- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

In late September, a couple days after the Washington Redskins’ first loss to the Dallas Cowboys, coach Joe Gibbs was asked whether he was a bit “rusty” in his return to the NFL.

Gibbs had blown a crucial challenge and mismanaged timeouts in the game, crippling a late shot at victory. When the question came, he let out one of his folksy laughs.

“I’ve always been rusty,” Gibbs replied. “That’s a good term. I’m getting rustier as we go.”

Three months later, the issue isn’t a laughing matter. The first Redskins team of Gibbs’ second tenure is 5-10, ensured of the worst record of his career. Gibbs’ performance as team president and coach has been questioned on a variety of fronts. As Washington looks ahead to 2005, it’s worth asking whether he was too slow to adapt to the fast-evolving NFL.

“If you had an opportunity to be in the meetings, to watch this guy work and watch him address this football team, you wouldn’t even ask that question,” defensive line coach Greg Blache said yesterday. “This guy’s a natural.”

That sentiment was widely echoed throughout Redskin Park, where members of the organization focus on Gibbs’ leadership and team-building skills and trust that all the smaller elements are falling into place.

And there is little doubt that Gibbs has performed a masterstroke by keeping this club united and upbeat. Under Steve Spurrier in 2002 and 2003, the Redskins twice broke down into a bickering and finger-pointing mess.

But that doesn’t mean these Redskins are winning. In fact, in some ways (particularly on offense), they actually seem to have regressed. Yesterday Gibbs acknowledged he has battled something of a learning curve.

“I’m sure there’s some of that,” Gibbs said. “How much, I don’t know. I remember my uncle taking a car apart. I said, ‘Do you know how to do that?’ He said, ‘The only way you know how to do something is to dive into it.’ I figure that’s the only way you learn things.”

The major issues surrounding Gibbs could be divided into five areas: scheme, game management, quarterback, personnel and penalties. Each area is expected to get an extensive review next week in his four-day analysis of the organization. For now, here is a breakdown for public consumption:

• Scheme: Some observers around the NFL believe Gibbs has had trouble adjusting to the NFL’s extensive zone blitzing (a defensive tactic that was just coming into being when he retired), and that lately he has been playing not to lose rather than to win.

The deep passing game is all but gone from Gibbs’ scheme, which once was the envy of the NFL. But Gibbs consistently has tweaked the offense throughout the season, and he promised to continue making changes until the unit runs smoothly.

Meanwhile, there is the unresolved question of personnel. Has Gibbs scaled back the offense to fit his players? Blache sounds like he’s among those who would say yes.

“All problems in football aren’t always coaching,” Blache said. “There’s all kinds of other things that go on there. Everybody’s going to have their opinion and speculate, but you asked me, and I don’t think [the offense is] an issue.”

• Game management: Gibbs hired former NFL official Larry Hill as a rules consultant but has struggled all year with challenges, at one point getting five in a row wrong. Those burned timeouts were costly, particularly in the first loss to Dallas.

Clock control also has been a big issue. Gibbs’ offense has drawn seven delay-of-game penalties and burned timeouts to avoid more such flags.

Quarterbacks coach Jack Burns admitted that some of the challenges were “clumsy.” As for delay-of-games, he said a variety of people, including coaches, a young quarterback and other offensive players, share the blame. He summed up by saying, “That will smooth out as we go.”

• Quarterback: No issue has drawn more scrutiny than Gibbs’ handling of Mark Brunell, who cost Washington a third-round pick and a $43million contract last spring and perhaps a few wins in October while Gibbs refused to make a switch.

By the time Patrick Ramsey took over in the Nov.7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Washington’s fate was essentially sealed. Some around the league consider Brunell to be this season’s fatal mistake. But to this day, Gibbs strongly supports the passer.

“Put this down: Mark Brunell’s not done yet,” Gibbs said. “We’ll see. I’ll stand on that one. I believe he’ll fill a very important role here.”

• Personnel: Last offseason was Gibbs’ first in the role of de facto general manager. Most people around the league knock the decision to acquire Brunell. Gibbs obviously disputes that but acknowledged that signing linebacker Mike Barrow (who never played with a knee injury) and tight end Walter Rasby (who was cut midseason) were mistakes.

Still, Gibbs believes Washington did extremely well overall, and he thinks this offseason the coaching staff will be more in sync with the personnel staff, led by vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato.

“Last year was phenomenal,” Gibbs said. “If we can do that again, I’ll be super happy. I’m not sure anybody in the league did better than what we did — our free agency, our draft choices. How much better are we going to be prepared? We’ve been together. We’re going to be able to tell Vinny and the scouts, ‘This is what we need.’”

• Penalties: With 112 penalties for 1,032 yards, the Redskins are poised to finish with one of their worst seasons in terms of drawing flags. The development has been particularly disappointing considering Gibbs’ history of discipline.

Assistants, for their part, believe the penalties will be fixed.

“Coach talks about that in every meeting,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “He’ll get it exactly the way he wants to. … I’m sure that will be a big point of emphasis in this offseason.”

Williams and other coaches are confident Gibbs has the Redskins pointed in the right direction. Williams called Gibbs “a strong leader of people” and dismissed the notion of him being rusty. Blache, meanwhile, dubbed Gibbs “dynamic” and argued that observers shouldn’t be so quick to judge his return based on this year’s record.

“All the terrible things that have happened to this team throughout the course of the season, for them to still compete like we compete week in and week out, that’s leadership,” Blache said. “That’s a talent. That’s the thing that’s been lost. Just because we didn’t win a Super Bowl doesn’t mean Coach didn’t do a great coaching job.”

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