- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

It has been eight years since Joe Gibbs last set foot in Canton, Ohio, on Hall of Fame weekend.

On that late July day in 1996, the then ex-Washington Redskins coach joined fellow inductees Lou Creekmur, Dan Dierdorf, Charlie Joiner and Mel Renfro on the stage for a ceremony he figured would stand as the final chapter in his football career.

“I really kind of thought, and rightly so, that was it for me,” Gibbs recalled last week.

Eight years later, who could have imagined Gibbs would be back in Canton, not on the steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame but on the sidelines across the street at Fawcett Stadium, back coaching the Redskins in their preseason opener?

Not Redskins players. Not Washington fans. And certainly not Gibbs himself, who acknowledges a few things have changed since he last coached an NFL game in January 1993.

“I know I’m going to be a lot more nervous,” he said with his trademark cackle. “I feel kind of like I’m going back and starting all over again.”

In many ways, tonight’s nationally televised exhibition against the Denver Broncos represents a new beginning for the Redskins franchise. Not only is Gibbs back in the fold after 11 years of retirement, but he brings with him a revamped coaching staff, an overhauled roster and a re-energized fan base that yearns for a return to the glory days of the coach’s previous tenure.

That said, Gibbs has cautioned players, fans and media alike not to place too much emphasis on this preseason opener. His team has had only nine days to prepare for tonight’s game, and Gibbs will be the first to admit he has no idea what to expect.

“Sometimes I’ve gone out there, and we just looked awful. And other times you’re pleasantly surprised,” he said. “You really don’t know.”

Gibbs was talking about his entire roster, but he could well have said the same thing about his quarterbacks. Veteran Mark Brunell and third-year pro Patrick Ramsey have been shaky in training camp, and with the competition for the starting job officially underway tonight, all eyes are sure to be on those two.

Brunell, acquired via trade from Jacksonville in the offseason, will start. Ramsey, the 25-year-old incumbent, will come off the bench, then get his chance to start Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.

Gibbs didn’t say how long he planned to leave his starters in the game — traditionally, first-teamers play only two or three offensive series the first week of the preseason. But based on the way he shuffled players in and out during practice this week, the coach may have notions of rotating the two quarterbacks to give both Brunell and Ramsey time with the starting offense.

Brunell, whose seven-year, $43 million contract leads many to believe he is a lock to win the job, said he won’t put too much pressure on himself in what will be the first of five exhibition games over the next month.

“It’s a start,” Brunell said of tonight’s game. “You realize you’ve got four more preseason games after that. You’re looking obviously to put some points on the board, move the ball, be efficient. Everything that goes into making a game a success, that’s what you’re looking for.”

Given his current underdog role, Ramsey sounds more intent on trying to show the coaching staff something now rather than later.

“I just want to play well,” he said. “I want to go out there and perform well and do the best I can for this team. That’s what I’m concerned about. As far as my position is concerned, just go out there, lead the team, complete passes and see what happens.”

If Gibbs’ return to coaching and the start of the quarterback battle weren’t enough story lines for fans to embrace, the game also features a pair of players facing old teammates.

No transaction this offseason was bigger than Washington’s trade with Denver that brought tailback Clinton Portis to the nation’s capital and sent Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey (plus a second-round draft pick) to the Broncos.

Portis has been looking forward to this matchup since the day he arrived at Redskin Park, and though he has been hampered by a strained groin in recent days, the 22-year-old has no intentions of sitting this one out.

The same can’t be said of several other key Washington players who are not expected to play because of injury: linebacker Mike Barrow (tendinitis in his left knee), nose tackle Brandon Noble (broken hand), defensive end Phillip Daniels (abdominal strain) and offensive guard Randy Thomas (swollen knee).

For that reason, and for others, the coaching staff plans to keep things fairly simple tonight. That especially holds true on defense, where assistant head coach Gregg Williams will be using several second-teamers and is unlikely to call for much pressure on the quarterback.

“We are not going to start blitzing,” Williams said. “We just want to see them in a game format. We want to see them tackle. We want to see them get off blocks. On offense they want to see them block and run the ball and throw and catch the ball. But not anything with any degree of difficulty and scheme.”

Not that Gibbs isn’t going to attempt to win this game. For all the sheepishness he has displayed while drawing so much attention and admiration the past few months, his desire to win still burns strong.

And with a national audience watching, Gibbs doesn’t want to disappoint.

“I’d hate to look bad,” he said. “And I think the players feel that way, too. It’s different when you come in the first go-around [with a new coaching staff]. So we would like to play well.”

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