14 June 2011

The Gregg Williams Effect

By now, the story has been told countless times of how Gregg Williams arrived in New Orleans in 2009, of how Sean Payton--in a signature bold maneuver--closed the deal on securing the aggressive and unconventional Williams as the Saints' new defensive coordinator by offering Williams an additional $250,000 from Payton's own contract.

If you believe Cliff Clavin, a few beers just might make you smarter. Hiring Gregg Williams remains one of Coach Payton's finer moments, and a few beers probably deserve some of the credit  (see #2 on the list).

The aggressive philosophy through which Payton and the Saints recruited Williams mirrors the aggressive nature of Williams' defensive schemes and attitude in general, and perhaps for that reason alone, Williams seemed like an ideal fit into an organization built along the guiding principles of aggression and attack. What's indisputable is that Williams' insertion into the coaching hierarchy transformed the team. From shedding the oft-applied "finesse" label the team was dogged by for years, to seamlessly aligning with the aggressive philosophies of Payton, and ultimately instilling a mindset of relentless attack, Williams largely influenced the Saints' rise from contender to champion. It's hardly an accident that Williams' arrival coincided with a Saints' Super Bowl victory.

During the Payton era, Williams has improved the defense most noticeably in two areas: points allowed/game and turnovers created. It would certainly be reasonable to argue that these are the two statistical benchmarks most relevant to a team's defensive success; that the Saints have improved markedly in these two areas is a credit to Williams' leadership. In two seasons, Williams' defenses have surrendered an average of 20.3 ppg vs the 23.0 ppg mark under the guidance of Gary Gibbs (Gibbs was the defensive coordinator from '06-'08).  For reference, the league average in 2010 was 22.0 points allowed/game with the Steelers leading the way with 14.5 points allowed/game.

What's more encouraging is that from 2009 to 2010, the Williams-led defense improved to surrender 2.1 fewer points per game (21.3 in '09 vs. 19.2 in '10), a marked one-year improvement and reason for future optimism (more on this later). Conversely, under Gibbs, the Saints allowed increasingly more points per game in each season, from 20.1 in 2006 to 24.6 in 2008.

The second major area of improvement, as has been widely discussed, is in the turnover category. In two seasons under Williams, the Saints have averaged a whopping 32 turnovers per season. In three seasons under Gibbs, the Saints averaged a paltry 21.3 turnovers per season. Again for reference, the league average in 2010 was 26.9. And while turnovers are of monumental importance because they eliminate opponents' opportunities, they are exponentially more impactful to the Saints due to the high-scoring, highly-efficient nature of the Saints' offense. When the Saints' offense gains additional scoring opportunities--ones that they'll be highly efficient at converting--and their opponents have corresponding fewer chances, it's a direct formula for Saints' victories.

To wit, in three seasons with Gibbs at the defensive helm, the Saints averaged 8.3 wins per season. With Williams, that average has vaulted to 12 wins per season.

While these areas of growth are reason for optimism, there are several defensive leaks that need plugging. Over the course of the Payton era, the Saints' run defense has been mostly static and mediocre, ranking 23rd, 13th, 17th, 21st, and 16th. While those rankings certainly aren't awful, they represent a consistent area of weakness that opponents can exploit. And the addition of Williams hasn't done much to generate improvement in this area in two seasons. Will the addition of Shaun Rogers help? 

Likewise the Saints' sack totals have dipped, then mostly flatlined with season totals of 38, 32, 28, 35, and 33. This area is not actually as poor as conventional wisdom has suggested when you compare it to league averages, but it is certainly an area of mediocrity that needs improvement. Williams may like to bring pressure; he may be among the most blitz-centric schemers in the league; he may love to talk about getting to the QB; but thus far, his defenses' sack output has not matched the theory and the rhetoric. Will Cam Jordan and Martez Wilson make an immediate impact? 

The Saints have also seemingly become less disciplined under Williams, averaging 26.5 first downs surrendered via penalty per season. Under Gibbs, this number was 16.3. The league average in 2010 was 23.3. Essentially, the Saints under Williams are giving away 1.7 first downs/game through penalties. This is a glaring number, likely attributable to Williams' philosophy of aggression, that needs improvement. 

With that said though, in 2010--with a year's worth of tutelage in Williams's system--the Saints' defense improved dramatically in several areas over their 2009 benchmarks under Williams: points allowed, yards allowed, and passing yards allowed. 

Consider this: in 2010, the Saints' defense ranked 7th in points allowed; 4th in total yards allowed; and 4th in passing yards allowed. Two of these three areas represent the high-water marks of the Payton era: points allowed and yards allowed (the Saints were better against the pass in 2006, ranking 3rd in the league). In the Super Bowl season of 2009, the Saints ranked 20th, 25th, and 26th in those categories respectively, yet still won 13 consecutive games and then the Super Bowl in spite of this inefficiency. Granted, producing 39 turnovers in 2009 compensated for those inefficiencies and it was largely Williams' repeated philosophy of attack that's responsible for the turnover creation. Regardless, when we see this level of improvement year over year in key areas, it's a sign that the Saints are continuing to become more well-rounded and, in fact, excellent in multiple areas aside from just the passing offense.

As a historical precedent, Williams' teams--those he's previously led either as a defensive coordinator or head coach--have garnered high marks when exposed to his system over time. In his fourth season as Titans DC, Williams saw his defense ranked 1st in yards allowed and 2nd in points allowed. By his third season as Buffalo's head coach, Williams led a defense that ranked 2nd in yards allowed and 5th in points allowed. In his fourth season as the Redskins DC, Williams re-established a unit that finished 8th in yards and 11th in points allowed. Simply put, in every place he's coached for an extended period as the primary defensive coach, Gregg Williams has consistently established a top-10 defensive unit.

This is critical to note because as Williams continues to acquire players optimal for his schemes, and as the players become more well-versed, fluid, and confident within the system, the defense will continue to improve exponentially. As the Saints defense climbs from the ranks of the mediocre to the heights of the elite as is expected, and you combine this high level of defensive play with the Saints already potent offense, it paves a path directly back to the Super Bowl.

2011 holds much promise for the Saints, defensively-speaking and otherwise. Now it's time for Gregg Williams to raise the bar a bit higher and make the Saints a bit more fearsome.