- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

Penn State has Joe Paterno, and the Redskins have Joe Paternal. If you’re wondering how the Redskins have worked their way back into playoff contention — after losing six of eight and all but dropping off the radar screen — look no further than their ever-encouraging coach.

Through thin and thinner, Joe Gibbs has been unfailingly supportive of his players, no matter what their transgressions. Some coaches inspire with a sharp stick (and tongue); Gibbs has done it with a pat on the back and, when necessary, a heartfelt testimonial.

Take Rock Cartwright’s unfortunate fumble at Kansas City, the one that was returned 80 yards for a touchdown. Gibbs could have reduced Rock to rubble, but instead he said, “I feel so bad for Rock because he’s such a great Redskin and a great guy — and one of our real important guys. You hate for something like that to happen.”

Coach Paternal was just as forgiving when Mike Sellers picked up a foolish retaliatory penalty in the loss to the Raiders. “He’s one of our best players, particularly on special teams, and one of our leaders,” he said. The killer holding call on Casey Rabach against the Chargers, which took the Redskins out of game-winning field goal range, brought a similar response: “Casey’s made a ton of plays for us, and you hate that the focus is on something like the penalty.”

Mark Brunell’s three first-half interceptions in the Arizona game? “A couple of things bounced out of our hands,” Gibbs said, “and I’m sure Mark would like to have a couple of things back. But he kept working when it would have been easy to get discouraged.”

Robert Royal’s case of the dropsies against San Diego, Sean Taylor’s offseason indiscretions? In both instances, Coach Paternal stuck up for His Guy. It’s been amazing to watch, really, a veritable seminar on how to keep a team together in a crisis. Gibbs has gone to great lengths to avoid any finger pointing, any isolating of players who might have messed up. And suddenly, after spending two months in the Valley of Death, the Redskins are on a three-game tear and eyeing a playoff berth.

Gibbs wasn’t much of a hugger in his first term. Joe Theismann is still waiting for his coach to visit him in the hospital after he broke his leg in 1985. The atmosphere around Redskin Park in those days was one of — how shall I put it? — creative tension. Charles Mann told me, “I never felt secure going to camp. Seems like they always had somebody ready to take your place” — and this was when Charles was in his 10-sacks-a-year prime!

Maybe it’s because Gibbs is older now; his kids have kids. When he first came to the Redskins he was only 40 and had less NFL experience than some of his players. It changes the dynamic, no question. The competitive fires still burn — along with the midnight oil — but his public persona has morphed from Joe the Grind to Grandpa Walton. Why just yesterday, he was talking about Marcus Washington and how “I love him” — loves his exuberance, his all-out approach. Funny, I don’t remember too many open displays of affection toward Monte Coleman or Wilber Marshall way back when.

What Joe Paternal has done a particularly good job of is living in the present and not drawing all these comparisons between his current club and his Super Bowl winners in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Indeed, for Gibbs, it’s almost as if those years never happened. Consider: When Randy Thomas broke his leg against the Cowboys on Sunday, Coach Joe went out of his way to say that Thomas “has had as good a year as I have seen a guard have.”

As good a year as Russ Grimm, a member of the NFL’s all-‘80s team, ever had? Hmmm.

Earlier in the season, Gibbs said Brunell’s two improbable touchdown heaves to Santana Moss late in the first Dallas game constituted “the greatest quarter I’ve ever seen a quarterback have.”

Uh, Joe, what about Doug Williams’ four TD passes in the second quarter of the Super Bowl against the Broncos? Isn’t that the greatest quarter you’ve ever seen a QB have?

I don’t think for a minute that Gibbs believes either of those effusions. I think they were made off the cuff … and for purely psychological reasons, to give his players a pick-me-up. After all, it can be a burden to play for a Hall of Fame coach; you’re constantly being compared not just to the other 31 teams in the league but also to the teams in the coach’s past — in this case, the ‘82 Redskins, the ‘83 Redskins, the ‘87 Redskins and the ‘91 Redskins.

Joe Paternal, I suspect, understands this as well as anyone. If he didn’t, the Redskins probably wouldn’t be where they are right now — two wins away from just their second playoff berth in 13 years, not that anyone’s counting.

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