- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Finally, real NFL games played by actual starting players. Is it just me, or did this training camp drag on longer than an Instant Replay Review? Part of it, of course, is that the Redskins had to wade through five preseason opponents instead of the usual four. That’ll test any fan’s patience. But the other part, the more significant part, is that we’ve been waiting since January for Joe Gibbs, living legend, to show us what he’s got. Does he have a second act in him, or do we have to content ourselves with watching Super Bowl XXVI highlights?

It’s funny. You’d think Gibbs had a tougher job in front of him in ‘81 than he does now. After all, when he first came to D.C., the Redskins had been out of the playoffs for four seasons and were looking at a major makeover, a near total retooling. On top of that, the new coach had never been anything more than an offensive coordinator … and was a mere 40 years old to boot. Talk about being up against it.

But here Gibbs is more than two decades later, taking over a team with considerably better prospects than the ‘81 club, and somehow the task seems more difficult than it did the first time around. Or at the very least riskier. After all, in ‘81 there were no great expectations, no visions of glory. The fans would have been thrilled those first few seasons if the Redskins had simply knocked off Dallas once or twice and maybe challenged for the division title. The words “Lombardi Trophy” weren’t on anyone’s lips — except perhaps for Jack Kent Cooke’s.

Also, the personal stakes for Gibbs weren’t nearly as great. His bust wasn’t in Canton back then; he was just a young guy getting his first big chance, kind of like Norv Turner in ‘93. If he fell on his face, the whole world wasn’t going to notice. Nowadays when you look at him, though, there’s this sense of heaviness, of weight, of burden, like the fate of the franchise is resting on his shoulders.

Everybody’s worn out at the end of camp, sure, but with Coach Joe it seems to be more than that. He’s 63 and diabetic, and he’s taking on a job that would test the stamina and nerves of a much younger man (Think of Michael Douglas deciding to become a father again.) Frankly, you worry about Gibbs — knowing what a relentless competitor he is, knowing how hard it used to be for him to turn it off once he turned it on. Is he really up to this? It’s a fair question.

Also, nobody likes to look like a fool — particularly an old fool — and Gibbs is chancing that, too. But, heck, he’s dealt with such concerns before. There was a time in the late ‘80s, after the Redskins failed to make the playoffs two straight seasons, when he openly wondered if his best years were behind him. It had happened to his brilliant mentor, Don Coryell; why couldn’t it happen to him?

It was a false alarm, of course. And when the Redskins returned to the playoffs in 1990, I couldn’t help kidding him. “So, Joe,” I asked him, “is it a relief to know the game hasn’t passed you by?”

The same issue is swirling about him now. If, as Gibbs claims, pro football changes about 30 percent every year, then it has changed three times over in the 11 seasons he was away — a monumental amount. One glance at the roster, though, especially the offensive personnel, makes you realize that, philosophically, he’s pretty much the Same Old Joe. The quarterback he brought in, Mark Brunell, bears a striking resemblance to Joe Theismann. The gaggle of tight ends are more the Don Warren type than the Jeremy Shockey type. In Clinton Portis, he has his Earnest Byner/Joe Washington hybrid, and holdover receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner are similar in style to Gary Clark and Art Monk.

As for the offensive line, it ain’t the Hogs yet, but that, you can be sure, is the goal.

The X’s and O’s might have changed a bit, but “certain principles” (e.g. what it takes to win) haven’t, Gibbs says. He also dismisses the notion of a generation gap between the older coaching staff and the players. There’s “a human nature” to football players, he says, that’s eternal. “The same things motivate us [now as they did 12 years ago] — fear, money — and you still have players who are born with those innate things inside, players like Earnest Byner. You never had to motivate him. If you can get just get enough of those guys, you’ll be OK.”

And so the Redskins head off into the great unknown, hoping their coach still has all the answers, hoping the old rules still apply. Gibbs, for his part, admits to being “more nervous” than usual for an opener, more “like [he was for] the first game here [in ‘81]” — and understandably so. No one knows how this season, this grand gamble, will turn out. But no matter. The trip, wherever it leads, should be a blast, if only because Coach Joe is back behind the wheel.


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