- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

It’s game time.

Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who led the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles from 1981 through 1992, will put his legacy on the line starting this afternoon at FedEx Field when he officially begins his second tenure, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Eight months have passed since Gibbs accepted owner Dan Snyder’s offer to return to the organization. All the media attention, fan excitement and team preparation since then make it difficult to believe this is just the start of Gibbs’ first season back.

“And we haven’t proved a thing yet,” safety Matt Bowen noted. “Now it falls upon our shoulders to win some ballgames and have a productive season. It starts this week. But all the hype, it doesn’t mean anything until you start winning games.”

That is something the Redskins struggled to do in the 11 seasons since Gibbs left the organization.

Washington won just 74games and reached the playoffs once while Gibbs was away. And under Snyder, who purchased the club in 1999, the team has become better known for shuffling coaches and front-office personnel than for any exploits on the field.

However, a sense of calm and focus has pervaded club operations since Gibbs took over. Controversies have been minimized, egos have been put aside and players appear to have adopted Gibbs’ vision. And the in-fighting that dominated the two seasons under Steve Spurrier, a former giant in the college game who went just 12-20 in 2002 and 2003, has vanished.

But nothing is guaranteed, as Gibbs has said repeatedly since Jan.8, the day of his introductory press conference at Redskin Park. Perhaps because of that sentiment, Gibbs’ folksy manner grew more and more businesslike as this past week progressed. By Friday afternoon, he seemed more intense.

“Everybody kind of imagines the emotions you have,” Gibbs said softly and without a hint of emotion. “We’ll see what happens.”

Throughout the spring and summer, Gibbs often joked that he needed extra months to prepare, but in truth the team is about as ready as it could be. Gibbs and his staff of veteran assistants put in hours of planning and film work during the off-season. And the players, despite so much change in recent years, were committed to learning a new system and fulfilling Gibbs’ vision of “true Redskins.”

If the preseason seemed longer this summer, it’s because it was. It included five games instead of the usual four. The Redskins opened by playing the Hall of Fame Game against the Denver Broncos. Washington’s 3-2 campaign spanned 26 days, included a major injury (to right tackle Jon Jansen, who ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was lost for the season) and often seemed interminable.

“Man, I’m so glad the regular season’s here,” tight end Walter Rasby said. “You don’t know how long this [stuff] has been. Five games? … Preseason game stuff is the longest. Forever. But now it’s here.”

The area, meanwhile, has been on a high ever since Gibbs’ return. The team appeared as if it might start losing fans after years of sputtering under Snyder, but these days it is being celebrated again.

Fans, many of whom retained vivid memories of rooting for Gibbs during the most successful stretch in team history, turned out in droves for training camp. Thousands of spectators attended each session at Redskin Park, and Fan Appreciation Day drew a crowd approaching 20,000. Players who had a loose understanding of what Gibbs meant to the area gained a new appreciation.

“I have. I know I will more and more, the more time we spend up here,” said quarterback Mark Brunell, who spent the past nine seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “But it’s big. Coach Gibbs’ coming back is huge for this area, huge for this organization. Now we’ve got to go win.”

Hopes for a first-year playoff run have been somewhat tempered by the preseason, in which Gibbs’ offense frequently struggled and ranked just 29th among 32 NFL teams. But the Redskins’ schedule is relatively favorable, and the leadership and organization skills of Gibbs have created expectations that the team will improve over time.

In any case, a long winter, spring and summer of Gibbs-induced prognostication, preparation, hope and hype finally are at an end.

“It’s been a long time,” Gibbs said. “I’d probably settle for another eight months, but I think we’ll have to play.”

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