- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

The first fan arrived at 5:45 a.m. The sun rose at 6:10 a.m. And a low, rolling cheer went up just before 9 a.m. as Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs strolled out of the team’s headquarters and into his first training camp practice in 12 years.

Five thousand fans — about 10 times as many as attended last year’s opening practice under Steve Spurrier — were on hand at Redskin Park yesterday to celebrate the Hall of Fame coach’s public return to the field.

The workout itself was nothing memorable, an energetic but erratic performance by an overhauled group of players running Gibbs’ system for the first time in full pads. But it was an important start for a team that faces rising expectations and a nationally televised exhibition in just eight days.

“We’ve got a short time span here,” said Gibbs, whose squad will play the Denver Broncos in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 9. “We’re going to open in a little more than a week. We don’t have much time. That’s why it’s important to get to here in shape and ready to go. We’ll see. First days are real rough.”

The early practice was particularly “rough.” Much-scrutinized quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey, opening a high-profile duel to start, completed few of their passes as balls tipped off defenders’ hands and thudded to the turf.

In the afternoon, as players exchanged full pads for shorts, the sun came out, completion percentages rose and several individual plays drew big applause.

In any case, “rough” is a relative term. Long-suffering fans appreciate even a so-so workout under a legend after seeing the team reach the playoffs just once under his successors — Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Spurrier. Feelings of dejection intensified in recent years but suddenly are being lifted.

“There’s something special about this year,” said Marcus Harrell of the District, who lingered with his wife late into the evening in search of autographs. “We just wanted to come out.”

Yesterday’s two-practice total of about 10,000 spectators approached last year’s turnout for Fan Appreciation Day, traditionally the most-attended camp practice by far. The turnout wasn’t unexpected, given Gibbs’ return, the Saturday start to camp and its generally brief nature (just 12 public practices over eight days), but it still impressed.

“The city’s on fire. The team’s on fire,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Everybody’s real excited about Joe Gibbs being back. You judge a team by the leader. We’ve probably got that leader that we’ve been looking for.”

Tight end Walter Rasby knew of the town’s enthusiasm for the Redskins when he played here in 2001 and 2002. But in both seasons, muted hope quickly dissipated when the team’s advertised improvements failed to translate into wins.

Rasby believes Gibbs has transformed the atmosphere — not just at Redskin Park, where players are energized, but in the community. Yesterday, the interaction of team and town had the veteran tight end shaking his head in astonishment at the fans’ increased intensity.

“At the beginning [of 2001], it was like, ‘OK, you guys have got a new coach, Marty Schottenheimer. What are you going to do?’” Rasby said. “Now, it’s like, ‘We got Coach Gibbs back! Now we’re going to do it!’ It’s totally different.”

Also changed is the sense of discipline on a team that unraveled in the final weeks of last season and might be best remembered for stories of players’ cell phones ringing in meeting rooms. Gibbs altered the mentality at his first meeting with players, and an off-season of work reinforced the new attitude.

Yesterday, most players said practice had a sense of technical haste and underlying purpose that was lacking under Spurrier.

“I think that it is different in that you work not as long,” nose tackle Brandon Noble said. “It’s quick. The offense is coming out of the huddle a lot faster. And the intensity seems to be a little bit higher than it was. The guys have bought into his program, his ideas. We understand that he’s been to Super Bowls, won them, and that’s what we all want to do.”

After practice, Gibbs spent perhaps 20 minutes signing autographs for the fans lining the metal barricades, looking up every now and then to thank them for coming out and supporting the team.

“God bless you, coach,” one yelled back.

“Thank you for coming back, coach,” another said.

“Beat them Cowboys, coach,” bellowed a third.

Their cheers were a mixture of appreciation for the past and encouragement for the present. It is the present that worries Gibbs, 63, despite his lifetime of accomplishments: three Super Bowl championships as Redskins coach and two NASCAR points titles as owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. Games are fast approaching, and kinks remain.

At least Day One is over.

“It puts us one day closer to playing,” Gibbs said with a laugh. “I just need more time here. But it was a productive day. Hopefully, tomorrow goes smoother because we’ve gone through all this once.”

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