Thursday, January 26, 2006

Joe Gibbs pushed his last chip into the middle of the table the other day. He’s “all in.” How much more can Coach Joe do than hand over the offense — his offense — to somebody else? If bringing in Al Saunders, at a reported $2 million per, doesn’t result in more first downs, more touchdowns, then … well, let’s not even go there. At least not yet.

The clock is ticking loudly now. There are three years left in the Great Gibbs Experiment, three years left in the deal he signed with Dan Snyder in January 2004. And what Gibbs announced to the world Monday was: This isn’t working. The offense isn’t nearly where I hoped it would be after two seasons. In fact, the situation is so serious that I’ve decided to step back, concentrate more on management concerns, and let a guy who has never worked under me before try to straighten things out. We need some fresh ideas if we’re ever going to make it to the Super Bowl.


You had a feeling, after watching the offense run aground late in the season, that Gibbs would do everything in his power to fix it. But you never imagined that might include reassigning himself. I mean, this isn’t like Steve Spurrier saying, “I think I’ll let Hue Jackson call the plays for a couple of games.” This is The Way It’s Going To Be — for as long as Gibbs remains the coach.

Once again we’re reminded of what separates Coach Joe from others in his profession. Almost any other coach would worry that by relinquishing duties — and admitting, to a certain extent, defeat — he’d look weak. But not Gibbs. It’s not that the man doesn’t have an ego, it’s just that he’d never allow it to interfere with the overall objective: winning.

A year ago, Gibbs hired Bill Musgrave to tutor the quarterbacks — and add a younger perspective to strategy sessions. It was a big deal for him to do that, to seek help outside his offensive “family” of Don Breaux, Joe Bugel, Rennie Simmons and Jack Burns. And hiring Saunders is an even bigger deal because, despite his comments Monday, he figures to do a lot more to the offense than just “tweak” it. An offense as tubercular as the Redskins’ was late in the season doesn’t need tweaking, it needs a tracheotomy.

As much as anything, it needs more adventurous playcalling. Coach Joe, it seems, has grown more conservative since last we saw him. Down the stretch this season he appeared reluctant to throw the ball at all, especially when deep in his own end. Indeed, you could argue that his choice of quarterbacks — Mark Brunell over Patrick Ramsey — was determined more by what Brunell wouldn’t do (commit turnovers) than by what Ramsey might (stretch the defense with his arm and, hopefully, develop better judgment over time).

Laugh if you want, but it’s almost as if Gibbs is setting up his football team the way he set up his racing team — with Gregg Williams as his Tony Stewart and Saunders as his Bobby Labonte. (Gotta have two strong drivers, just in case one of ‘em has an off year.) And while the NFL is different from NASCAR, I’d be surprised if his delegating of responsibility undermines his ability to lead. No coach in any sport is more gifted in that area, is better at bringing people together, than Gibbs.

One of the ways he does this is through self-flagellation. Have you noticed? Coach Joe takes the blame for everything these days. If Hollywood ever makes a movie about his life, it’ll probably cast Jim Caviezel in the lead role. His is an interesting technique, great at deflecting criticism from his players. The issue is never Brunell’s 41 passing yards in a game or Taylor Jacobs’ failure to step up when the team desperately needed him to. In Gibbs’ mind, it always comes back to him.

And so he has kicked himself upstairs — sort of — and turned the offense over to Saunders. It’s a powerful message he’s sending as the Redskins head into another crucial offseason, an offseason that will determine whether they build on their success or regress. Joe Gibbs, it’s now clear, will do anything to win, even … this.

If you’re a player, watching your coach make such a sacrifice, how can you blow off a voluntary workout or resist a position change or squawk about reduced playing time? Coach Joe may not be able to change the Redskins’ fortunes with a piece of chalk — he’ll leave that to others — but he can still do it by example. That was the subtext of Monday’s press conference, the crawler at the bottom of the screen. How far, he was asking his team, are you willing to go? What — to borrow a line from “The Untouchables” — are you prepared to do?

The players have Gibbs’ answers to those questions. He awaits theirs.

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