The hours were flying by one night late last February as the grandfatherly coaches huddled around a conference room they dubbed The Submarine. The Washington Redskins were still more than six months from their opening game, but the second Joe Gibbs Era was well underway, as evidenced by the sound of booming voices echoing down the hallway at Redskins Park.
Bubba Tyer, the team's longtime trainer, heard the shouting and walked by the room to find Gibbs, 63, and his offensive assistants, Rennie Simmons, 62, Don Breaux, 63, Joe Bugel, 64, and Jack Burns, 55, passionately debating how to best attack a certain defensive scheme.
Coach Joe Gibbs has assembled one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the NFL, many of whom are in their second go-around with Gibbs. At right is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
(By John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
Tyer popped his head in the room to lighten the mood, chirping, "Any blood drawn in there yet?" After a brief chuckle, Tyer recounted, the coaches went back to their heated exchange.
This scene was repeated throughout the offseason as Gibbs and his offensive staff, which also includes 68-year-old consultant Ernie Zampese, immersed themselves in football. Gibbs, out of coaching for 11 years, has reassembled the band of offensive minds that helped him establish a dynasty in Washington in the 1980s and early '90s while largely turning the defense over to Gregg Williams, the talented former head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
As the Redskins gather this week in anticipation of the opening of training camp Saturday, Gibbs and his assistants are preparing for what might be the greatest challenge of their careers, jeopardizing their coaching reputations for one last stab at glory.
Their return to a franchise desperate for success is the most anticipated story line of the upcoming NFL season. Can Gibbs reach today's Redskins, who bask in a wealth Gibbs's former players never enjoyed? Will the Gibbs system that took the Redskins to four Super Bowls between 1981 and 1993 thrive in the NFL of 2004?
Gibbs, already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, spoke throughout the offseason about his need to reeducate himself in the sport after spending the past decade building a highly successful NASCAR racing team. Free agency and the salary cap, defining principles in football today, did not exist when Gibbs left the game after the 1992 season. Today's players are bigger, stronger, faster. Defenses are more complex and aggressive, with blitzing the quarterback having become the norm across the league.
The game has changed, but those who know Gibbs best say the coach remains largely the same. Gibbs is working as hard as ever -- he has already had a shower and pullout bed installed at Redskins Park -- despite his battle with diabetes. His attention to detail has not waned.
"They worked so hard this offseason breaking down and building game plans, and the players feed off of that," said Tyler, who began working for the Redskins in 1971 and came out of retirement this winter to rejoin Gibbs. "They can see how well prepared the coaches are on the field and in the meetings. Gosh, I don't see any changes at all. It's like we stepped right back into it after all the years, and they're getting right back after it."
Since emerging from retirement, Gibbs has watched countless hours of videotape. He studied tape of free agents and college players, shaping the team's signings and draft picks. During minicamps, Gibbs and his coaches assigned grades for each play, exhaustively replaying the drills and exercises on videotape. Gibbs, who also holds the title of team president, imparted his expectations to the rest of his Redskins staff, including the defensive coaches, scouts and front-office management who had not worked with him before, so that the entire organization had a grasp of what to look for in evaluating talent.
Yet, while clearly establishing himself as the team's leader, Gibbs routinely has sought the input of those around him, associates say. "He was a whirling dervish from the first time I saw him, and he hasn't stopped yet," linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said. "There are a lot of things that have changed since he left, and he puts his ego aside and just wants to know how to get it done and how to win. It doesn't mater if it's somebody else telling him how to help do it."
Many of the defensive coaches said they were overwhelmed by Gibbs's football intellect from their initial meetings with him. They could tell that he had given the decision to return to coaching much thought and had been paying closer attention to the NFL last season before accepting a five-year, $28 million contract from the Redskins in January.
"Quite candidly, at our first staff meeting you sat there pretty much awed and impressed by the skills he has," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "His managerial style, his knowledge, his passion for the game and his great intensity and sense for football and people. It's something you can't teach."
But Gibbs's closest confidants said that in the early going last winter and spring they knew the coach was not where he wanted to be. Reading modern defenses and preparing an offense to challenge them were not entirely second nature to him. His reactions and responses were not totally instinctual. He was still figuring things out, applying his old ways to the new game.