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Return of the King
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.
"This team could have said after three tough losses in the middle of the year, 'It's over,' " Gibbs said. "And they didn't."
Why was that? Gibbs says it's because of what resides deep inside his players.
"Character issues," he calls it. "I think we have a very solid group," he said. "And that's how you win. You win with players. It's quality guys."
Gibbs insists on having those guys. He has revamped the roster since he arrived, weeding out the malcontents and adding talent. Big trades landed Brunell, Portis and Moss. Free agency brought Cornelius Griffin, Shawn Springs and Marcus Washington, among others. Sean Taylor, Chris Cooley and Carlos Rogers were drafted. Gibbs says all decisions are reached via a "team effort," but in the end, they bear his initials.
His coaching staff was more of a solo effort. Gibbs summoned grizzled pals from the past like Joe Bugel, Don Breaux, Jack Burns and younger coaches like Greg Blache, Bill Musgrave and the hottest assistant in the NFL, Gregg Williams. He is mastermind of the Redskins' defense, and while other teams dangled head coaching positions, Williams was locked up for three more years this past week with a wealthy contract extension.
"[Gibbs] has been blessed with a gift for leadership and for picking the right people," said his son, J.D., the president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "He's good at that. He's spent his whole life doing that."
With Tony Stewart driving, the Gibbs team won the NASCAR equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Nextel Cup, during the 2005 racing season. This could be quite a year for the Gibbs family.
"He picks the right people and surrounds himself with the right people and motivates them to perform," said J.D., a former Redskins ballboy. "When he came here [to NASCAR], it was really the first time I got to watch him do that. It gave me an insight to what makes him tick."
Gibbs is a "great organizer, a great CEO," former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker said. "He's brilliant in bringing in the right people. He doesn't bring Gregg Williams in, it's a catastrophe."
As for the players, Walker said, "He had to get the right kind of guys, the guys who will study film, who will take notes, who will give a damn."
Joe Theismann, who like Doug Williams is one of three different Redskins quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl under Gibbs, recalled asking his former coach what he looks for in a player.
"Character, intelligence and ability," Gibbs said.
"No offense," responded Theismann, who will be part of the ABC broadcast team for the Redskins-Bucs game, "but everyone wants those things."
Gibbs said: "No, Joe, in that order I look for them."
Just this week, Gibbs reiterated the point, saying, "I think the single biggest issue is character."
Gibbs embraces characters as well as character -- John Riggins, Dexter Manley and Pete Cronan from the old days, Portis with his weekly costume party now.
You draw the line "where it would hurt the team," Gibbs said. "But if you don't have guys that have a funny bone, you don't have guys that add something to the team."
But Gibbs, whose own funny bone is connected to a cackling laugh, sets the tone. He seems to command loyalty and respect without demanding it. His players might not run through a wall for him, but nearly the entire team participated in offseason workouts as part of the effort to fix the problems of 2004. This year, with the season in the balance, Gibbs never wavered.
"We're all in this together, and everything starts at the top with Coach," Brunell said. "He's a great example, a great role model for us, and we're real fortunate to have him."
"It's hard to be upset when you know the head guy is there till all hours of the morning," J.D. Gibbs said. "He's so passionate about what he does. He loves that about the NFL. It's such a passionate, combative sport. He loves that part of it. He's got a gift for being able to encourage when someone needs to be encouraged and to get on guys when he has to. It's hard to find people who are good at that."
Gibbs kiddingly refers to being labeled a "milquetoast" (although it's not clear who did that), but his players feed off his calm demeanor and personal concern.
Santana Moss appreciates not only that he gets the ball but also Gibbs' interest in his family. It struck a chord with Moss that he was allowed to take days off to go to Miami for his daughter's first birthday and his son's pre-kindergarten graduation. Keeping your best players happy, within reason, is not a bad thing.
"You respect him because he's a good coach," Moss said. "And you respect him because he's a good person. He cares about any situation you might have to deal with as a player. ... You respect everything he's teaching you because you know that's the way it needs to be done."
By John R. Bolton
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