Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Joe Gibbs’ second-term struggles, it’s that no coach is an island. And that goes double for football coaches.

The success of an NFL coach is dependent on so many more things than just his individual “genius.” The owner, the general manager, the ever-growing staff of assistants — all factor heavily into the equation. In truth, the coach gets too much of the credit when a team wins … and too much of the blame when it loses. It’s a group enterprise, which is why Gibbs is always saying (especially in down times), “It’s all of us.”

So any discussion of whether Coach Joe has “lost it” — in light of his 11-16 record since returning to the Redskins — should include the following devil’s advocate questions:

• Is his current owner, Dan Snyder, as savvy as his former owner, Jack Kent Cooke?

• Does he have a personnel man comparable to Bobby Beathard?

• Are any of his offensive game-planners the equal of Dan Henning?

If your answer to any of those questions — or, in my case, all three — is no, then you have at least a partial explanation for why the Redskins might miss the playoffs again, even with a Hall of Fame coach at the helm.

I raise this subject because it’s an issue not just in Washington but in several other NFL cities. In Baltimore, for instance, the Ravens haven’t been the same since they lost defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, now thriving as coach of the Bengals. In St. Louis, the Rams have had similar problems since the departure of Lovie Smith, who in just his second season has the Bears atop the NFC North.

Then there’s New England, winner of three of the last four Super Bowls, whose coach, Bill Belichick, is the subject of a new book by David Halberstam. Hopefully, the paperback edition of “The Education of a Coach” will include a bonus chapter detailing how the Patriots became infinitely more beatable after offensive coordinator Charlie Weis went to Notre Dame and D-coordinator Romeo Crennel took the Browns job. (Granted, the Pats have been hit hard by injuries, but they had a bunch of players go down last year, too. Weis, meanwhile, has the Irish in line for a BCS bowl, and Crennel already has chalked up his first shutout in Cleveland.)

But again, coaches are just part of it. The 49ers’ descent from Model Franchise to Everybody’s Homecoming Opponent can be traced to the ousting of Eddie DeBartolo as owner. Likewise, the Colts’ emergence as a superpower corresponds to the arrival of Bill Polian as president. Would Tony Dungy ever have gotten his due as a coach if he hadn’t joined forces with Polian, the sage who took Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf and Edgerrin James over Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams? (For that matter, ask Mike Holmgren whether he’s missed Ron Wolf.)

The head coach has always been the front guy — except perhaps in Dallas, where Jerry Jones likes to horn in — but it’s the legions of Little People (and not so little people) who help make him what he is. For some reason, Gibbs chose to overlook this when he came back to the Redskins. He wasn’t at all concerned that there was no Beathard-type in the personnel department, not the least bit worried that the owner, in his brief time in the league, had a reputation for doing more harm than good. And it wasn’t until his second season that Coach Joe added a younger viewpoint, Bill Musgrave, to his passing game deliberations.

This is where the fault lies with Gibbs, in my humble opinion. He thought he could do it all by himself, and he can’t. No one can. Is that ego, delusion, incurable optimism — or some combination of the three?

Watching Gibbs take his lumps the past two seasons makes you wonder about these coaches in the Hall of Fame. Are they really the best and the brightest, or were they just in the right place in the right time — blessed with the right owner, who hired the right general manager, who found the right players, who were then instructed not by the head coach, primarily, but by the army of assistants he assembled?

Am I now understating the importance of the head coach? Probably. After all, being able to put together a killer staff, being able to recognize talent and not feel threatened by it, isn’t something many coaches can do. The psychology of the job, getting 53 people to pull in the same direction, also shouldn’t be underestimated. For Gibbs, it might be his greatest strength.

But inasmuch as a punter, Ray Guy, is up for the Hall again this year, it might be time to consider whether certain GMs and assistant coaches might also be worthy of induction. Up to now, they’ve been excluded from Canton, but they can have as much to do with winning and losing in the NFL as head coaches — a point that’s been driven home in recent seasons, here and elsewhere, with the force of a Ray Lewis hit.

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