FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It was a good thing Brian Williams checked his voicemail after he got off the plane.
Williams was on a layover at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Sept. 6. He was traveling from Jacksonville, where the Jaguars had cut him a day earlier, to Detroit where the Lions wanted to talk about a contract.
The Falcons were interested, too, and they had some mojo on their side: fate and the world's busiest airport. When his connection landed and he checked his phone, his agent had left a message for him, telling him about the Falcons.
Atlanta, home to several of his former coaches and teammates, wanted to meet. Prior to getting on the plane, Williams wasn't sure how much the Falcons were in the mix.
"That made me stay here," Williams said of the in-flight contact between the Falcons and his agent. "My bag went on to Detroit. I got it back the next day."
Before that, the only calls Williams fielded from the Birds came in the form of his former Jaguars and future teammate, linebacker Mike Peterson.
"'Man, I need you here,'" Peterson said he implored to Williams over the phone (he slammed his fist into his hand as he retold the story).
Irrespective of Peterson's powers of suggestions, Williams came to his own realization the Falcons would be the best fit for him. The 30-year-old's decision to come to Atlanta and move directly into the starting lineup has been a factor in the Falcons' 2-1 start.
"It was a weird two days," Williams said. "That Saturday, then everything happened so fast... I woke up Sunday (and) my phone was ringing off the hook."
Weird but providential.
In the preseason, the secondary stood out as the group most in need of improvement so General Manager Thomas Dimitroff made two moves in that direction. First he traded for Tye Hill, who is learning the system and has yet to hit the field. Second was signing Williams.
Not only does the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Williams have 17 tackles for sixth on the team and one pass defended, but he also recovered a fumble and returned it 53 yards in Week 1 and blocked a punt against Carolina.
Alvin Reynolds, who coached Williams for two years in Jacksonville before coming to Atlanta, said play-making ability was something the Jacksonville staff noticed when it scouted him as a free agent from Minnesota. In Williams' four seasons with the Vikings he intercepted 12 passes and forced seven fumbles.
"He's a playmaker," Reynolds said. "He's a bigger guy that's physical and can play the run yet he can cover, too."
Those are Williams' on-field contributions. But, as is so often the case with the NFL, games are won in meetings and in practice as much as on the field. Williams' comprehensive understanding of the scheme of Head Coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his ability to relay it to teammates also has benefitted the team.
That is why Peterson made his aggressive pitch to Williams.
"I know good football players when I see 'em, man.," Peterson said. "I knew he could fit in here. If he couldn't fit in, then I wouldn't have bothered. But I was a good friend of him in Jacksonville..."
It's understandable as to why Williams would pick the Falcons over the Lions, who set a record by going 0-16 last season. But he also received interest from the New York Giants, who are only two seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl.
Peterson's pitch went along these lines: "You know the system," Peterson said he told Williams. "He's a guy who can play all the [defensive backfield] positions. We're young in the secondary. You get a veteran guy who knows the system… who knows cornerback, knows safety, knows all the safety positions -- why wouldn't you want him? Even if he doesn't come here and doesn't start right away, I know he could come here and help those guys out."
And that has been the case.
Safety Erik Coleman said questions come up every day from the team's younger players.
"It really helps to have Brian because -- sometimes in the past a corner would ask me a question and I couldn't answer it perfectly because I don't play corner," Coleman said. "I mean, I know the scheme of the defense, but he plays that position so he has a better angle on it than I do. It's nice to have a guy who has a great grasp of this defense and has played a lot of downs in this league."
Third-year cornerback Chris Houston starts opposite Williams on the right side. Houston, who intercepted a pass at the Falcons' 4-yard line late against Carolina to help seal that game, said Williams has helped him to think situationally. Houston specifically cited Williams' advising him as to how to defend receivers when the other team gains the red zone.
"He can tell me things from his past experience and how he thinks on certain plays, so he has been a very big help since he got here," Houston said.
Always the voice of clarity, Peterson said it's often easier for players to hear things from an older veteran than it is from a coach.
"When you hear it from a player, it sounds a little different to a lot of guys," Peterson said.
Reynolds chuckled at that notion, but also agreed it is just human nature.
"This is my 17th year coaching and it's always been that way," he said. "You coach them, but the player themselves it'll validate what a coach says. So, it helps your guys buy into what we're doing."
Williams said even though he was not physically at Russell Falcons Training Camp, he felt he did not miss out on much.
"I already knew what was going on with the defense," he said. "That was tremendous."
Having landed with the Falcons, Williams is glad to be closer to home -- just outside of Greensboro, N.C. -- and thankful for the opportunity. He said it has taken him a while to get settled inside the locker room and out -- he finally has cable television installed and a home.
At the same time, he seems slightly bitter about the Jaguars' decision.
"Oh, yeah, it's definitely a better situation. I mean, good luck towards Jacksonville, but you move on," he said. "I played for the Vikings, I moved on. That's just the way the league is run. I guess they had other ideas and so did I. I'm just blessed to have another job."
In college, Williams stayed close to home and played at North Carolina State. Shortly after arriving with the Falcons, he remarked to a reporter in the locker room wearing a University of North Carolina hat that he should find himself a red, Wolfpack model.
While many who know him, Peterson and fellow linebacker Tony Gilbert who both played with him in Jacksonville, say he is quiet and laid back, that's the wry humor that Reynolds said Williams' possesses.
"You won't get it until about five seconds afterwards," Reynolds said.
Coleman also sees that less-than-quiet side.
"He's not," he said. "He speaks his mind. He's a good leader. He'll step up and say something that needs to be said. It's good to have a guy like that in the secondary."
Another asset that Williams brings to the team is versatility. He played both safety and corner in Smith's system in Jacksonville and has often played the nickelback in passing situations, defending the inside receiver.
Making use of Williams' size advantage over Brent Grimes, who takes Williams' spot at the left corner in the nickel, the Falcons' coaching staff matches up Williams against other teams' big receiver. That happened against New England, when Williams went at times against 6-4 Randy Moss, one of the league's best receivers who beat Williams on a fourth-down conversion in a second-half touchdown drive.
Williams spoke after the game about that play and how he took away the inside route -- the one that is faster and easier for the quarterback to throw -- and Moss went outside.
It wasn't the winning the play, but it was the thinking man's play.
With Williams, the Falcons' hope that more often than not, the thinking man's play will prevail and Williams will make more than his share.
Maybe fate will take care of the rest.
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