N.O. hopes few defensive moves go long way
N.O. hopes few defensive moves go long way
Veteran assistant Robinson 'intense'
Thursday, August 11, 2005
By Mike Triplett
The Saints added only a select few free agents this offseason to a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2004.
Most notable were safety Dwight Smith and secondary coach Willy Robinson.
The way the Saints see it, adding a veteran on the sideline is just as significant as adding a veteran on the field -- if not more so.
Robinson, a nine-year NFL assistant, was released along with the rest of the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff in January, after one year as the team's defensive coordinator. Before that, he spent four years as the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive backs coach.
"We offered him a job when we didn't even have a job," said Saints coach Jim Haslett, who created the title of senior defensive assistant for Robinson. "I was looking for a good football coach. I knew his reputation. I knew when he was in Pittsburgh he was a heck of a coach, and everybody raved about him.
"We're just trying to get the best coaching staff to go along with the best players that we can."
The Saints made a similar move when they hired longtime defensive line coach John Pease in 2003.
Robinson, 49, was given a specific role with the Saints in February when former secondary coach Joe Baker left to take a job with the Green Bay Packers. But he was primarily brought in for his overall input -- as a top assistant to defensive coordinator Rick Venturi.
"Willy was a guy we wanted a few years back, but he was under contract and we couldn't get him," Venturi said. "Then, when we had an opportunity to bring him in, I wanted Willy desperately, so I was really happy that it all worked out.
"Both those additions the last two years (Pease and Robinson) have been phenomenal. They bring another eye to things. Willy's good for me from the standpoint of input because he has a wealth of background. He's had a lot of different experiences, a lot of different defenses, and he's been a coordinator."
Players describe Robinson as "direct" and "intense," but they say he's not just a yeller and a screamer.
"I think he's more straightforward than anything else," said cornerback Fred Thomas, who spent his first three years in the league with Robinson in Seattle. "He chews you out when you need to be chewed out. And when he wants to give you those warm fuzzies, he'll give them to you. And he just knows his stuff, man, and that's a great thing."
Robinson agreed with the assessment, saying his philosophy is that players want to be coached and want honesty.
Cornerback Fakhir Brown said Robinson's main emphasis has been stressing that the defensive backs need to be better at defending the run -- where New Orleans ranked 30th in the NFL last season.
"He wants us to be very aggressive," Brown said. "He's into it. It seems like he was a linebackers coach or something."
New Saints cornerback Jimmy Williams -- another free-agent addition -- played for Robinson in San Francisco last year. He described Robinson as intense, passionate and "one of those guys who will be here all night getting ready."
Williams also said Robinson looks like he's having a little bit more fun this year.
Robinson's defense gave up more points than any team in the NFL last year -- 452, compared to the Saints' 402 -- thanks largely to a string of injuries to the 49ers' top defenders.
Equally trying for Robinson was watching his close friend and coaching mentor, Dennis Erickson, struggle as the 49ers' head coach. The team finished 2-14.
Yet Robinson called last season "the most fun I've ever had in coaching."
"In Week 17, we're playing New England, and our kids are playing hard. And they played hard all season long," Robinson said. "Let me just tell you, those kids never quit. So that part of it made it very pleasurable."
Still, he admits that he might have to wait for his next crack at being an NFL coordinator.
"There's not too many opportunities for a coordinator that gives up the most points in the NFL," said Robinson, who was approached by Haslett at the Senior Bowl less than two weeks after being fired.
"They had to create a position for me, and I was quite flattered by that," said Robinson, who said he had several other phone calls but no better opportunity. "I've always admired Coach Haslett, and I've grown up watching Rick Venturi coach. I'm with two people that I really admire, and I'm here to learn."
Robinson spent most of his coaching career under Erickson before he joined the Steelers' staff in 2000. That included stints with Oregon State, the Seattle Seahawks, Miami (Fla.), Fresno State and San Jose State.
The two met when Erickson was an offensive coordinator and Robinson a defensive back at Fresno State from 1977-78.
Robinson, who has a Bulldogs tattoo on his right calf, played with the same direct style he uses as a coach.
"I know I was probably not as athletic as the people that I played with in college," Robinson said. "But shoot, there was only one way to play the game."
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Mike Triplett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3381.
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