- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

Joe Gibbs needed only 60 minutes in an auditorium Thursday night and 90 minutes on a football field yesterday afternoon to put his definitive stamp back on the Washington Redskins.

That’s all it took — one team meeting and one minicamp practice session — for the 63-year-old Hall of Fame coach to convince the players he is capable of returning this once-proud franchise to its days of glory.

“I can tell you this: The atmosphere is different,” cornerback Fred Smoot said after Gibbs concluded his first practice as Redskins coach in 11 years. “You just look in the players’ eyes and you can see it.”

It might as well have been 1992 all over again. Gibbs roamed the practice fields at Redskin Park in a white polo shirt and khaki shorts. He barked out a few orders and even played a little cornerback during a route-running drill with receivers. Mostly, though, Gibbs let his assistant coaches run the show while he stood back and presided over a spirited, if not sparkling, first workout of the off-season.

“It was a little wild out there, but it felt good,” he said afterward. “I was really pleased. … My first impressions are: I like our guys. Now it’ll be a long, hard process seeing how good we can be. But I like our group.”

Ever since Gibbs agreed to come out of retirement in early January and signed a five-year contract worth about $28million, fans and players had anticipated the legendary coach’s first appearance back on the football field.

They weren’t disappointed.

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon in Ashburn, Va., Gibbs opened this three-day minicamp with the kind of organized, professional practice rarely seen the past two years under former coach Steve Spurrier. The team spent the first 15 minutes of the session working exclusively on special teams before ever throwing a pass, taking a snap or making a tackle.

Perhaps the only unscripted moment of the day came the first time new quarterback Mark Brunell took a snap against Washington’s full defense. Perhaps wanting to send a message, assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams had all 11 of his defenders blitz, stunning Brunell and his offensive teammates.

“The first day you try to set a tone,” Smoot said, “and that’s what we did.”

Gibbs’ process of winning over his players really began Thursday night, when he addressed the full squad for the first time. During that meeting, Gibbs spelled out his vision for the organization and let the players know what he expects from them.

Several Redskins said they emerged from the meeting invigorated by their new coach’s message.

“It was very impressive — it made you want to be a Redskin,” safety Matt Bowen said. “I think it got everyone excited. I know it got me excited to wear this helmet and to come to work today.”

Even players who hardly knew anything about Gibbs or the Redskins were struck by the coach’s words.

“He commands respect instantly,” said Brunell, acquired this month in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Gibbs managed to win his players’ respect even as several of them are embroiled in controversies with the club.

Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington filed a grievance with the NFL claiming Washington shortchanged him $6.5 million on the contract extension he signed last December. Patrick Ramsey, the unquestioned starting quarterback last season, has been thrust into an open competition with Brunell. And yesterday Gibbs revealed that he gave middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter permission to seek a trade.

None of these potentially combustible situations spilled onto the practice field yesterday, though — another sign of the professionalism Gibbs demands.

“One of the things about pro sports — and I talked to the guys about this last night — is that there is a business side to this,” Gibbs said. “But then you cross the line and when you step over there, it’s football.”

Based on the hush that came over the auditorium when Gibbs stood up to speak Thursday night, few players would even think of doing anything remotely disrespectful to their new coach.

“He’s a disciplinarian-type coach, and I think that’s what we desperately needed,” tackle Chris Samuels said. “He deserves [respect] just from what he’s accomplished over the years. We need that direction from him.”

Gibbs and his veteran coaching staff, which includes four assistants from his previous stint, will continue to direct Washington’s players through the weekend. By the time minicamp ends tomorrow afternoon, Gibbs hopes he and his players feel more comfortable after their respective times off (three months for the players, 11 years for the coach).

“The players were pretty good. I was way off,” Gibbs said of his first day back in coaching. “Hey, it’s been a long time. It’s a little bit like having amnesia. Every once in a while, something flashes and I’d think, ‘That’s what we did.’”

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