Don't Be Surprised if Gibbs Has Redskins in Playoffs
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; 10:27 AM
Anyone who thinks that Joe Gibbs can't succeed immediately with the Washington Redskins after an 11-season absence from coaching needs to think again.
Yes, the Redskins have done a pretty decent Cincinnati Bengals impression since Gibbs "retired" from the NFL following the 1992 season, reaching the playoffs only once after the departure of the coach who led them to three Super Bowl triumphs. And yes, owner Daniel Snyder has been something less than the ideal boss, discarding four coaches (Norv Turner, 2000 season-ending fill-in Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier) since purchasing the club in 1999 and, along with front-office chief Vinny Cerrato, overruling Spurrier when the coach wanted to keep quarterback Danny Wuerffel on last year's season-opening roster.
But today's NFL is all about coaching. Even the best teams in the league turn over about one-third of their roster each offseason, with the salary cap forcing tough decisions to be made and players scurrying from club to club via free agency. An organized coach who can create an atmosphere of unity and discipline will win. Bill Parcells did it last season in Dallas, going 10-6 after making relatively few personnel changes to a Cowboys team that had gone 5-11 in each of the previous three seasons under Dave Campo. And Gibbs is every bit as good as Parcells. A solid case can be made, in fact, for Gibbs being among the top two or three coaches in NFL history after winning three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks; a fourth Super Bowl victory with a fourth different quarterback before he exits again would further strengthen that case.
The Xs-and-Os of what Gibbs does as an offensive coach are not outdated as he returns; far from it, in fact. Gibbs's offensive system is, essentially, the "Air Coryell" system from former Chargers coach Don Coryell's days in San Diego, and it was used by Mike Martz as the offensive coordinator and then the head coach in St. Louis to get the Rams to two Super Bowls within the past five seasons. The system still works.
Perhaps the best thing that Gibbs did after returning was assembling a staff of assistants that includes not only his old coaching sidekicks, like Joe Bugel and Don Breaux, but also a mixture of overqualified contemporary coaches, like Gregg Williams going from being the Buffalo Bills' head coach to being the Redskins' defensive boss. Snyder not only gave Gibbs a five-year contract worth about $5.7 million per season; he also gave Gibbs a virtually unlimited budget to recruit assistants like former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache and former Chargers defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey, now members of Williams's defensive staff.
The Gibbs-Snyder pairing should be fine. Gibbs knows the value of walking down the hall to the owner's office every so often to make sure the boss is informed and on board with the plan. Gibbs forged a solid working relationship with late Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and he seems well on his way to doing the same thing with Snyder, who grew up in the Washington area adoring Gibbs and rooting for Gibbs's teams. Gibbs again is paired with an owner who, like Cooke, desperately wants to win and is willing to spend what it takes to do so. Snyder continues to maximize the club's revenue streams, somehow squeezing even more seats into FedEx Field for next season.
None of Snyder's previous coaches seemed to understand the value of making regular trips across the lobby to the corner office on the other side of Redskins Park to ensure that everybody was on the same page. Spurrier stopped participating in the weekly meetings held by Snyder and the team's other top decision-makers, and that contributed to a breakdown in communication.
Snyder and Cerrato were right in cutting Wuerffel. No one in the league but Spurrier thought that Wuerffel was an NFL-caliber quarterback, as demonstrated by the fact that no other team has signed Spurrier's former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida. But the situation was handled poorly and was the beginning of the end for Spurrier in D.C. The conversation among the members of the Redskins' brain trust about whether Wuerffel belonged on the team should have taken place when the club was considering re-signing him, not on the eve of the season. Spurrier emerged feeling undermined, his associates say. But his ultimate failure as an NFL coach -- winning 12 games in two seasons -- had little to do with Snyder. He perhaps still could have turned things around by overhauling his inexperienced coaching staff and tinkering with his offensive system to protect the quarterback better. But he didn't want to make those changes. He had come to the NFL to try to win his way, and he couldn't. So he walked away. Gibbs has returned to the NFL to win any way he can, and he won't make the same mistakes.
The roster that he inherited from Spurrier contains enough talent to win, and the Redskins yet again captured the NFL's offseason championship for big-splash moves by trading for tailback Clinton Portis and quarterback Mark Brunell and signing cornerback Shawn Springs, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebackers Marcus Washington and Michael Barrow as free agents.
Observers can debate all they want about the merits of trading, as the Redskins did, a dominant cornerback like Champ Bailey (plus a second-round draft pick) for a dominant runner like Portis. Onlookers can wonder whether the Redskins, instead of trading a third-round choice to Jacksonville for Brunell and signing him to a seven-year, $43.36 million contract that included an $8.6 million signing bonus, should have waited for the market to become flooded with veteran quarterbacks and gotten one cheaper, without having to surrender a draft selection. Regardless of what others think, the Redskins are pleased with the results. Gibbs will have the ball handed to Portis often the way he once had the ball handed to John Riggins often, trying to control the clock and the game and set up big passing plays. And he likely will go with Brunell as his starter, making youngster Patrick Ramsey his Plan B and his quarterback-in-waiting. Gibbs's history suggests that he would rather have a veteran in charge of his offense, unless Ramsey outperforms Brunell by a wide margin in the preseason.
The offensive line that looked so overmatched on Spurrier's watch should be far better under Gibbs and Bugel. Blockers for a Spurrier-coached team usually were outnumbered because defenses could stay in pass-rush mode and blitz at will. Against a Gibbs-coached club, defenses will be kept guessing and kept off-balance by the Redskins' run-pass mix, and gifted offensive linemen like tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen and guard Randy Thomas will get to plow forward and initiate contact regularly instead of always absorbing it. Second-year guard Derrick Dockery could become a run-blocking terror under Bugel.
The defensive line still lacks a pass rusher that scares opposing offensive coaches, and that could be the undoing of Williams and Gibbs if the Redskins struggle. But the Redskins are counting on Williams's schemes to help the pass rush Although he failed as a head coach in Buffalo, the Bills played well on defense, ranking second in the league last season. And he was a brilliant defensive coordinator in Tennessee. He will be far more creative than predecessor George Edwards in finding ways for his players to get to the quarterback. Linebacker LaVar Arrington is the key. If he puts his contract squabble with Snyder behind him and accepts the role that he had under former coordinator Marvin Lewis in 2002, when he had 11 sacks, the unit's biggest deficiency could be masked to some degree. Barrow was a tackling machine for the New York Giants, who released him after he refused to take a pay cut, and his arrival makes up for the departure of middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was released by the Redskins in June.
There is no true No. 1 cornerback now that Bailey is gone. But Fred Smoot and Springs are better than your usual No. 2 cornerbacks, and Williams should be able to make that work most of the time. The Redskins have depth at cornerback with free-agent additions Walt Harris and Ralph Brown joining incumbent third corner Rashad Bauman.
The Redskins went back on their 2003 vow to stop getting rid of all their picks prior to draft day in the pursuit of veterans. But they made the right choice for their defense-needy team by using the fifth overall selection in the draft on safety Sean Taylor instead of his University of Miami teammate, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. Taylor could have the same sort of major impact on the Redskins' defense that safety Roy Williams had on the Cowboys' defense. The Redskins traded for a third-round pick and got Utah State tight end Chris Cooley, who's good enough to do the things that Gibbs needs a tight end to do.
Gibbs's special teams include a reliable kicker, John Hall, and a return man who can change field position, Chad Morton. The club added a more dependable punter by signing veteran Tom Tupa.
There are potential pitfalls for Gibbs, for sure. He has more say over the offseason shaping over the roster than he ever did before. In his previous Redskins stint, he had Bobby Beathard to make the personnel decisions, and playing general manager was not Gibbs's strength (see: Desmond Howard). When he wanted to keep a veteran player, even as a backup, he always could convince Cooke to sign a check, even if it meant overpaying. The salary cap does not allow that now; few NFL teams have the sort of depth where if one reliable veteran player gets hurt, another steps right in. Gibbs no longer will be allowed to stash promising young players on the injured reserve list. But Gibbs, Snyder and Cerrato have had a good offseason of roster retooling.
Gibbs -- or someone around him -- also must monitor his health closely. He returned to coaching looking far fitter, even at age 63, than he was when he left. But that might not last because he immediately jumped right back into his old, maniacal, around-the-clock work habits. He has diabetes, and he perhaps received a warning signal when Brunell had to take him to a hospital during Gibbs's trip to Florida to, in effect, recruit the quarterback.
The NFC East is tough and got far tougher this offseason. Still, the man can flat-out coach football, and no one should be surprised if he has the Redskins back in the playoffs right away.
Around the League
The Giants announced that the foot soreness plaguing Jeremy Shockey is related to the injury that the tight end suffered last year.
Shockey played in the early stages of last season with a stress reaction -- a condition that can lead to a stress fracture -- in his right foot. The injury kept him from practicing but he participated in games until his season was ended by a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The foot soreness returned this week and Shockey was examined Wednesday by the team's doctors. The Giants announced that "the current soreness is an aggravation of last year's foot injury," and Coach Tom Coughlin would not allow Shockey to return to the practice field until the soreness is gone. That probably will mean the July 29 opening of training camp, with the Giants scheduled to wrap up their offseason practices next week.
Shockey has had a string of injuries in his two-year NFL career. As a rookie in 2002, he was slowed by a sprained ligament in his right foot and a "turf toe" injury on his left foot.
Gardener Likely to Miss Bengals' Minicamp
The Bengals probably won't have defensive tackle Daryl Gardener on hand for a three-day minicamp scheduled to open today as club officials continue to deliberate with Gardener's agent, Neil Schwartz. Gardener lined up a four-year, $9.3 million deal with Cincinnati when he and Schwartz were given permission by Denver to talk to other teams in anticipation of his release by the Broncos last week. Gardener, who has a history of back problems, underwent a physical for the Bengals this week, and neither side has said whether the delay in completing the deal is related to the results of the physical . . . .
The Cleveland Browns continue to work through the paperwork that must be shuffled between the club, the Players Association and the NFL Management Council to drop Tim Couch's grievance against the team so that the quarterback's release can be made official.
Cleveland Safety Will Miss Rookie Season With Knee Injury
The rookie season of Cleveland safety Sean Jones is over before it even started. Jones, the Browns' second-round draft pick, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a practice Tuesday.
He became the second member of this year's draft class to suffer an ACL tear in offseason practices. Wide receiver Drew Carter, a fifth-round choice by the Carolina Panthers, also will be shelved for the season.
The misfortune is not limited to rookies. Atlanta placed veteran safety Keion Carpenter on the injured reserve list Thursday -- making him ineligible to play for the Falcons this season -- because of a torn ACL . . . .
The Browns reached contract agreements with two free agents, safety David Gibson (formerly of Tampa Bay) and linebacker Dave Moretti (released by Green Bay last month).
Jackson Wins Honors in Europe
Browns defensive end Corey Jackson was named the defensive player of the year in NFL Europe after notching 9-1/2 sacks and 26 tackles in 10 games for the Frankfurt Galaxy, who play the Berlin Thunder in Saturday's World Bowl.
Jackson had two stints on Cleveland's practice squad last season after being signed by the Browns as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Nevada, where he played basketball for two seasons (averaging 9.6 points and a team-leading 11.1 rebounds per game as a senior) and walked on to the football team as a senior.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com