Gibbs's Risk Is Rewarded

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 19, 2005

Joe Gibbs was finally almost alone. The handshake at midfield with a grim-faced Bill Parcells was finished. Gibbs had walked off FedEx Field smiling with the arm of his champion NASCAR driver Tony Stewart draped over his shoulder. The last roars of the largest crowd in the history of Washington Redskins football had finally fallen silent after the most one-sided victory -- 28 points -- in the history of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, dating from 1960.

However, just before Gibbs ducked into his office to share congratulations with his assistant coaches, he stopped for a moment in a hallway to reflect on this night, on this delicious moment for which he had returned and risked so much, and on his doubts of the past two years as he wondered whether such a game would ever come.

"My wife, Pat, usually says things best. When I said I was coming back [to coach the Redskins], she said, 'You can't do that!' Any human being would ask himself, 'Can we do that? Can we get back to the point where we play a good ballgame here in front of all these people and bring back some of those feelings? Can that happen?"Gibbs said.

At this point, you might expect cliches from a coach who is already in the Hall of Fame. But Gibbs is too straight, too square and too direct with himself for that. "I said, 'I don't know.' But I felt, 'This is where I'm supposed to be.' Anybody would have fears. What I hated most, the thing I couldn't live with, was the idea that I didn't have enough guts to try it."

So, Gibbs summoned his monumental fear of failure, the engine that has always driven him through his marathon work schedule, and discovered once again, that for him, his horror at the thought of defeat provided all the guts he could ever need.

Sunday night, front of 90,588 thundering, slavering -- okay, extremely excited -- fans, the Redskins provided the 65-year-old diabetic grandfather with the euphoric moment for which he returned to the NFL. His team not only defeated a Parcells-coached Cowboys outfit that entered the game in playoff contention, but dismantled and demoralized it, 35-7.

The Redskins' 35-0 lead was achieved early in the third quarter. "We were just awful," Parcells said. "We kind of got overwhelmed."

"I can't remember being happier . . . That was one of the great sporting crowds I've ever been a part of . . . To have that kind of electricity in a stadium . . . And we played the game of our life," Gibbs said, "I was thrilled. It feels great to be part of it . . . In two years [back with the Redskins], I can't remember coming close to that. Everything went our way.

"It was a big deal for me and for our family, to realize how people appreciate you. This was just a special night," Gibbs said. "I told the team afterwards there's a good chance this will be 'one you remember.' And it will be one I remember."

Of course, like any sensible NFL coach, Gibbs repeated that this was just "one step" and that next week's game here is against the Giants "who really did a number on us" in October, winning 36-0. However, as he headed back into the catacombs of FedEx, Gibbs said, "Yes, it's one step. But it's a heckuva step."

No team ever truly becomes good until it has out-sized self-confidence. Without a few games in which first-rate opponents are dominated from start to finish, it is difficult for any team to believe it can be special. All of Gibbs's fine teams between '81 and '92 had one thing in common: In their best performances, they were so efficient, "so smooth," Gibbs likes to say, that they seemed almost frightening.

For those too young to remember, as well as millions who simply wanted to relish the experience one more time, this was a genuine Gibbs game. By the middle of the third quarter, the Cowboys looked so glazed and beaten on their bench that they might as well have encountered the Hogs, the Smurfs and the Fun Bunch, all in one.

Parcells, the only coach who ever had Gibbs's number on a consistent basis when he coached the Giants, got so flummoxed that he chewed out an assistant coach. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson screamed at a kicker. And, late in the game, TV cameras caught one Cowboys player who appeared to be fast asleep on the team bench. Or maybe he was just in shock from a Sean Taylor lick.

The late-season playoff-run victory, built around a perfect game plan and a roaring home crowd, was always a Gibbs trademark. The Cowboys merely recapitulated a familiar experience of Redskins' foes of the past.

"Teams are like people. You have to develop confidence. A game like this tells you, 'This is what we are capable of doing.' It doesn't mean we'll do it next week. But it encourages everybody. 'Hey, we can play a game like this against a real good football team,' " Gibbs said.

The Redskins' defense played a huge role in this victory that put the team in realistic playoff contention, though Washington might be underdogs, even at home against the Giants on Christmas Eve.

However, the Redskins' offense, so dominant in first Gibbs era and so inconsistent in his second term, finally produced an intimidating game.

"Sometimes you get a real good flow and everything works," Gibbs said. Somehow, he forgot to use the word "I" in that statement.

But he's the one directing that play-calling flow -- the mixture of deceit and complementary plays that leaves defenders thinking they are seeing something familiar until, suddenly, they realize that have just been fooled by an entirely new wrinkle. Two of Mark Brunell's four touchdown passes were to receivers so open that they might as well have carried a rocking chair with them into the end zone.

"This win was big-time for Coach Gibbs," said tackle Chris Samuels, who gave an inspirational halftime talk in Arizona last Sunday when the Redskins trailed 10-3 and had played as atrociously for a half as they were exceptional in this game for the first 38 minutes. "These coaches, they're still working sometimes at 4 a.m. and they are back at work at 7 a.m. Those guys are fighters and they are winners. [Offensive line] coach [Joe] Bugel had a burr under his saddle for these guys. Even when we had a big lead, he was all over us. You could tell he wanted to blow these guys out."

No Redskins team ever beat a Cowboys club quite as badly as on this night. Twice, there were 27-point Washington wins. But never 28. And especially against a Dallas team that entered with a solid 8-5 record.

For many years, the Redskins have been brutally inconsistent, following their best performances with many of their worst. This Gibbs team, with only a couple of truly "smooth" performances in two years, is a far cry from those that produced similar performances at least once a month.

Still, Gibbs claims he sees the first glimmers of the vision that brought him back. "This team is special," Gibbs said. "We have a great chemistry. Obviously, we have talent. We're getting there. We're building something. You start to see some signs of a Redskins team that is going to be good this year and in years to come."

Of course, only time will tell. However, for one night, Joe Gibbs and the Redskins were truly back, in their glory, playing with precision and controlled violence, dismantling their most despised foe and handing Parcells one of the worst defeats of his career.

This was Joe Gibbs's moment, the one he came back for. There will probably be more. But at least there was one.

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