- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

HOUSTON — Thunder crackles. Rain streams from the sky. Dan Henning and Joe Gibbs, pals since 1968 and Washington Redskins coaching legends, walk off the 18th green. Gibbs grits his teeth. Having rolled in putts on Nos.17 and 18 to win what should have been a friendly match, Henning is looking forward to a cold one.

Gibbs stops as they reach the clubhouse.

“Get you a rain suit,” Gibbs says.

Hmm, a present? A reward for a match well played?

“Why?” Henning asks.

“Because we’re going to keep playing until I win,” Gibbs replies.

Now offensive coordinator for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers, Henning smiled wryly yesterday as he told that one, a perfect illustration of the ultra-competitive nature that defines Gibbs. Was the story even true? That query brought another grin.

“Might be,” Henning replied.

Like so many running backs through the O-line in his impressive career, one-liners popped from Henning’s mouth. Some reporters wanted to know about Gibbs, the newly rehired Redskins coach. Some asked about Henning’s stints as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers. Others probed the laundry list of offensive minds from which he has drawn over four decades. A few even wondered how he plans to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday.

His eyes glittering behind rimless glasses and gray hair atop his thin, tanned face, Henning was back at the NFL’s summit. Having helped the Redskins to their first two Super Bowl victories but failed in three tries as a head coach, Henning has validated again that he can guide a winning offense.

“He’s been committed to his system since the moment he got here,” Panthers tackle Todd Steussie said. “I think we’ve come to the point where we understand and believe in it. I think his commitment is finally starting to pay off. It just took us some time to catch up.”

Henning’s formula of powerful running and peppered-in passing is so effective that Panthers coach John Fox considers it one of two fundamental styles of moving the ball in the NFL. The other, Fox said, is the West Coast offense with its array of short, high-percentage passes.

“It’s kind of West Coast offense or the Redskins’ offense — that’s how we break down the two types of offense,” Fox said. “I always admired Dan’s work from afar. I kind of like that type of offense.”

When Fox said “we,” though, he wasn’t including Henning, who had no interest in taking credit for such an influential style of offense. Told of Fox’s statement, Henning eyed the reporter and asked who said it. When he found out it was his boss, Henning replied, “If John said it, it’s probably true.”

At other points in the question-and-answer session, Henning dubbed his set the “No Coast offense,” joked that records of his Super Bowl appearances were kept in “hieroglyphics” and said he would run the ball whether his quarterback was the Panthers’ Jake Delhomme or “Joe [expletive]-Rag-Man.”

Choruses of laughter followed each time. But Henning grew serious when asked what part of his offense gives him the most pride.

“In this day and age of self-centered athletes … we have a group of players on our offensive team who are as close as you can come to being devoid of that,” Henning said.

He pointed out the shared starting duties of his tight ends, his running backs’ ability to block and his confidence in his reserve quarterbacks and offensive linemen.

“We have a saying: ‘Don’t complain and don’t explain. Just look for solutions,’” Henning concluded. “They’ve bought into that, and that’s what we’re proudest of.”

By no means is the Panthers’ offense considered a juggernaut. But with former Redskin Stephen Davis setting the foundation with power runs and increasing chemistry between Delhomme and his receivers, the unit has stepped up in the playoffs. Its postseason average of more than 370 yards a game would have ranked behind only the Minnesota Vikings during the regular season.

And it’s certainly an offense that can win Super Bowls. With Henning as Gibbs’ right-hand man, the Redskins won their first Super Bowl after the 1982 season. Henning departed for a failed four-year stint as Falcons coach, then returned to help Gibbs win the Super Bowl after the 1987 season. Then it was off for another losing record as San Diego coach.

Henning’s overall record as a head coach, including three years at Boston College (1994 to 1996), is just 54-92-2. His top offenses never translated into success in the top job.

But you never know who might come calling after this week. He laughed when asked whether he might have one more try as a head coach left in him, what with Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells and old buddy Gibbs so hot these days.

“My high school coach just finished his 50th year at St. Francis Prep in Brooklyn [now Queens], New York,” Henning said. “They’re trying to talk him into retirement. So maybe that’s the opportunity for me.”

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