- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

On a chilly day in early December, Joe Gibbs stood outside after practice at Redskins Park talking to the media.

His Washington Redskins, still shaken by the death of safety Sean Taylor, had just come off a disheartening loss to the Buffalo Bills. Gibbs had infamously called an illegal timeout that set up the deciding field goal.

Slowly, the crowd around Gibbs peeled away until only a few reporters remained. Gibbs, probably wishing he was someplace else, also remained.

The NFL is an uptight environment in which coaches’ dealings with the press are tightly monitored, controlled and limited. But two days after his worst moment as a coach, one day after his team returned from Taylor’s funeral in South Florida, Gibbs shivered while patiently accommodating everyone. He smiled and joked and even laughed.

Although a minor moment, it spoke volumes, reflecting Gibbs’ character and legacy as much as the victories and the Super Bowls that constituted a Hall of Fame career before he left the Redskins after the 1992 season.

In his return, Gibbs struggled at times. The NFL had changed, featuring free agency, salary caps and new rules. But Gibbs did lead the Redskins to the playoffs twice in four years before deciding again, and likely for the last time, to retire.

“The word humility gets thrown around a lot in the NFL, but to me, that word had real meaning when it came to Joe Gibbs,” said NFL Films president Steve Sabol, who has chronicled the league’s history for more than 40 years. “Despite all the Super Bowl rings, he never lost his humility. The more success the Redskins had, the more he shared the credit.”

Success under Gibbs was abundant. In his first 12 seasons as coach from 1981 to 1992, his teams went 124-60 during the regular season and 16-5 in eight postseason appearances. The Redskins went to four Super Bowls, winning three, and Gibbs was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

Those achievements speak for themselves. Those who know Gibbs speak for the other parts of the equation.

In “America’s Game,” NFL Films’ acclaimed account of the Super Bowl winners, Sabol said, “Joe stole the show with all his stories. He has a unique ability to step back and look at himself. Not many coaches can do that.”

Sabol recalled former Redskins running back John Riggins once referring to Gibbs as “Big Butt.” At first, Sabol said, he wasn’t sure whom Riggins was talking about.

“I mentioned it to Joe, and he said, ‘That’s me,’ ” Sabol said. “How many coaches have that kind of humility?”

Gibbs, 67, made it a point to add so-called high-character players to his teams. Other coaches talked about the same thing, but Gibbs actually did it, then set the example of how he wanted his players to act and perform.

“I think sometimes people evaluate celebrities and have opinions,” said former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who also returned to the sidelines after a prolonged absence. “And in their back of their minds, they say they really can’t be as solid a person as they’re depicted to be. But [Gibbs] really is. High character, high values, high morals and spirituality. Ethically sound, tremendous integrity.

“That’s better than Super Bowl wins,” said Vermeil, who retired for the last time in 2005 at the age of 69. “There are a lot of people who have won Super Bowl games and don’t have a lot of friends.”

As Gibbs’ success mounted with the Redskins during the old days, players recognized that he had another way of doing business. It centered on mutual respect. He was neither a pushover nor an in-your-face screamer. The inherent qualities that people note in Gibbs the man produced a positive effect when they emanated from Gibbs the coach.

During the Redskins’ resurgence this season, when they won four straight games to make the playoffs before losing to Seattle on Saturday, Redskins players continually cited Gibbs’ steady leadership and ability to keep the team focused through tough times.

And nowhere was that more in evidence, perhaps, than after the Bills’ debacle. Even though Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell made a 51-yard field goal that didn’t count because of the first timeout, Gibbs, who called the second timeout that resulted in a 15-yard penalty and gave Lindell a chance from a more manageable distance, accepted full responsibility for the loss.

“He’s such extraordinary person, a guy who a player really wants to play for,” Sabol said. “He has faith in his players, and the players have faith in him and his judgment. And like all great leaders, he wasn’t afraid to admit making a mistake. I think that’s an endearing quality in all coaches.”

After the Buffalo loss and Taylor’s funeral, Washington played the Bears on a Thursday, knowing that another loss would probably knock them out of postseason contention.

But the Redskins, behind backup quarterback Todd Collins, won their last four games and made the playoffs. Given the inordinate number of injuries the team withstood, combined with emotion of losing a teammate, it might have been Gibbs’ best coaching job.

That’s subjective. But it did temper feelings about Gibbs’ second term. Each of the four seasons began with optimism and expectations that fell short.

In contrast to the steadiness of Gibbs I, this term was a bumpy and turbulent ride. As team president as well as coach, Gibbs had a spotty record of acquiring talent through trades, free agency and the draft. On the sidelines, Gibbs sometimes had problems with clock management, making adjustments and knowing how and when to challenge plays. His teams went 30-34 the last four years.

“I wouldn’t think it affects [his legacy] at all,” said former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, who worked closely with Gibbs in the 1980s. “He’s a great guy, a great coach and a great motivator.”

CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf, who entered the Hall of Fame the same year as Gibbs, said, “They can’t take his bust away, I know that. I don’t think what happened in the last four years — anyone who applies any negativity to the overall accomplishments of Joe Gibbs, you’re talking to the wrong person.

“I just think it shows how hard it is to win in the National Football League, and in my mind he went out on a really high note,” said Dierdorf, an offensive tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals when Gibbs was assistant there in the 1970s. “I don’t think anyone could have coached a team better than Joe Gibbs coached his football team in the aftermath of what happened to Sean Taylor.”

The Redskins’ inconsistency during the last four seasons “doesn’t change anything,” said Phil Simms, Dierdorf’s colleague at CBS who frequently played against Gibbs’ teams when he quarterbacked the New York Giants.

“[Gibbs’] first time around, if you did it right you could dominate, and they did it,” Simms said. “This time, there were so many things changing in the league.

“But I watched them late in the year, and I thought, ‘Boy, oh, boy, they’ve got it going. The team’s got a core, and they can keep it going for a while.’ I’m glad he retired, glad for him. He has nothing left to prove. He’s gonna go down as one of the best coaches in NFL history.”

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