Monday, December 31, 2007

A month ago when the Redskins were dragging along at 5-7, everybody was asking me whether Joe Gibbs should be fired — fans, radio interviewers, my dentist, everybody. In fact, they posed a much more leading question than that: Shouldn’t Joe Gibbs be fired? I gave them all the same answer:

No. 1, you’re assuming things will improve once he’s gone. Sorry, but I don’t share your optimism. If you’ve paid any attention to this franchise over the last 15 years, particularly since Dan Snyder took over, you know things can definitely get worse much worse.

No. 2, the Redskins aren’t out of the playoff picture yet. And until that happens, I’ll withhold judgment. Gibbs has always been a master the best I’ve ever seen at keeping a team from falling apart in even the direst of circumstances. The Redskins might not qualify for the postseason, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t play with passion the rest of the way unlike a lot of clubs caught in a downward spiral.

Well, here it is New Year’s Eve and the Snydermen are preparing for a trip to Seattle — and a first-round playoff date with the Seahawks. Actually, they began their preparations yesterday, stomping the Cowboys 27-6 at FedEx Field in a Seattle-esque downpour. (Memo to the equipment staff: Don’t even bother to wring out the jerseys. They’ll probably get soaked again this weekend anyway.)

You can point to any number of reasons for the Redskins’ sudden turnaround, their transformation from a teetering team to one that’s flying into January. You can point to Todd Collins’ miraculous relief pitching. You can point to Joe Bugel’s fine work with a mix-and-match offensive line. You can point to the defense’s shutting down of Everything In Its Path after the loss of its most talented player, Sean Taylor.

You can also point to the guy many in Redskins Nation were ready to pack off to the Old Coaches Home four weeks back — Joe Gibbs. In his second incarnation, Gibbs is no longer the Head Coach/Resident Offensive Genius. Indeed, he isn’t even all that involved with the offense anymore. That’s Al Saunders’ bailiwick, just as the defense is Gregg Williams’ domain. No, what Coach Joe basically does, once the season begins, is try to keep all 53 players pulling in the same direction.

It’s his special talent, the thing he might do as well as any coach in the NFL — the thing he has always done as well as any coach in the NFL. His clubs might not make the playoffs every year, but they don’t deflate like a cheap football when the playoffs become an increasingly remote possibility. Rather than point fingers and look for scapegoats, they keep their shoulders pressed against the blocking sled.

This is how they turned a 5-6 start into a 5-0 finish two years ago, followed by a first round win at Tampa Bay. It’s also how they overcame this year’s many bumps in the road and put together a four-game winning streak at the end, a streak in which they played as well as any team in the NFC.

“He ain’t in the Hall of Fame for nuthin’,” Phillip Daniels said. “You can’t say enough about the job he’s done this year, holding us together. He kept us looking ahead, taking it one week at a time.”

Casey Rabach called Gibbs “the constant factor” in the Redskins’ season-long travails — “the injuries, the ups and downs, the murder of Sean. I don’t know how he does it, to tell you the truth.”

Gibbs does it, first and foremost, by not overreacting to things, by being the steady hand on the wheel. And over time, almost by osmosis, his players begin to adopt the same personality. It’s why his Redskins won two Super Bowls amid the upheaval of strike seasons, one of them after changing quarterbacks — from Jay Schroeder to Doug Williams — in the middle of the last regular-season game.

In pro football, it isn’t about perfection — the Patriots notwithstanding. It’s about dealing with imperfection, with ill-timed turnovers and torn ACLs and circumstances that could never have been imagined. As Gibbs put it yesterday, his blunder in the closing seconds of the Buffalo game, getting penalized 15 yards for calling consecutive timeouts, was “the worst moment of my career. [But] sometimes in life some of the best things happen after you’ve been crushed.”

The victory over the 13-3 Cowboys — and the playoff berth it assured — was the latest of those things, the things that put Coach Joe in Canton and separate him from so many others in his profession. For Gibbs, it comes down to keeping the faith.

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