Adjustment to Ryan’s defense key for Aeneas Williams

In the spring of 1994, after three short and not-so-sweet seasons in Arizona, Aeneas Williams thought he had played his last down with the Cardinals.

There was a new sheriff in town, Buddy Ryan, and Williams, a former Southern University star, didn’t know if he could play cornerback for the brash architect of the famed “46” defense that suffocated opposing offenses in the Chicago Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title eight years earlier.

“When Buddy got the job, the first thing I told my wife was I wasn’t going back to Arizona,” Williams said recently, recalling the conversation he had with his new bride, Tracy, two decades ago.

It’s not that he didn’t think he could play, because he could.

Williams, a third-round draft pick in 1991 after coming up with 17 interceptions in his final two years at Southern, started 47 of 48 games in his first three pro seasons and made an immediate impact with 11 picks — including six as a rookie.

While confident in his ability, Williams’ trepidation came from the fact that Ryan’s complicated defense called for cornerbacks to play on an island with no help covering bigger, stronger receivers — which was different from the zone concepts used by former Cardinals defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.

“Tracy kept asking me why I didn’t want to play for Buddy, and I told her I heard he wasn’t a players’ coach,” Williams said. “The truth was I was afraid to play in Buddy Ryan’s scheme.

“My first three years, playing against (former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver) Michael Irvin and guys like that, I had help,” he said. “I really wasn’t sure I could actually play on an island in Buddy’s system.”

But Williams quickly changed his tune in his first meeting with Rob Ryan, the son of Buddy Ryan and the Cardinals’ new secondary coach.

It was a meeting that would erase all doubt in Williams’ mind and quite possibly put him on a direct path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a solid 14-year NFL career with the Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

The journey from those early years with the Cardinals to Canton, Ohio, ends Saturday when Williams is inducted with six others into the pro shrine, with Rob Ryan’s words of encouragement still ringing in his ears.

“Rob put his arm around me the first time he saw me and said, ‘Aeneas, you can lead this league in interceptions … you can be All-Pro and you can make the Pro Bowl every year,’ ” Williams said.

Over the next 11 seasons, just as Rob Ryan predicted, Williams blossomed into one of the NFL’s premier defensive backs.

He led the league with nine interceptions in his first of two seasons playing under Ryan, who is now the Saints’ defensive coordinator, and was voted to eight Pro Bowls.

Williams was named All-Pro three times en route to 55 career interceptions, good enough for 17th place all-time when he retired a decade ago — returning nine for touchdowns.

He added six interceptions in six playoff games, picking off Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre twice each as well as Donovan McNabb and Randall Cunningham.

Twenty years later, Williams, who was a Hall of Fame finalist three times before breaking through this year, chuckled at the thought of initially not wanting to play for Buddy Ryan.

“I almost allowed fear to keep me out of the best position that would have drawn upon the talent I had,” Williams said. “After a week or two of that first training camp, Buddy Ryan, with reporters standing all around him, said, ‘I think Aeneas Williams is the best cornerback I’ve ever coached.’ ”

That was the ultimate compliment considering the elder Ryan had coached Eric Allen and Cris Dishman, a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks who had 97 interceptions between them.

Not long after making that declaration, Buddy Ryan started letting his best cornerback cover the other team’s best receiver regardless of where he lined up.

“Prior to that, Buddy always kept his corners on the left or the right,” Williams said proudly, “and I believed Rob played a part in convincing his dad that I could do it.”

Then again, Rob Ryan had an idea what he had in Williams after coaching against him while a member of the Tennessee State staff in 1989 and ’90. Williams had an interception in each of those meetings.

“I always appreciated his game then,” Ryan said. “When I got to come into the league, to get there and be there with Aeneas Williams was special. He was going to be great no matter what.

“He was phenomenal, and he had an unbelievable work ethic,” he said. “He was smart and so talented. I knew that I was coaching an eventual Hall of Famer in just my first year in the NFL. I was lucky.”

Indeed, Williams’ work ethic was legendary.

An instinctive player and a fierce tackler at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, he was always in top shape — which helped him play in 180 consecutive games to begin his career. He eventually played in 211 regular-season games with 207 starts.

In 10 years with the Cardinals, the likeable Williams became a mentor to some younger players — like cornerback Corey Chavous, who joined the team in Williams’ eighth season.

“I aggravated him a lot because I was always bouncing ideas off him,” Chavous said with a laugh. “I was always asking him about this player or that player. He had so much experience and was such a great player that I wanted to ask him how he would handle certain situations.

“Aeneas was always willing to give up that information to help me become a better player. He was a great mentor to me and a very humble person, which was one of the unique things about him.”

After 10 seasons, Williams, who was franchised by Arizona, was acquired by the Rams to solidify a defense that was 30th against the pass in 2000.

In his first year there, they improved to sixth — fulfilling a prophecy coach Mike Martz and defensive coordinator Lovie Smith made when they greeted Williams as he got off the plane.

“They said, ‘You’re going to be to our defense what Marshall Faulk is to our offense,’ ” Williams said of Faulk, a running back and fellow New Orleanian who helped the Rams win the Super Bowl after the’ 99 season.

In Williams’ first season in St. Louis, the Rams reached Super Bowl XLVI in the Superdome — where he once sold peanuts, popcorn and soft drinks as a youngster and also played some high school and college games.

The favored Rams lost to the New England Patriots and Tom Brady 20-17, but Williams said he always had the ability to keep things in perspective.

“It was great to play at home, yes, but we weren’t guaranteed anything,” he said. “It’s not like baseball, basketball or hockey where you play a series. It’s one game where you have to be your best that day. ... That day, the Patriots were better.

“Just playing for coach Lovie and that staff was a thrill because it showed I could play in anybody’s defense. He learned the (Cover 2) defense from coach (Tony) Dungy, and I always wanted to play in it. So it was a special place and a special time.”

Just like going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.