Don't Bet Against Gibbs Getting Things Done for Redskins
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; 1:58 PM
It has become an almost-annual early-spring ritual for the Washington Redskins -- a late-March minicamp.
It's not supposed to be that way. It's not on the calendar in most NFL cities. But because the league permits a team with a new head coach to conduct one more offseason minicamp than a club without a new head coach -- leveling the playing field a bit with an additional getting-to-know-you gathering for three days of practices -- the Redskins almost always end up squeezing in an additional camp. After all, for the third time in four seasons, they will be starting a season with a new coach.
There was optimism when Marty Schottenheimer arrived, and there was wild optimism when Steve Spurrier arrived. So is the off-the-charts optimism that has accompanied the return of Joe Gibbs justified? Absolutely.
When Gibbs takes the field Friday morning at Redskins Park to kick off a three-day minicamp and run his first NFL practice since early 1993, his players will encounter a legendary coach whose ideas are far from out of date. They will see a coach whose energy and dedication have amazed other club officials, and whose organizational skills and attention to detail will rival those of any other coach in the league.
"After watching Steve Spurrier operate and now watching this,'' one team official said, "it's like night and day.''
Spurrier's shortcomings as an NFL coach were on display from the outset. His practices were loosely run. He spent most of his time hanging out by the quarterbacks. He could be seen chatting with visitors or trying to bounce footballs off the ground and catch them when special-teams drills were being conducted. He regularly couldn't recall the names of his defensive players. When Redskins players received their game plan on Wednesdays during the season, more often than not they were surprised by what it lacked rather than amazed by what it contained.
But as one watched all of that unfold, it was impossible to forget that Spurrier had won 122 games in 12 seasons at the University of Florida, that he always had done things his way and mocked those who criticized him for it. He didn't talk like a coach or act like a coach, but he won and won big, and he laughed his way to a five-year, $25-million contract with the Redskins. So you kept waiting for the genius beneath that madness to emerge. You didn't believe that was really all there was -- right up until the moment Spurrier walked away after two seasons and only 12 victories, admitting that he couldn't make it work and it wasn't even worth it for him to try for another year. Only then was it clear, in retrospect, that it hadn't been about a learning curve and Spurrier didn't have anything up his sleeve. He had been overmatched from the outset, unwilling to put in the hours and make the changes to his way necessary for him to succeed in the NFL.
That will not be the case with Gibbs. He clearly is willing -- still, even at 63 -- to put in the hours. He has three Super Bowl trophies in the lobby of Redskins Park to show that he's far from overmatched. His entire coaching tenure with the Redskins the first time around was spent demonstrating he was able and willing to make whatever changes were necessary to win.
One big question will be whether the NFL passed him by while he was gone. But one needs only to look at the offense of the St. Louis Rams to know that it hasn't. The offensive system being run by Rams Coach Mike Martz is the same system that Gibbs used with the Redskins. It's the system that can be traced to the "Air Coryell'' offense of the San Diego Chargers of quarterback Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receivers John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner in the late 1970s and early '80s under former coach Don Coryell.
It's the system that the Dallas Cowboys used to win two of their three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s with Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator, and the system that the Rams used to win one Super Bowl and reach another with Martz overseeing their "Greatest Show on Turf'' offense first as the coordinator, then as the head coach. Each coach takes the system in a slightly different direction: Martz emphasizes spreading the field and throwing the ball all the time, while Gibbs used to rely on the power running game to set up some big plays with the pass. But the basics of the system are the same, and it still works.
Gibbs has been given a team with some holes, but with some good parts. He has a running back, in Clinton Portis, that he can give the ball to 25 times a game and be sure that he will be productive. He has an offensive line that should be more than adequate for a Gibbs-coached team, plowing forward for the run and keeping the defense guessing about when the pass is coming, after struggling mightily under Spurrier. He has a solid veteran quarterback, in Mark Brunell, to go with promising youngster Patrick Ramsey. He has good wide receivers. He has a defense that should be solid at linebacker and in the secondary, even with the loss of cornerback Champ Bailey, but still has questions up front. He has a reliable kicker, John Hall, to win close games for him and a return man, Chad Morton, to give his offense field position.
He used owner Daniel Snyder's checkbook liberally to assemble a coaching staff that includes much of his old gang, but also mixes in younger coaches who weren't away from the game and -- like defensive boss Gregg Williams, most recently the head coach of the Buffalo Bills -- are taking a step down to their current jobs. It will be up to Williams to find creative ways to get to opposing quarterbacks to make up for the Redskins' most glaring deficiency, the lack of a big-time pass rusher.
Could Gibbs possibly fail? Of course he could. He must relearn an entire league. He must show that he can work with today's players, and Ramsey and linebacker LaVar Arrington have had an offseason of discontent. He has had to learn how to operate within the constraints of the salary cap. During his first Redskins go-around, he always could convince late owner Jack Kent Cooke to overpay to keep around a dependable veteran, even if only as a backup. His strength during his first Redskins tenure wasn't acquiring players (see: Desmond Howard). He had Bobby Beathard to do that. Now, he takes the central role in assembling the roster.
His body now balks occasionally when he ignores it during his workaholic binges, as with his diabetic scare while visiting Brunell in Florida. The NFC East looks tougher by the day. The Philadelphia Eagles, the three-time defending division champions, have added defensive end Jevon Kearse and wide receiver Terrell Owens. The Cowboys had 10 wins last season, and no Bill Parcells-coached team has ever failed to improve by at least three triumphs in his second season with the club. The New York Giants hired a no-nonsense coach, Tom Coughlin, who took Jacksonville to two AFC title games.
But should you bet against him? Definitely not. As Parcells showed in Dallas last season, today's NFL is all about coaching. Every team turns over its roster every offseason in the age of free agency, and a coach who can bring it all together quickly makes all the difference. Gibbs is in the Hall of Fame for a reason. He won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. If he adds to that total by the time he walks away again, he will be able to make an argument -- although he won't -- that he is the best coach in the history of the league.
And now, he even has an extra minicamp at his disposal.
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