In Joe Gibbs’ world, a world of 28-hour days in which faith, humility and hard work ultimately prevail, it’s never about Joe Gibbs. It’s always about the players, the coaches and the fans, the drivers, the mechanics and the pit crew.
As coach and president of the Redskins, Gibbs, like any executive, requires lots of help. And he gets it. But in the real world, in which the competition is cutthroat and accountability rests with the man in the headset, the story of the Redskins’ success in 2005 is, in fact, mainly about the return of Joe Gibbs.
“Joe is incredible,” former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard said this week. “He really is.”
The Redskins are 10-6, a tidy reversal of Gibbs’ surprising and ultimately difficult return to his old team last season. The 6-10 record in 2004 was Gibbs’ worst as a coach. He occasionally wondered whether he made the right choice coming back, but it was a transition year. The NFL had changed drastically during his 11-season absence. There is rampant free agency and a salary cap. Coaches challenge officials. He needed more of his kind of players.
Now at 65, Gibbs has the Redskins playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida today. It is the franchise’s first playoff game since 1999 and the second postseason appearance since 1991. That was when the Redskins won the Super Bowl in Gibbs’ penultimate season, before he left early in 1993 because of health issues to spend more time with his family and build his successful NASCAR race team in North Carolina.
Beathard and Gibbs have remained close since the glory days, when Beathard got the players, Gibbs did the coaching and the Redskins made the town giddy. They made eight playoff appearances and went to four Super Bowls, winning three. Beathard, retired from football and living in Southern California, was back in the D.C. area last week visiting family and friends.
A few nights before the Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday to seal their playoff berth, Beathard had dinner with longtime trainer Bubba Tyer, now the team’s director of sports medicine, and a couple of strength coaches. Gibbs, hunkered down at Redskins Park, couldn’t make it, of course. But Beathard speaks often with Gibbs on the phone and watches the games on his satellite dish. He has seen this before.
“When there’s a challenge, he’s gonna meet it,” Beathard said of Gibbs. “I watched them every week, and they just got better and better. Going into this time of year is vintage Joe.”
This time of year, Gibbs’ teams are 16-5 in the playoffs. It’s “The Way We Were” for a lot of folks, not just Beathard.
“When I see ‘em, I kind of see myself in that position,” said former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, who scouted the game in Philadelphia for Tampa Bay.
The Redskins trailed the Eagles 17-7 in the first half. Big deal, thought Williams. In Super Bowl XXII, Denver led the Redskins by 10 after the first quarter. Gibbs calmly told Williams, “We’re gonna get this sucker rolling.” In the second quarter, Williams threw four touchdown passes, and the Redskins scored 35 points en route to a 42-10 victory.
“I watched him Sunday night,” Williams said. “When things go bad, you never know they’re going bad. His demeanor never changed. … Joe probably does better than any coach as far as making adjustments.”
In late November, the idea of postseason activity seemed remote. The Redskins were 5-6 after three close, agonizing defeats. Gibbs’ record since coming back stood at 11-16. Another loss probably would mean elimination from playoff contention, another huge disappointment and another mark against the legacy that earned Gibbs a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Who knows what the enlightened soul who yelled at Gibbs “Hey, Joe, go back to NASCAR!” at a home game last season would be screaming now? Today, the same guy probably sings “Hail to the Redskins” in the shower and is thinking of renaming his kid Joe.
The Redskins closed with five straight wins. There are all sorts of reasons. Quarterback Mark Brunell recovered from a shaky 2004, when he played hurt. Clinton Portis is running better behind a tough offensive line. Wide receiver Santana Moss is a scary weapon. The defense is flying all over the place, causing turnovers.