Q&A: With Defensive Coach Willie Shaw

Willie Shaw is never at a loss for words or opinions, and with the defensive backfield a constant work in progress, he has plenty to say.

Willie Shaw is back with the Vikings as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach. Shaw was a Vikings assistant coach from 1992-93 before joining the coaching staffs with the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. He also coached with the Detroit Lions and numerous NCAA Division I colleges before his first stint with the Vikings.

For 13 of his 14 seasons coaching in the NFL (32 years of coaching total), Shaw has either been a defensive backs coach or a defensive coordinator. He also brings experience in resurrecting poor defenses. When he joined the Raiders as their defensive coordinator in 1998, he inherited a defense that ranked 30th in total defense, 30th in rushing defense and 30th in passing defense in 1997. In his first season in Oakland, the Raiders finished with the fifth-best defense in the league.

Q: How pleased have you been with the play of the defensive backs?

A: Some things I'm pleased with and others I'm not, but it's always going to be like that. We're a work in progress. I can't say I'm totally pleased with everything. We've made some progress in certain areas, red zone and those kind of things. Early on we played well on third down and then we slipped a little bit. But it's a work in progress. Some things we are really happy about and there are some things we have to get better at.

Q: Are there some key areas you would like to see improved?

A: No, because every week it changes when you have young guys. It's like a kid. Just when you think you know they got it, then all of a sudden you know they don't. They will go along doing something right four or five times in a row and then all of a sudden ... they are young guys and then they do it wrong. It's that kind of a work in progress — consistent, discipline, those kind of things.

Q: Do you enjoy the challenge of trying to mold these guys as players?

A: If they went out and did everything right in preseason and you know they are going to do it right the rest of the year, I can go home. But it's a work in progress. You come to work every day and there is a lot to do. The offenses change. Sometimes you put in a little wrinkle. Those things have to be coached and disciplined in.

Q: How much does the team miss safety Robert Griffith, who was injured in the Chicago game?

A: You lose your bell cow, the best guy you have back there. He has always made all the calls, provided good leadership. You might replace him with a guy that plays as well, possibly, maybe. But even then there is still a huge hole from his presence not being there — his calls, adjustments, how quickly he did things because he has been doing them a long time in this defense. Then, just the leadership in the huddle and the motivation to get your players going.

Q: Has Orlando Thomas been making the calls since then?

A: No, he hasn't. There are certain calls the free safety can't make that the strong safety has to make. He can't fill in in that sense because who is going to make his calls?

Q: Who has been making the calls?

A: Anybody that is in there (at strong safety). They've got to make his calls. They can communicate with each other as they break the huddle, but you can't have one guy try to make two different calls. It's just spreading too thin. Everybody has to carry their own weight.

Q: So, the loss of Griffith causes more problems than fans can see?

A: They aren't as crisp in calls and things like that, and they won't be because you are still missing the guy. The most important thing, like I said, is the leadership, the motivation, the style of play that you can't replace unless you get that guy back.

Q: How pleased have you been with the play of Henry Jones, who has replaced Griffith?

A: He's like everybody else right now. He's up and down because of maybe different reasons. He's not young, like some of the mental errors made by the young guys, but he's still learning. He's still trying to learn the defense. He has had no training camp. The calls, adjustments, sometimes they come a little slower. But other than that he's filling in admirably. We didn't have anybody. We had some younger guys but … We are going to try to help by substituting a little bit for him, so he won't have to have it all down every week.

Q: Are you happy with how Eric Kelly is playing at cornerback?

A: For a rookie, he's playing really well. But he still makes rookie mistakes. There is a certain amount of allowance for that because he's still learning what we do, he's still learning the league. But he has a lot of talent, he has a lot of confidence and every week he gets a little bit better at everything. But once he gets things, he usually has them. He has been doing well for a rookie. But that's why we drafted him, to see if he can come along and help us where we need help.

Q: How is Robert Tate's injured shoulder coming along?

A: You have to ask Denny (Green) and the doctors. I'm a coach, I'm not a doctor. I just coach the guys on the field to a point where they say I can coach them. Robert is still working with the trainers and the doctors and he was well enough to play 12 to 15 snaps (against Detroit), so we put him as the nickel. He wasn't ready to play every down. So that's what they tell me and that's what I coach.

Q: Dennis Green talked about the fact Thomas has the ability to be a coach someday. What are your thoughts?

A: That's Denny's quote, not my quote. I'm not trying to evaluate him as a (future) coach; I'm trying to evaluate him as a (position) coach. He does a good job in his position. But we are all in the same boat. He makes a couple of mistakes and he'll talk about them. He'll come in and say, ‘I called this wrong.' As the player's coach, he's doing a good job. He has filled in some for Griff, but we still miss Griff. VU

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