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In 2nd Season, Gibbs Hopes Change Is Good

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

After the worst season of his coaching career, Joe Gibbs and his wife, Pat, flew to Aspen, Colo., in January for a three-day skiing trip. Accompanying them were close friends and extended family, including Gibbs's six grandchildren, ranging from 18 months to 7 years.

Because Gibbs isn't the most adventurous skier, sons J.D. and Coy -- a Redskins offensive assistant -- ditched him for one day to snowboard.

"I'm just a cruiser," Gibbs said with a chuckle. "I'm not fast."

Gibbs enjoyed a longer break with family in July, near Myrtle Beach, S.C. Gibbs eagerly prepared toys such as scooters for his grandchildren. He spent considerable time frolicking in the waters, teaching them surfing for the first time.

But in each vacation, his job as coach and team president was never far from his mind. He intermittently received phone calls about problems regarding his club and returned to Redskins Park temporarily to deal with the latest drama. "You can relax, but there's always things going on," he said. "I had the most fun with my grandbabies."

Back at the office, Gibbs faces the burden of trying to improve his offense, which failed him during last season's 6-10 campaign, and reviving a franchise that has reached the postseason once since he retired after the 1992 season. Then there's the matter of his Hall of Fame legacy, which threatens to be sullied.

A winning record, and certainly a postseason appearance, would indicate Gibbs merely needed one year to adjust to the NFL, which has changed dramatically since he initially retired. Conversely, another floundering season would amplify the opinion that the game has evolved too much for the Hall of Fame coach to succeed.

"I think he feels more pressure the second year to get better," Coy Gibbs said. "We definitely don't want to repeat last year."

Coy Gibbs added that his father has internalized the pressure, masking it from virtually everyone.

"He's good at that," Coy Gibbs said. "But I can tell. I'm around him a lot. I couldn't even explain it. But I can feel it. He definitely wants to produce. It's not like he's getting any younger. The time to do it is now."

Last week, Gibbs, entering his second season after an 11-year hiatus, played down the stakes entering the season.

"You always have a burning desire to do well," said Gibbs, 64, whose heart procedure in April hasn't caused him to reduce his lengthy work hours. "It wouldn't matter if it was the first year, second year, third year."

'First Years Are Always Tough'

Gibbs seemingly grew more serious and uptight each day of the past week -- his steely gaze became constant by Friday -- while he revealed jitters about today's season opener against the Chicago Bears at FedEx Field.

Gibbs's idiosyncrasies leading to game days, including answers to reporters' questions becoming less expansive later in the week while his jokes diminish, are familiar from last season.

Gibbs's assistants and players haven't detected any change in his demeanor. But most of them said Gibbs is much more comfortable in today's NFL and in his surroundings at Redskins Park. Indeed, Gibbs has cemented his relationships with Redskins officials, ranging from coaches to Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato to owner Daniel Snyder -- most of whom he had never worked with until last season. Gibbs has also increased his bond with returning players, and embraced new ones acquired as better fits to his philosophy.

"First years are always tough. You don't know anybody," said Gibbs, who has four former offensive assistants from his first tenure, from 1981 to 1992. "You're uncomfortable in so many ways.

"I think that inside the organization, I'm much more comfortable. When we got together last year, a lot of the coaches and I had not worked together. So you're trying to develop a relationship there. That always keeps you on edge.

"Of course, with the players, you're getting to know them. They're not sure about you. So you go through a lot of first-year nervousness and unsettled feelings."

Nothing was more unsettling for Gibbs than his offense, ranked 30th in the 32-team league. After Gibbs's offenses averaged 24.2 points during his first tenure, Washington averaged 15 points last season (second-worst in the NFL after Chicago).

Now, Gibbs has incorporated several changes to his schemes, which didn't have to deal with the proliferation of blitzes common in current defenses. "It was 180 degrees different from when I was here before," Gibbs said.

Some of his alterations occurred in Washington's final five games, when the offense averaged nearly 21 points, more than six points higher than the first five games.

Washington's defense, ranked third last year, still looks miserly. In four preseason games, the first unit allowed one touchdown. Thus, the onus appears to be on Gibbs's offense for the Redskins to improve.

Quarterback play remains the team's biggest question mark. Patrick Ramsey was inconsistent during the preseason while guiding the first team to only two touchdowns in almost seven quarters. Mark Brunell, who lost the starting job to Ramsey last year after the worst season of his NFL career, performed well during the preseason.

At Wednesday's practice, Gibbs crossed his arms, watching intently on the sideline. He wore a white Redskins baseball cap, matching shirt and a grim countenance. A television cameraman inadvertently filmed a segment of practice, slightly past the allotted media time. Gibbs walked toward the person and yelled, "Get that camera out of here!"

Gibbs is notoriously secretive about his offense, whose most obvious change is the addition of the shotgun. In one of Gibbs's first meetings last year, he told his offensive players that he would never use the formation, rattling off the drawbacks.

Gibbs also has altered his blocking schemes to better accommodate tailback Clinton Portis, who prefers sweeps and stretch plays over the counter trey runs that require patience.

Managing the play clock, which had been reduced from 45 to 40 seconds since Gibbs retired, proved at times problematic because of the coach's quirky formations that used motion to confound defenses. Washington led the league in delay-of-game penalties. Thus, Gibbs reduced movement before the snap and simplified formations.

"I haven't seen any difference in [Gibbs's] demeanor or approach. The biggest difference is his willingness to change the offense," said a key offensive player who requested anonymity because he felt uncomfortable publicly assessing Gibbs. "He has kind of opened a few doors. Some remain closed. But I've been real impressed with his openness to new ideas and putting it in the system.

"He won three Super Bowls with stuff we were doing last year. But the defenses are night and day. He realized he had to change a few things. That's not a knock on him."

During his first tenure, Gibbs rarely fired or reassigned an assistant. But five days after the 2004 season ended, Gibbs hired Bill Musgrave to replace Jack Burns as quarterbacks coach. Burns became an offensive consultant whose duties include being the primary play-caller -- the first time in Gibbs's coaching career he has allowed someone else to have that role.

"That's a good example where in the old days, that wouldn't have been the case," said tight ends coach Rennie Simmons. "But now he's willing to do that."

The hiring of Musgrave -- whose background is in the West Coast offense -- showed Gibbs welcomed ideas antithetical to his ball-control philosophy.

Gibbs's longtime assistants view the moves as not uncharacteristic for a man who has eventually found success in virtually every endeavor by making any necessary changes. "If he had to hire 30 new coaches, he would do that," said Joe Bugel, the de facto offensive line coach. "He likes new ideas."

Assistants noted that as a rookie head coach in 1981, Gibbs initially used a multi-receiver offense. The team lost its first five games as Gibbs struggled to protect the quarterback in a two-back system. So Gibbs switched to a single runner (John Riggins) and added an H-back -- a hybrid fullback and tight end. The Redskins won eight of their next 11 and finished the season 8-8. The following season, Gibbs guided the franchise to its first Super Bowl title.

'You Start Including Change'

After retiring, Gibbs oversaw a NASCAR operation, Joe Gibbs Racing.

Gibbs founded the stock-car organization in 1991. Within a year, Gibbs second-guessed his decision to pursue racing after the team finished 19th in the point standings. But Dale Jarrett won the prized Daytona 500 in 1993. The stock-car operation also won Winston Cup titles in 2000 and 2002.

"We had a real tough time," recalled Gibbs, whose son J.D. is team president of the 330-member operation while the father still plays a key role in sponsorship. "We won one race those first three years, but it was a big one: the Daytona 500."

Gibbs -- whose NASCAR operation slumped last year before Tony Stewart began to excel -- would be pleased to win the big one within his first three years back in the NFL.

Kansas City Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil is the best example of a head coach initially struggling after a hiatus -- 14 years -- before leading his team to championship glory. Vermeil first retired after coaching the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to 1982. After spending much of his time as a TV analyst for college football, Vermeil returned to coach the St. Louis Rams in 1997.

Vermeil won a total of only nine games in his first two seasons, spurring questions about his coaching abilities in a different era. In Vermeil's third season, he guided the Rams to a 13-3 record, capped by a Super Bowl XXXIV victory over the Tennessee Titans.

Like Gibbs, Vermeil also had to deal with free agency and other significant changes.

Vermeil said he can identify with some circumstances Gibbs appeared to undergo after his first season.

"The things you used to do either have been reconfirmed or eliminated," Vermeil said. "And you start including change in your process. You start opening your mind to new ideas. I can't speak for Joe, but that's what happened.

"Sometimes, you're in the frame of mind, initially, you don't want to hear things. You don't need it because it's contrary to how you were doing things when you left. In a lot of ways, not just X's and O's but in the total organization of things. Going into the second year, I just felt much more confident and better prepared to utilize my help."

Gibbs has delegated more duties to his assistants this season. During the offseason, each coach was given a project during a thorough analysis of the offense. For example, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon studied the four-wide receiver set, which the Redskins didn't employ until Week 12 for their best offensive showing, a 31-7 victory over the Giants.

"We did some study just like we always have," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux. "But we did a lot of soul searching and studying and looking at what was going on in the league. This is nothing that we don't usually do, but it was particularly intense in that we spent extra time doing it."

The Redskins compared their schemes to top teams such as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Eventually, the staff met to give their reports, using film and statistical breakdowns. Heated debates occurred about the moves needed to improve the offense before Gibbs made the final calls. Washington retained the productive plays in Gibbs's system and incorporated some schemes other teams used with success.

Other changes were organizational, said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense: "We made some changes in how we practice," he said. "We made some changes in some of our approaches in meetings, and [Gibbs] has been very, very strong and detailed the whole year.

"It's not that he wasn't the first year, but he's the most prideful person I've ever had a chance to coach with."

One of Gibbs's biggest surprises in his return to the NFL occurred when wideout Laveranues Coles expressed a desire to depart the team largely because of Washington's conservative offense. This season, Gibbs, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1996, has worked harder to get his players to buy into his system.

Several veterans described Gibbs's first training camp as the most physically taxing they had been a part of. Gibbs regularly had two sessions each day and held a high rate of practices in pads. After some players asked Gibbs to ease up this year, he responded by markedly reducing the number of two-a-days to keep his players fresher for the regular season.

"He tried to help us out," said Portis. "Some players went to him, and he responded."

Added defensive end Phillip Daniels: "We appreciate coach lessening a little bit of the practices. Back in their day, they were physical all the time."

During preseason games last year, Gibbs was ultra-secretive, showing only the most basic plays. Some players said it was frustrating because they were unable use the true offense in a game situation. But this preseason, Gibbs revealed considerably more about his revamped offense, frequently employing three-receiver sets and runs on the perimeter.

"Everyone that has been successful has done something a specific way, and then leaves and comes backs and starts out doing things that way," said Vermeil, the NFL's oldest coach at 68.

"Those things that make you feel very secure at that time aren't as beneficial today. So you adjust, and you change it. For a while it makes you feel a little bit uneasy, and then all of a sudden you're doing things better. If anybody can do it, it's Joe."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company