In June of 1999, during one of his first minicamps as Tennessee Titans defensive line coach, Jim Washburn borrowed the concept of musical chairs for a drill. He lined up five players on the ground. Some 20 or 30 yards behind them were four small orange cones, one fewer than the number of players. The cones were in a line perpendicular to the one formed by the players.
At the whistle, the players jumped up, ran and attempted to get a cone. The one who failed to do so lost. The drill was made famous that day by rookie Jevon Kearse, who — when challenged by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — swept up all four cones and left the others to wonder what happened.
It was a telling sign of what was to come under Washburn, who last week left the Titans to become defensive line coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Washburn said later that his first assignment was to get his players to run to the ball, so he crafted that drill that day as a way to emphasize that point. In the ensuing 12 years, he developed into the Titans’ mad scientist. He constantly dreamed up ways to teach players what he wanted them to know and do. Players often talked about seeing him on the practice field well before the start of workouts, fiddling with various props and pads to determine whether a drill might work.
That first season, Kearse chased down Baltimore’s Priest Holmes and Qadry Ismail from behind — each more than 50 yards downfield — in the same game. Washburn’s method immediately was validated. Ever since, a steady parade of players such as Robaire Smith, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Josh Evans, Albert Haynesworth and Jason Babin built or greatly enhanced their professional reputations with Washburn’s guidance.
At the same time, Washburn actually made a name for himself, a rare trait among position coaches. The fact was that anyone who watched the Titans play saw the obvious impact of his prodding.
Few, if any, who pile into LP Field on a given Sunday can recognize the technical brilliance offensive line coach Mike Munchak imparts to his charges. It’s tough to tell whether Marcus Robertson’s safeties made the reads he taught them or whether Craig Johnson’s running backs hit the proper aiming points at the right time.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Washburn’s voice also was the loudest on the practice field. His own passion and desire for perfection spilled from his lips with every snap in a highly entertaining, often vulgar but always enlightening instant critique of his players’ progress. For those who attended training camp workouts over the years, it was high spectacle.
Through it all, the one constant was that Washburn demanded his guys play hard — as hard as he coached. They did exactly that in a manner that was obvious to all and easy for even the most casual fan to appreciate.
Sure, Vanden Bosch’s motor was going to run hot no matter what, but Washburn was like an injection of jet fuel, and the combination was memorable, to say the least. Washburn stoked Kearse’s competitive fire for a few years in a way that produced dramatic moments. He allowed Babin to realize the potential many thought had been lost.
The funny thing about it all is that — despite his many and consistent successes — Washburn remained remarkably insecure about his job status throughout his Titans tenure. It was that fear of failure that drove him and kept his mind churning with new and inventive ways to bring out the best of his charges.
Reports are that Washburn got a three-year deal to coach with the Eagles. That means he might finally have some peace of mind. If he does, there’s no telling what that will mean in freeing up his mind to create interesting and effective practice schemes for the Eagles defensive linemen — or just what those linemen might accomplish over the next three years.
For Titans fans, it’s tough to imagine their team ever will have another assistant like him.