, his attempted jab at the Buffalo area media -- something about trying his hand as a radio talk-show host -- won't go down in the annals of great retorts.

But at least he didn't have to spend Monday evening making apologies, as Donahoe did after opening his news conference by saying criticism leveled at Williams "embarrasses me to be part of this community."

Yes, we scoundrels in the press in general, and sports radio in particular, tend to take these kids' games way too seriously. When things go badly, and sometimes even when they're going well, any setback is seen not just as a loss, but as a betrayal. Despite their shortcomings, Williams and Gilbride weren't trying to lose in order to deny the Bills Nation its rightful place in the NFL hierarchy.

Donahoe, though, was right for apologizing to the press for apologizing to Williams. For one thing, a few radio wailers aren't representative of the media as a whole. For another, Williams made $900,000 this season. That's almost a million dollars, for those of you who have trouble keeping track of zeroes.

For that kind of green, he'd better be able to take a little mockery.


Donahoe made it clear that he won't accept another rebuilding process, and that whoever replaces Williams will be expected to turn things around in short order.

While he declined to comment on any specific candidates, early speculation centers on recently fired Giants coach Jim Fassel, Haslett -- who is still under contract in New Orleans, New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Without criticizing his first choice to be Buffalo's head coach, Donahoe held himself accountable for the Bills' 17-31 mark in the three seasons since he and Williams arrived.

"I've got to make a better decision this time than I made the last time," Donahoe said.

It's safe to say Ralph Wilson would agree.

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