By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
About the time Joe Gibbs brought his knees to his chest while jumping for joy Monday night, his wife wept in the owner's box at Texas Stadium.
Pat Gibbs couldn't help it. She had watched her 64-year-old husband being doused with ice water, seen him grinning, yelping, leaping into his players' arms, freeing himself from the stoicism that has embodied his Hall of Fame career.
Normally, even after such a dramatic game, the Washington Redskins coach would speak in that high-pitched, slow-drip drawl of his, concealing his deepest thoughts with even-keeled words and restrained body language.
But then, Gibbs had never been an icon on the ropes the way he was with four minutes left against the Dallas Cowboys on national television Monday night. The Redskins were trailing 13-0. The entire, unproductive game against the franchise's rival had become a referendum on Gibbs's comeback from retirement in January 2004, right down to his controversial decision to start aging quarterback Mark Brunell.
Yet in one of those Disney-culled scripts, Brunell hit wide receiver Santana Moss on two long passes for touchdowns within 71 seconds of each other, two strikes of lightning that stunned the Cowboys and altered the perception of Gibbs and his team -- at least for the time being.
"I've never seen him so excited since we won the Super Bowl," said Mark Rypien, the starting quarterback on Gibbs's 1992 team that won the National Football League championship, one of three Gibbs led the Redskins to during his first tenure with the franchise. "It was unbelievably animated for him. I've seen him win Daytona 500s. I've seen him win car races and games and I've hardly ever seen him exude that type of joy."
Rypien added, "With everything swirling around him, all the criticism after he made the quarterback change, all the losses last season, it was like, 'Hey, guys, take that!' He'll never say it. But in that joyous celebration, there was also a deep breath, where he had to be thinking, 'Oh, God, if this didn't happen the way it did, would I be in the doghouse even more?' "
Gibbs was still bubbling yesterday afternoon at the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn. "As far as competitive athletic wins and having great thrills, this ranks right there with them for me," he said. "I think it was so much emotion and everything wrapped into it. Where the team was, and all the things that have taken place, for it to be Monday night and the Dallas Cowboys and all the things that happened to us last year. . . . We were just thrilled with it."
Gibbs retired in 1992 after a majestic 12-year run in Washington. He had won 124 games and lost just 60 in the regular season, compiling a .683 winning percentage trumped only by two of the game's luminaries, Vince Lombardi (.740) and John Madden (.731). He won 16 of 21 postseason games, including three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. His achievements earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gibbs started a successful NASCAR business and seemed content away from the game until Redskins owner Daniel Snyder lured him out of retirement with a five-year contract worth $25 million and charged him with making the team a winner again.
Within a year, Gibbs's sentimental journey home had become the road best not taken. Gibbs's wife warned him upon his comeback, "You're going to ruin your good name." Pat Gibbs appeared prescient after Washington finished 6-10 in 2004 and some were questioning whether the game had left her husband behind.
"After the first year, we're halfway there," Gibbs recently quipped about his wife's fears.
The Redskins opened this season with a lackluster 9-7 victory over the Chicago Bears in which Gibbs's offense sputtered, much as it did a year ago. He benched 26-year-old starting quarterback Patrick Ramsey -- whom Gibbs had pledged the starting job last December -- in favor of Brunell, 35, who played abysmally in nine starts last year.
Fans skewered Gibbs on WTEM's sports talk shows in the days leading up to the Dallas game.
"Knowing Joe, I think it eats at him," said Doug Williams, who was the Redskins quarterback in the 1988 Super Bowl. "It does bother him. He's a good guy. He likes to be liked."
And then came Monday night. In one of the more theatrical endings in team history, the two touchdowns thrown by Brunell to Moss -- for 39 yards and 70 yards -- ended a nine-year Washington losing streak to Dallas at Texas Stadium. It was the first time in 26 games Washington had won while trailing in the fourth quarter.
"I was happy for Joe," Dan Reeves, Gibbs's longtime friend, said by telephone from Atlanta yesterday. "That was an unbelievable win. I've never seen him like that before, hugging everybody like that. He wanted that one.
"Yeah, football has changed a great deal since he last coached," Reeves continued. "But football coaches who were successful are still going to be successful. You watch. Joe Gibbs will bring back real excitement."
It seemed to matter little to Gibbs Monday night whether the win would someday be viewed as a belated beginning to the Redskins' revival or merely the best memory from his return to coaching.
"It kind of takes your breath away," Gibbs told reporters after the game, his burgundy shirt still soaked from the celebratory ice-water bath given to him by running backs Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright. "One of the great moments for me in sports, that was it. I'll appreciate it forever."
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.