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Thomas Boswell

With Gibbs, Amazing Grace

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page D01


On Thanksgiving day, Joe Gibbs will turn 64. That day, he'll join his old pals and assistant coaches Joe Bugel and Don Breaux in sharing the age made famous by the Beatles' song "When I'm Sixty-Four."

You know the lyric: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?"

Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey comes under heavy pressure from the Eagles' defense. He passed for 162 yards and an interception. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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The Redskins are no birthday present these days. They're not much to give thanks for, either, unless you relish losses. And, most of all, they definitely are not what the Redskins' AARP contingent expected, not with a stunningly bad 3-7 record.

Yet somehow the Redskins' oldsters keep their tempers and their poise, maintain their storied work ethic, take more than their share of the blame and, in an odd but touching way, bring a kind of adult dignity to sports.

All in all, the Redskins aren't a laughing matter. Luckily, that doesn't stop Bugel, who all by himself probably keeps Gibbs sane in the team's endless late-night skull sessions. "Do I look older?" asked Bugel, mischievously after the Redskins had collapsed in the fourth quarter, turning a close game into a 28-6 blowout defeat.

"I told Gibbsy, this is one of the toughest things we've ever been through in our lives," Bugel said. "This is what we came back for. But we expected more. The 'big hurt' is because of how bad Joe wants it. He wants to win more than anybody, though he doesn't show it to anybody. He'll right the ship . . .

"We'll forgive a lot of people, but we won't forget," said Bugel, winking. "I've got my black book. I'm taking names. We owe some debts."

In all of sports, there are few men more competitive than Gibbs. Yet after every game he acts more civil than most coaches who have won. Whatever fires are banked deep in him, he holds them back. His jaw stays tight. Whether he is correct or not, his close friends say that he is convinced that the Redskins are a team on the way to being fixed. But big jobs take time. Meantime, there are games like this, week after week, in which the Redskins show flickers of improvement that quickly are doused.

"We've had a lot of tough things happen to our team this year. We've had to bounce back from a lot. The thing I'm proudest of is that our guys are fighting hard each and every week," Gibbs said.

That sounds like coaching cliche and pabulum. Here's the translation, one that Gibbs refuses to utter. Against the Eagles, the Redskins started a defense without six of its projected starters before the season, including LaVar Arrington. The team's kicker and kick return man are out, too. Star tackle Jon Jansen has been out since the early minutes of the first exhibition game. Maybe that was an omen. And guard Randy Thomas was added to the list of injuries in this game. In all, the Redskins are down a dozen key players. By late November, most NFL teams have plenty of injuries. But, even so, the Redskins have been luckless there.

"His demeanor never changes, but this has been tough for Joe," Bugel said. "This is new for us, but he doesn't lose perspective. If he starts pointing fingers and blaming people, that's bad. But he never does. We're going to stick it out."

Week after week, that proves frustratingly harder to do than to say.

"Every time we get close, disaster strikes. This time, it was penalties, the dropped passes," said Bugel, who watched his offensive line self-destruct at the worst possible moment. Trailing 14-6 in the fourth quarter, the Redskins had a first down at the Eagles 10-yard line. Naturally, as befits this atrocious season for the highest-paid team in NFL history, the Redskins false-started, got a holding penalty, then false-started again to move back 20 yards.

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