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Thomas Boswell

Gibbs Must Exceed Limitations

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, January 3, 2005; Page D01

After his first season back in the NFL, Joe Gibbs is clearly the Redskins' biggest asset. He may also be their biggest limitation.

As a leader of men, Gibbs has been exemplary during a brutally disappointing 6-10 season that has tested his temperament and found him still strong. If anything, Gibbs has returned as a more mature, controlled and dignified presence than in his first, sometimes testy and even tormented Hall of Fame tour.

Coach Joe Gibbs's first year back with the Redskins ended with a 6-10 record. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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"Maybe it's just growing up. Even though I've always [coached] because I don't want to grow up," Gibbs said of his more peaceful demeanor after 11 years away from the NFL.

At 64, he has an almost disconcerting distance on his sport, while retaining his passion for preparation.

"The first time around I wanted to make it so bad. So I had more of an edge [with people]," Gibbs said after a season-ending 21-18 victory over the playoff-bound Vikings. "This time, there isn't the same pressure. But the hurt [of losing] is the same."

In just one season, the Redskins have somehow completed an almost uncanny Gibbs-personality transplant. Few losing teams have ever played 16 straight games with such consistently hell-bent aggression, yet responded to every dismal defeat with professionalism and resilience in their next game.

"This was a losing-record team, but not a losing team," linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "Last year's was a losing team."

The Redskins' season finale recapitulated the whole season. A last-minute defeat a week ago in Dallas might have demoralized any team. Perhaps once a decade does a franchise suffer a defeat so ludicrously improbable against a hated rival. Yet with nothing to play for except pride, the injury-depleted Redskins beat a team that thought it might need a win to reach the playoffs.

"We lost games every way you could lose them, but our guys just kept coming back," Gibbs said. "I told them I was proud to be with them."

And well he should be. Because it is now equally clear -- after a season in which the Redskins scored more than 21 points in only two games -- that the Redskins' biggest limitation may also be the same illustrious gentleman named Gibbs.

To boil down the issue, if the Redskins had supported Gregg Williams's superb defense with just 19 points in every game, Washington would have gone 12-4. Gibbs once had a team whose lowest game total of the entire regular season was 23 points. And it didn't even win the Super Bowl. If that Gibbs offense had been matched with this Williams defense, we might have seen a 16-0 season. So nobody knows better than Gibbs how much his offense sank this team.

Next season, if his theories of attack still seem as mundane, bordering on being outdated, as they do now, then the Redskins may never again be Super Bowl contenders with him at the helm, even if he coaches out the full five years of his contract.

"I said when I came back that I was starting over. It's been very hard," Gibbs said. "There were a lot of first-year coaches who did a better job than I did this season."

Judged strictly on offensive tactics, judgment of personnel (especially the Mark Brunell disaster) and atrocious results in close games, Gibbs is correct. His grades are poor. Any other coach who lost seven games by a touchdown or less would be worried about continued employment. Yet Gibbs not only lost seven winnable games, he did it with the highest-paid team in NFL history. And the highest paid staff of assistants. Even Gibbs himself was the highest-paid head coach in NFL history.

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