Doug Williams has the ball in his hands once again for Washington
As senior vice president of player personnel, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback must find the talent to return to the big game
Black folks want Doug Williams to win. Many have been behind him for almost 30 years, ever since he took a sledgehammer to the myth that blacks lacked the ability to thrive at football’s most important position. On the day he became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Williams also became a hero. And if Williams performs even remotely as well in his new role for the Washington Redskins as he did long ago against the Denver Broncos, he could leave another indelible mark.
In June, Williams was named Washington’s senior vice president of player personnel. It figures to be the most daunting challenge of his professional life.
On the team’s organizational flowchart, Williams ranks evenly with head coach Jay Gruden, answering only to franchise owner Daniel Snyder and team president Bruce Allen. Williams’ mandate is clear: lead a scouting department tasked with providing the talent to help Gruden guide the Redskins back to the Super Bowl, a game in which they last played almost 26 years ago. But that’s the long-term goal.
More immediately, Williams must help restore fan confidence in one of the most unstable franchises in professional sports. Snyder’s penchant for meddling in major player-personnel decisions is well-known throughout the league. Williams’ ascent to Washington’s top player-personnel position occurred after Snyder and Allen fired their hand-picked general manager, Scot McCloughan, in March with two years remaining on his contract.
Many NFL decision-makers say privately that they doubt Williams will have the authority to effect positive change in a football operation long marked by dysfunction. And the view from the outside is that Williams, a senior executive with the team the past three seasons, was promoted to mollify fans angered by McCloughan’s ouster and eager to embrace anyone with strong ties to Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, the former head coach who won the team’s three Super Bowl championships.
Williams knows what’s out there. Not surprisingly, though, he has no interest in discussing others’ perceptions. While breaking through barriers as a player, Williams learned that talk doesn’t matter; results do. Let others focus on perception, Williams said. He’ll focus on doing his job.
As Washington prepares to open training camp Thursday in Richmond, Virginia, Williams has never been more clear-minded about getting the job done.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve always had a job to do [in scouting], but somebody else had to take on all of that responsibility if things weren’t right. Now, that falls on me,” Williams said recently during a lengthy interview. “At the same time, I also understand how the whole department has to work together to make it work. I can’t do it alone. It’s not a one-man band.”
That’s why Williams, 61, moved quickly to expand Washington’s scouting department, part of a plan he laid out to Snyder and Allen in his detailed proposal to take control of the front office. In the decades since his playing days ended, Williams coached at the high school and college levels and worked in NFL front offices. During his climb up the NFL ladder, Williams gained an appreciation for the people who crisscross the country seeking talent to fill the pipeline.
Williams will work closely with scouts while overseeing the department, staying in a lane in which he’s comfortable while leaving salary cap management and contract negotiations to cap analyst Eric Schaffer. Williams expressed pride in the scouting staff’s performance during the 2017 draft. The team added two former University of Alabama defensive stars — lineman Jonathan Allen, with the 17th overall pick, and linebacker Ryan Anderson, in the second round — who will be relied on to quickly bolster a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL in total yards in each of the past two seasons.
Based on what he observed during the offseason program and organized team activities, Williams is confident the defense will be “better than we were last year,” he said. “You see guys who want to get it done.”
Washington has been so bad on defense for so long, it was easy to reach consensus within the football operation about the team’s draft strategy. This time.
Williams would be the first to acknowledge that friction is common within every front office along the path to roster-building. Surely, there will be spirited debate in Williams’ shop about players, and Snyder, Allen and Gruden undoubtedly will have their views too. “But what you do is keep talking about it,” Williams said. “What scouting is all about, what you want to try to do, is to come up with what’s going to help the team the most. I know Bruce and Jay. I know them well. I know how to talk to them and work it out. We all want the same thing: to help the Redskins win.”
Under Snyder, Washington hasn’t won as frequently as it once did. In Snyder’s 18 seasons as owner, the Redskins have finished over .500 six times, with five playoff appearances and two postseason victories. Contrast those paltry numbers with Gibbs’ first stint in the head coach’s office from 1981 through 1992: The Redskins failed to produce winning records only twice, reached the playoffs eight times and won the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 1982, ’87 and ’91 seasons. Williams played a key role in Washington’s second title, being selected Super Bowl MVP in a 42-10 blowout of the Broncos. He threw four touchdown passes in a record-setting 35-point second quarter.
The Snyder era has been marked as much by instability along the sideline — Gruden is the eighth head coach under Snyder — as by spectacular player-personnel and front-office blunders. The most recent soap-opera-worthy drama resulted in the ouster of McCloughan, who also did not handle contract negotiations, creating an opening for Williams. The organization has moved on, and what matters is “the results we get,” Williams said.
Williams has a seat at the highest level of the organization, which also means he bears more responsibility for Washington’s performance both on and off the field. But ask Williams about the increased pressure he faces and in turn he’ll ask you, “What pressure?”
“I’ve been an athlete, I’ve been a competitor, almost all my life,” Williams said. “One of the things I’ve always said is that pressure is something an individual puts upon himself.
“You prepare to do your job the right way. You put in the time, study your information and go out and do your job as well as you can. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s how I try not to apply pressure to myself, by being ready.”
Obviously, Williams was prepared for the 1988 Super Bowl. It showed in the signature performance of his career, which black folks still stop Williams “all the time and ask me about,” he said. “And what makes me feel good is that I see how much it meant to them. It really wasn’t just about me. It was much bigger than me. You have to understand that.”
Just as in Williams’ day, quarterback play is among the biggest factors in determining which teams reach the Super Bowl. The NFL is a quarterback’s league. And you can’t win in a quarterback’s league if you don’t have a quarterback.
The past two offseasons, Washington has failed to reach a long-term contract extension with record-setting passer Kirk Cousins. For the second straight season, Cousins will play under the one-year franchise tag — the first quarterback to do so for two seasons. It’s fair to question the team’s handling of Cousins’ contract situation. If the team eventually loses him, it would likely take a significant step backward. But he can’t worry about that at the moment, Williams said.
“The most important thing that has happened is that the Cousins situation is behind us for a year at least,” Williams said. “We certainly can’t think about what’s behind us, and we have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. But we’ve got a good enough team here. I really believe that.
“If Kirk goes out and plays the way he’s capable of playing, the way he has played, and puts a little more to his game, there’s no reason that we can’t compete like everybody else. We’ve got the right people in place … we just can’t think about long-term. He’s here. And knowing Kirk Cousins, you know he’s a competitor. It’s not like he’s gonna roll over and decide not to play up to his abilities. He’ll do his job.”
And from everything we know about Williams, Washington can count on him to deliver as well.