The Back Rhodes Ray's Happy With Redskins Running The Defense Again Away From Head-coach Glare

Posted: July 25, 2000

ASHBURN, Va. — If you're looking for bitterness, if you're looking for anger, if you're looking for a man wallowing in nobody-knows-the-trouble-I've-seen self pity, you've come to the wrong place.

Ray Rhodes has been canned from two NFL head-coaching jobs in two years. And never has been happier.

He is smiling. He is at ease. The weight-of-the-world pressure he constantly felt last season in Green Bay, and the year before in Philadelphia, has been lifted. Hasn't needed blood-pressure medication in four months.

Rhodes is back where he belongs, doing what he does best, running an NFL defense. He was fired Jan. 3. Three weeks later, he was hired as the Washington Redskins' defensive coordinator. Hasn't looked back once.

"I'm having fun with the game again," Rhodes said. "I'm having more fun than I've had in a long while.

"I'm enjoying myself again. My family's seeing a different side of me. A side they like. As head coach, I tried to be somebody else. It wasn't me. Now, I can be myself again. I don't have to worry about watching my language and all that bleep."

No more weekly standing-room-only media inquisitions. No more nonstop talk-show criticism. No more owners or general managers scrutinizing and second-guessing his every move.

All of that is head coach Norv Turner's problem now. Rhodes' only concern is making sure the Redskins' defense plays considerably better this season than it did last season, when it finished 29th in the NFL.

"The game is played with urgency," Rhodes said. "If your house is on fire and you're four blocks away, are you going to walk? No, you're going to run your bleep off. I'm going to get back in that top 10 [ranking of defenses]. We have to find a way to get back and have a defense where we're a force to be reckoned with."

Rhodes won't have to look hard for a way. Thanks to the deep pockets of owner Dan Snyder, the Redskins' defense is filthy-rich in talent. Snyder shelled out more than $25 million on signing bonuses for free agents Deion Sanders ($8 million), Bruce Smith ($4.25 million) and Mark Carrier ($3 million) and first-round pick LaVar Arrington ($10.03 million). Rhodes' defense has earned a grand total of 32 Pro Bowl invitations, including 22 by Sanders (eight), Smith (11) and Carrier (three).

"I had some talented units in San Francisco," said Rhodes, referring to his Super Bowl days as an assistant with the 49ers. "Top-flight players. But when you look at the lineup here, it's awful good. But talent don't mean bleep if you don't play as one. That's going to be the key here. We've got a lot of good players. But they've got to play as one."

The Redskins' defense definitely didn't play as one last year. Despite the presence of two of the league's better defensive tackles - Dana Stubblefield and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson - Washington's run defense was horrible, giving up 4.5 yards per carry. Despite a secondary that featured future Hall of Famer Darrell Green and first-round pick Champ Bailey at cornerback, they gave up a disconcerting 23 touchdown passes.

"Something's wrong with that picture," Rhodes said. "That shouldn't happen. I've got to raise the bar. Four-and-a-half yards per carry isn't acceptable. If you can't stop the run in this league, you're not going to win, no matter how good your offense is. But we'll be OK there. I guarantee you, we won't be giving up 41/2 yards per carry this year."

Losing two head-coaching jobs in two years can tear a man's guts out and do some major damage to his self-worth. Especially a guy such as Rhodes, who always considered losing the ultimate disgrace.

Deep down inside, he yearns for redemption, yearns for another chance to prove that, despite the pink slips in Philadelphia and Green Bay, he can succeed as an NFL head coach.

He could get that chance in Washington. Snyder, who bought the Redskins for $800 million in May 1999, isn't a particularly patient man. He gave Turner a playoffs-or-else ultimatum last season and expects nothing less than a Super Bowl bid this year.

Rhodes, though, insists he is in no hurry to be a head coach again.

"I want to enjoy this for a while," he said. "The thing about being a head coach, you're consumed with other things. You've got to delegate everything. I didn't like that. Being a coordinator, you're down there with the guys. When you're a head coach, you're away from them. I missed the hands-on part. I missed rolling up my sleeves and getting in there. Maybe I'll get another chance [to be a head coach] someday, maybe I won't. Right now, it's the farthest thing from my mind. I'm happy doing what I'm doing."

Interestingly, Turner's job and the Redskins' Super Bowl hopes largely depend on the play of Rhodes' defense. The 'Skins' offense was one of the most explosive in the NFL last year, averaging 27.7 points and 384.4 yards per game. Even with their underachieving defense, they still came within a whisker of making it to the NFC Championship Game.

Now that defense has added Sanders, who arguably is the best cover corner ever to play the game. It has added Smith, the league's second all-time leading quarterback sacker. It has added Carrier, a three-time Pro Bowler, and Arrington, a playmaking linebacker taken second in the April draft. And maybe most important, it has added Rhodes.

"Defense is where games are won, where championships are won," said Stubblefield, who played for Rhodes in San Francisco in '94. "Ray knows that. He's not going to tolerate us playing [as poorly] as last year. He doesn't mince words. You've gotta have thick skin with Ray. It's not personal, but he's going to tell the truth. If you're not playing well, he'll get in your face and say, 'You're holding your butt out there. You've got to pick it up.' I respect that about him."

Said Green: "Ray's made it clear that he's in charge. Every guy here is responding to his leadership with a certain amount of trembling in a sense."

Nobody is more ecstatic about Rhodes' arrival than Stubblefield. He has been a major disappointment since signing with the Redskins two years ago after a 15-sack season in San Francisco in '97. He's recorded just 41/2 sacks in two seasons in D.C., and was 10th on the team in tackles last year.

Stubblefield said a big reason for his dismal numbers is that, in former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme, the line's primary job was to occupy blockers so the linebackers could make the plays, which they often failed to do. He said he and the rest of the Redskins' defensive line will be a much more integral part of Rhodes' scheme.

"It's been very frustrating here," Stubblefield said. "It gets to the point where you hate it and dislike playing the defense. But you don't want to cause a commotion.

"Things are going to be different now with Ray. His scheme is such that it's not just set up for the linebackers to make all the tackles. Me and Big Daddy are going to be making some tackles this year. This whole defensive line could be sitting in Hawaii after we come back from Tampa [site of Super Bowl XXXV]."

Rhodes doesn't know about that, but he does know Stubblefield will be more productive this season than he was the last two years.

"He's going to get back to playing the way he did in San Francisco," Rhodes said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that. He's worked harder this offseason than he's ever worked before in his life. He's in great condition. He's going to have a great year. Same with Big Daddy."

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com

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