- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Coach Joe Gibbs knew just what to say to Jon Jansen in Canton, Ohio.

As the Washington Redskins’ offensive tackle agonized over his ruptured Achilles’ tendon that night less than two weeks ago, Gibbs shifted Jansen’s focus to the future.

“The first thing he came up and said was, ‘Don’t worry about your spot — don’t worry about anything except getting healthy,’” Jansen recalled yesterday. “He said, ‘You’re a Redskin, and you’re going to be a Redskin for a long time.’”

A year earlier at FedEx Field, then-coach Steve Spurrier didn’t even speak to defensive tackle Brandon Noble after the latter blew out his knee. It wasn’t until the next morning that Spurrier and his assistants offered him a pat on the back and a few platitudes.

“They came down and said, ‘Sorry to see that happened’ and, ‘Get better,’” Noble said with a shrug.

The experiences of the two players illustrate what might be the single biggest difference between Gibbs and Spurrier: communication.

Although “intensity” and “expectations” have become buzzwords as observers attempt to explain the Redskins’ altered atmosphere under Gibbs, the real change seems to be the new coach’s master touch at dealing with people.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Noble said, “but [Gibbs and his assistants] do a good job of telling you what they want, telling you where you stand with things, and that’s important to guys.”

The idea of “communication” is admittedly nebulous. In football, it’s a soft skill that often goes unnoticed because it doesn’t score a touchdown or sack the quarterback. But it can be the fundamental building block of a team, the basic link upon which other elements of trust are stacked.

“Successful people in every walk of life have to be able to relate to people,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “Great communicators are people who take something complicated and make it simple. Joe Gibbs makes things very simple. He’s very straightforward, extremely honest, extremely humble. So people listen to him.”

Gibbs has spoken extensively about the commonalities of team building, whether in the NFL, NASCAR or a corporation. Good leaders, he said, start by picking the right people, then stick to certain principles of communication.

“You never embarrass somebody in front of their peers,” Gibbs said. “When you try and teach people, they need to hear it, they need to see it, and then preferably they need to do it. And not everybody’s the same. Everybody has a different hot button.”

Already a number of contrasts in communication have surfaced between Gibbs and Spurrier. Among them:

• Under Gibbs, potentially explosive situations, such as the quarterback competition, have been defused with his matter-of-fact style. Under Spurrier, controversies mushroomed. When Spurrier disagreed with the release of quarterback Danny Wuerffel, he called attention to owner Dan Snyder’s role in the decision.

• Gibbs has won the trust of players throughout the team, getting linebacker LaVar Arrington to play down his $6.5million contract dispute. Spurrier kept his interaction mostly with quarterbacks and wide receivers and couldn’t galvanize the team; his final team meeting lasted only about two minutes. Also, he seemed to have little feel for when to enforce discipline and when to lighten up.

• In the wake of two preseason games, Gibbs has offered fairly detailed explanations of what must be improved, and at times has taken blame for mistakes. Spurrier often gave responses such as, “I don’t have the answer for that,” and absorbed and dealt blame awkwardly, often without regard to who actually was at fault.

Obviously players respect Gibbs for his three Super Bowl rings, but Spurrier also came in with a sparkling resume. In truth, Gibbs’ communication skills seem to set him apart from other Redskins coaches, too. Marty Schottenheimer lost the faith of several key veterans by trying to force his old-school system on them. Norv Turner struggled to keep his players’ ears after they realized his rules were enforced depending on who was being disciplined.

“The thing I’ve seen about [Gibbs] is, he doesn’t waver from his word,” said tight end Walter Rasby, who played under Schottenheimer and Spurrier in Washington. “Whatever he says, that’s pretty much what he sticks to. I’m not saying no [other] coach does that. But sometimes you’ll get coaches who say one thing and end up doing something else.”

Also problematic can be a certain communication tactic with a certain player. Arrington, for example, took exception to the way former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis asked him to play defensive end.

“If Marv would have communicated to me a little better what his expectations were, then I think we would have been OK,” Arrington said. “It’s basically how it was dictated to me. As opposed to ‘I need you to do this,’ it was, ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to get me my head coaching job.’”

But the common adjectives of “stern” and “easygoing” aren’t predictive of whether a coach will win over players. An “easygoing” coach can be unpopular, just as a “stern” coach, such as Williams, can be well liked.

“If Coach Gibbs is the single best thing for this team, Coach Williams comes in a very … close second,” Arrington said. “Just putting it in clear view and plain form, ‘This is what I want, this is how I want it done, and no questions asked.’ And that is something we have not had. I will say that. We have not had that.”

The real test, of course, will be whether Gibbs’ communication stays strong through difficult times. Said Williams: “Every successful organization becomes a champion or becomes ultra-successful when they’re able to push through something tough.”

For now, though, instances such as that night in Canton have transformed this team.

“The way I came out of that locker room, I was obviously down, but I felt like I had people in my corner, people who would stand up for me, people who would fight for me,” Jansen said. “That’s what was communicated to me that night.”

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