He remains recognizable by his confident, purposeful stride. There are a few more flecks of gray in his neatly trimmed hair, but he is much the same as he was in 1999, the last time he ran an NFL defense. His raspy voice still has a commanding tone, and when you ask about his philosophy the answer doesn't change: Attack, attack, attack.
Willie Shaw knows no other way to coach, and after being promoted to defensive coordinator last February, he was eager to revamp the Vikings' abysmal defense. Shaw, who was Minnesota's secondary coach, takes over a unit that ranked among the league's worst the last three years and was a major factor (354.1 yards allowed per game, 27th in the NFL) in the team's plummet to 5-11 last season. The Vikings could stop neither the run (yielding 4.8 yards per carry) nor the pass (opposing quarterbacks completed 60.9% of their attempts), and they surrendered 24.4 points a game, more than all but five teams in the league.
The 58-year-old Shaw has faced tougher tasks. In 1998 he took charge of a Raiders defense that had ranked 30th in the NFL and transformed it into the league's fifth-best unit a year later. Though Jon Gruden, Oakland's coach at the time, shocked his players by firing Shaw after the '99 season because of a clash of personalities, Shaw left the Bay Area a popular leader who was sure to rise to a coordinator's post again.
During this past off-season Shaw and new Minnesota coach Mike Tice focused on free agents as the way to improve the defense. The first player they landed was end Kenny Mixon, a dominant run stopper used primarily on first and second down by the Dolphins, but who the Vikings hope will be an every-down contributor. Then came end Lorenzo Bromell, a tenacious pass rusher and Mixon's former teammate in Miami. Add that pair to the defensive line mix that also includes tackle Chris Hovan, the best returning starter, and end Lance Johnstone, who is coming off a disappointing season but had 21 sacks over two seasons under Shaw in Oakland, and Minnesota should be better at stuffing the run and rattling quarterbacks.
"We have size and speed, but right now all we've got is an aggregate of good players trying to find a way to play together," says Shaw, whose retooled defense will have as many as eight new starters. "But good players don't win games, good teams do."
There's pressure on the veteran line to come through, because the rest of the defense lacks experience. Middle linebacker Henri Crockett, a six-year veteran, will be flanked by Patrick Chukwurah and Lemanski Hall, who have 16 career starts between them. Cornerback Corey Chavous, another free-agent signee, from the Arizona Cardinals, could have two first-year safeties behind him, rookie free agent Kyries Hebert and third-round draft pick Willie Offord.
"We're going to get after people," Hovan says. "Last year we spent a lot of time holding our blocks so the linebackers could make plays, which obviously didn't work too well. This year we have the Big Dog Defense. The defensive linemen will be the ones to make things happen. We'll be asked to penetrate and if we're not making plays, this defense won't work."
Adds Bromell, "We have a lot of new guys but we can all run. With this group, everybody will get to the ball, and that's big because that's when you create turnovers."
The defense isn't the only thing that needs to be resurrected. The offense was a shambles after the 2001 training camp death of tackle Korey Stringer. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper didn't approach his breakout season of 2000, and Randy Moss was more distraction—particularly after his comments about not always playing as hard as he can—than superstar. In addition, running back Michael Bennett, the team's first-round draft pick, started slowly and was ineffective in a limited role. This fall, Minnesota is emphasizing getting the ball to Moss and encouraging Culpepper to improve his preparation.
"You need a good offense to help your defense stay fresh, and we didn't have that last year," says Pro Bowl center Matt Birk. On the whole, the team needed an attitude adjustment, and that's where Shaw comes in. "Willie's whole mind-set is to be aggressive," Crockett says. "He's an initiator. He wants [the other team] to adjust to what we're doing, and that's what we're going to try to accomplish."