But perhaps no organization, or its fans, is pinning greater hopes on a new assistant coach than the Saints are on Gregg Williams. The 51-year-old Williams comes to New Orleans with a track record of producing top-tier defenses and a reputation as a demanding tactician who coaxes superior effort from his players.
"I have two-and-a-half degrees," Williams says. "I've got a lot of psychology hours, a double major in psychology, so what you try to make [the players] feel is how important it is. And trust this: If it's not as important to them as it is to me, they won't play."
While Williams will never sack a quarterback or intercept a pass, Saints fans hope he is the savior with the defensive savoir-faire that can catapult the team back into the playoffs. The Saints defense is viewed as something of a weak link on a team that boasts an All-Pro quarterback, dynamic skill-position players and last season's top-ranked offense, yet still missed the playoffs. Even modest improvements on defense could spell drastically different prospects for this year's team.
In 2008 the New Orleans defense ranked 23rd in the league in yards allowed and tied for 26th in points allowed. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was the fall guy. At season's end, the Saints fired Gibbs, whose three-year tenure was marked by a lack of steady improvement and a propensity for allowing big plays during crucial situations.
But how much difference can a middle-aged man who wears slacks and a headset on game day make?
Head coach Sean Payton believes plenty. Payton was so eager to land Williams that he reportedly gave $250,000 of his own salary to the first year of Williams' contract to help lure him to New Orleans. He was the only candidate the Saints interviewed for the job.
"He's a good leader," Payton says. "He's a guy that, outside of the scheme aspect of football, his defenses have played real hard. That's something you can see on film and it's something that we're having a chance to see now and that's one of the reasons why we wanted to hire him."
Williams employs an attacking 4-3 scheme (four down linemen and three linebackers) that seeks to put suffocating pressure on the quarterback. In recent years the Saints haven't made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable enough. Their 28 sacks were tied for 22nd in the league last season.
Williams' style is one he's honed in the NFL for nearly two decades. A native of Excelsior Springs, Mo., Williams played football and baseball at Northeast Missouri State, where he earned a bachelor's degree. He later earned a master's in education from Central Missouri State.
His first taste of the pro game came in 1990 when he joined the Houston Oilers as their quality control coordinator. He was a defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans from 1997-2000, the head coach for the Buffalo Bills from 2001-03 and the defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins from 2004-07. Last season he was the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator. But their defense ranked a pedestrian 17th in the league, and the two sides parted ways.
Despite the disappointing year with the Jaguars, Williams has led a defense ranked in the top three in the NFL three different times in his career.
As sanguine as Saints fans may be about the change Williams will bring to New Orleans, the unvarnished truth is this: When Williams' defenses have excelled, they have done so with superb talent. The 2000 Titans, which led the league in defense, had a pair of Pro Bowl players in the secondary in cornerback Samari Rolle and safety Blaine Bishop, as well as a terror of a defensive end in Jevon Kearse. The 2003 Bills boasted run-stuffing tackle Sam Adams, playmaking linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher and elite cornerback Nate Clements. And the 2004 Redskins had one of the most talented defensive backfields in the league with cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot and safety Sean Taylor as well as Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington.
Warlock or not, Williams will need the requisite raw material to mold his next masterpiece — which raises the question: Does the Saints defense have better players this season? Any judgment on that front is premature, but Williams says he'll make sure they know where to be and what to do.
"One of the things we're going to do is try to allow [players] to have the tools of trade to put themselves in the position," Williams says. "I laugh when I hear players say the coaches didn't put me in the right position. There won't be that problem here because I'm going to allow them the freedom to check and [call audibles within] the defense to put them in the right position to make the plays."
A brief snapshot of the Williams-led defense during the team's mini-camps and offseason training program reflected an up-tempo approach and an attention to detail in practice. It's a change the Saints offensive players have noticed.
"They're having to learn on the fly to prove to a new coach that they can play a significant role on the defense," says quarterback Drew Brees. "Certainly I think [his] style of football is one that breeds confidence and almost borderline arrogance out there — that we're going to come after you and get you. I love that attitude. It's great for us to go up against as an offense every day."
Williams is known as a no-nonsense coach who has little patience for mental miscues. And while he's no drill sergeant, he says his players will always know where they stand with him.
"They'll like what we're going to do on defense," Williams says. "They'll like me a lot better if they're in great shape and they're smart and tough. If they're not in great shape and they're not tough, they probably won't like me."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor at WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.