- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The first time Joe Gibbs retired in 1993, he left Redskin Park as a conquering king, a three-time Super Bowl winner bound for Canton. The atmosphere yesterday at his Second Farewell Address was decidedly different. Coach Joe seemed more like an outgoing one-term president — not a failure, necessarily, but a man who was leaving behind a fair share of unfinished business.

Is the franchise better off now than it was four years ago, when he came to the rescue? Unquestionably.

“He did a great job of stabilizing a situation that had been unstable before, frankly,” said Dan Snyder, whose impulsiveness had a lot do with that instability.

Despite his usual workaholic efforts, though — the only way the 67-year-old Gibbs knows how to function — he couldn’t deliver on his campaign promise to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Washington. He brought the thrills of two playoff seasons and restored sanity and credibility to the organization, but he couldn’t make much of a dent in the NFL’s power structure. Only once in his second administration did the Redskins finish higher than third in the ultracompetitive NFC East.

Indeed, if it had been anybody but Joe Gibbs saying “so long,” yesterday’s press conference wouldn’t have oozed nearly as much civility. Was there any applause in Redskinsland for Norv Turner after his 50-60-1 tour of duty from 1994 to 2000? But Coach Joe goes 31-36, including the playoffs, in his second go-round, and there’s clapping in the auditorium when he concludes his remarks.

There’s also this testimonial from his boss: “He gave me four great years; I wanted five more.”

So it goes for sainted Hall of Fame coaches — in this town, at least. Win three Super Bowls and you receive total absolution from all future transgressions, even a 52-7 loss to the Patriots. And that, perhaps, is as it should be, Gibbs being such a down-to-earth, likeable sort.

If you’ve spent any time around him, it’s hard not to appreciate his equanimity, his calmness in the face of any storm. And those attributes were frequently in evidence the last four seasons as the Redskins yo-yoed from 6-10 to 10-6 to 5-11 to 9-7 — and coped with injuries, coaching and front office hiccups and, the most cruelly, the murder of Sean Taylor.

Through it all, Gibbs held things together — as only he could. But what he’s leaving behind as he forsakes the last year of his contract to tend to the needs of his family (and refocus on his NASCAR ventures) is a matter of debate.

As Coach Joe sees it, the club has “definitely … got the things in place here to do what we want to do going forward. I want to see it finished.”

Snyder is equally optimistic — publicly, anyway. “I like where we are,” he said. “We’re in good shape.”

In reality, the Redskins are straddling the line between Total Mediocrity and Above-Averageness. And after years of earnest reconstruction — and the sparing of no expense — you would have thought (or at least hoped) they would be farther along.

There’s a young quarterback in the pipeline, Jason Campbell, but he has yet to take a firm grasp of the offensive wheel. In fact, the play down the stretch of long-mothballed Todd Collins, who doesn’t have nearly Campbell’s physical tools, underscored how far the kid still has to go.

Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, Chris Samuels, Andre Carter and LaRon Landry — to name half a dozen — are, admittedly, nice “pieces,” as Gibbs calls them, but no nicer than the pieces the Cowboys and Giants (and other teams) have stockpiled. Coach Joe would have you believe the Redskins are on the verge of something great. A dispassionate appraisal of the roster suggests otherwise.

The club might not even be able to maintain its present position if Snyder doesn’t make a strong hire in the coming days. Most of the best coaches are usually spoken for, which is why Dan went helicopter in hand to Gibbs back in ‘04. Bill Cowher, the rare proven commodity, is out there, but he reportedly isn’t ready to return to sideline. Snyder could, of course, promote from within and give the job to defensive boss Gregg Williams, but Williams’ record in Buffalo (17-31) didn’t exactly make Marv Levy tremble.

Besides, could Williams be as selfless as Coach Joe, who used all three of his top-10 picks in the past four drafts on defensive players (Taylor, Carlos Rogers and Landry) — at the expense of his own offense? Could Williams, for that matter, be as good as Gibbs at shielding his players from criticism, at taking the blame when things go wrong?

And what of Snyder? Has Gibbs, as the owner claimed yesterday, really “taught me a lot” — principally patience — or will Dan, with a less iconic coach in his employ, go back to being Jerry Jones Jr.? We anxiously await the answer. With one eye open.

And so one of the saddest of Redskins seasons — the exhilaration of the last month notwithstanding — comes to a teary end, with the greatest coach in franchise history calling it a career. Gibbs admitted to having “mixed emotions” about his decision, and his legions of fans no doubt feel the same. After all, saying goodbye to Coach Joe for the final time — 31-36 record or no — is like saying goodbye to the best years of your life.

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