- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Joe Gibbs was a bust last season, a flop. In his trumpeted return as coach of the Redskins after an 11-year absence, he failed not only to return the franchise to its past glory, he proved to be out of step with the NFL and its players, both his and the opponents’. He was a big success in NASCAR but football had passed him by. At the age of 64, old for his profession, the magic is gone.

Or …

The qualities that helped Gibbs lead the Redskins to four Super Bowls, three of them victories, endure. The skills and attributes that forged a glittering NFL coaching record do not erode. He didn’t bribe his way into the Hall of Fame. He is still the same smart, savvy, hard-working coach who understands people, the same leader who helped restore a franchise’s honor and respect, and he will do it again.

Sure, the learning curve was steep, the period of adjustment rocky, but he needed a year to re-tool and re-orient himself to changing times. He’s still got it.

Which assessment of Gibbs is correct? We will know a lot more as the season unfolds.

After months of hope and hype the 2004 Redskins fizzled, their 6-10 record the worst ever in Gibbs’ career. For that and everything that went with it — the sputtering offense, the sloppy play, all of it — he takes the fall.

“I think you’ve got to evaluate yourself by wins and losses,” he said. “I think numerous other first-year coaches did better than I did. And I felt it was my responsibility to run the show on offense, and we didn’t perform well.”

That’s Gibbs, always has been, and people respect him for that.

“The guy wears an unbelievable bull’s-eye on his chest for the players in a sense he’s always gonna say it’s his fault,” said 42-year-old offensive lineman Ray Brown, who played for Gibbs from 1989 through 1992 and came back last year. “And I’ll tell you, it’s not always the case. Players make mistakes, whether we want to admit it or not.”

The irony is that under Gibbs, so closely identified with efficient, productive offense, they could not move the ball. The Redskins ranked 30th in total yards and 31st in points. It had to be more than the loss of tackle Jon Jansen for the season. Things never clicked. Quarterback Mark Brunell, hand-picked by Gibbs at the expense of a third-round draft pick and a huge contract, was awful. Running back Clinton Portis, acquired for All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, rang up good numbers but rarely broke the big one or was able to change a game, his 64-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the season notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, the defense, left largely to the devices of assistant head coach Gregg Williams and coordinator Greg Blache, kept the team reasonably competitive and ended up No. 3 in the league even though linebacker LaVar Arrington missed most of the season.

But 6-10 is 6-10.

Gibbs never said it would be easy. From the moment he took the job in January 2004, he noted how the NFL had changed since he last coached. But it was easy to get swept away by the tide of expectations, especially in light of the Redskins’ past failures, the ceaseless parade of players and coaches, the instability. Gibbs was back, and so were many of his old partners. Glory days, again.

“After we looked back on it, what happened was the expectations were so high, we may have bought into it, too,” said assistant head coach/offense Joe Bugel, who tutors the offensive line and was a big part of the first Gibbs regime. “We were gonna wave that magic wand and get back to the Super Bowl. But times changed.”

No kidding. There was the salary cap and free agency and obscene bushels of money being made and spent. On the field, defenses were now the ones attacking. Players had changed, too, becoming more outspoken and self-promoting, and so had the Redskins. The owner knows how to turn revenue streams into torrents but refuses to hire a general manager or back off and leave all the football decisions to the football people.

“A culture of individualism has been part of the organization since Joe left,” said Mark Schlereth, another ex-Redskins offensive lineman. “You don’t change it overnight.”

“We had Redskins during our first go-round here,” Bugel said. “We didn’t have outsiders, as we called them.”

Gibbs won’t put it that way. He refuses to name names nor publicly blame his predecessor, Steve Spurrier, for leaving a mess. Besides, some of the “outsiders,” like defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerback Shawn Springs, all first-year Redskins in 2004, had big seasons. Then, too, Portis occasionally pouted and wide receiver Laveranues Coles, a free-agent signee in 2002, was openly unhappy.

Gibbs likes to say that the NFL changes 30 percent every year, so do the math and imagine the differences from 1992. “The game is always evolving, and if you’re not in it, you’re on the outside,” Brown said.

Gibbs, immersed in auto racing since he left coaching, was on the outside.

“The NFL is so much different from when he was there before,” said former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, who helped build Gibbs’ earlier teams. “It’s only natural the first year is going to be something of a transition year.”

“I went into it eyes wide open,” Gibbs said. “Nothing really surprised me. You’ve got the cap now, everyone’s got the same amount of money. It’s how you use it. How you acquire players was big. On the field, the game’s changed a lot because of forcing defenses. It’s required the offenses to change, too. There are so many facets to it, and it’s hard to get your hands on all of it.”

Which leads to the big question: Are Gibbs’ hands firmly wrapped around all of it now?

“Joe is so sharp,” Beathard said. “Certainly the game is not gonna pass him by. … Look at what happened with Mark Brunell. When you’re unsettled at that position, everything goes haywire. I would just throw last year out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this year be a better year all around. I think they’ll get back to the playoffs, and one of the big reasons is Joe.

“I always thought Joe had a great way to get through to his players, no matter what kind of players they were,” Beathard said. “There were things with Riggo [colorful Hall of Fame running back John Riggins], but the way Joe handled it was the best anyone could come up with. And [troubled defensive end] Dexter Manley. Dexter had problems. But Joe always handled them. He has a great talent of working with people. He knows what buttons to push, knows when to ease up and go hard. Joe’s not soft. He’s a very tough guy and very tough on himself. I don’t think there’s much difference between Joe now and then.”

This seems to be a consensus among the faithful. Don Warren, a tight end on the Super Bowl teams and now a Redskins scout, said of his old coach, “He’s basically the same. I mean, he leaves no stone unturned. That’s the way he is right now. He’s the exact same way. He probably reads people, reads character, reads heart better than anyone I’ve ever been around. That will never change.”

Gibbs and his staff underwent exhaustive soul-searching during the off-season, studying every player, studying themselves. The disgruntled Coles was traded back to the New York Jets. Rod Gardner, another unhappy receiver, is in Carolina. Gibbs now has a pair of speedy pass-catchers, Santana Moss and David Patten, and he promises to open up the offense, spread things out. That includes changing some of the blocking schemes to better suit Portis. The defense should again be sound, despite the losses of cornerback Fred Smoot and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.

“It was a big learning experience for me and what you try to do is analyze all that,” Gibbs said. “Sometimes it’s personnel, sometimes it’s what you do on the field, sometimes it’s the front-office scouting. We changed a lot of things there. You analyze, you go off what happened last year, you try to learn from it and change and make good decisions.”

And yet, in the end, it will probably come down to the quarterback. Patrick Ramsey, who replaced Brunell last season, is supposed to be the guy. But Gibbs has never seemed sold on him. Lending credence to that perception, the Redskins drafted Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round.

How it all plays out is anyone’s guess, but it is apparent that Year 2 is proceeding with fewer rough spots so far. Gibbs knows his players better and they know him. “I think the second year, we get it better collectively,” Brown said.

“Things are a lot smoother, as far as the scheduling of it, just tweaking that part of it,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said about training camp. “It’s been very beneficial for us to have a little extra rest time in-between, to not feel we we’re always rushing. It’s just everything practice time, how we practice. … He’ll be the first to tell you he’s not perfect and from the first year to this year he probably learned a lot, especially after having such an absence from the game.”

Bugel said Gibbs and the staff are more comfortable. He concedes that the general mood was a bit “uptight” last season.

“We’re more relaxed, we’re more into it, we have a year under our belts,” Bugel said. “After we took a little bit of a break, we sat down and said, ‘This is what we have to do.’ We dug in. But I never saw him any more passionate than after last year, to get this thing turned around. He’s so high all the time, he’s never on a downer, and he’s back to arguing again. We’re hollering and screaming and grabbing each other. He’s back now.”

And so, maybe, are the Redskins. Like Gibbs before his return, they have been gone a long time.

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