Vintage Coach Leads a Return to Old Form

In the second season of his return, Joe Gibbs, right, gave owner Daniel Snyder what he wanted: a playoff team.
In the second season of his return, Joe Gibbs, right, gave owner Daniel Snyder what he wanted: a playoff team. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

Soon after returning for his second stint as coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs ordered that the poster-sized Sports Illustrated covers commemorating the team's Super Bowl victories be taken down at Redskins Park, where they adorned the walls leading to the players' locker room.

The three Super Bowl trophies remained in the lobby, placed on display by owner Daniel Snyder. But Gibbs left his own Super Bowl rings in the trophy case at his NASCAR headquarters in North Carolina, where he had built a stock-car racing dynasty during his 11 seasons away from football while the Redskins slogged to a 74-101-1 record without him.

From the moment Gibbs walked back into Redskins Park, his intent was to play down references to the team's glorious past. "The past doesn't buy us much," Gibbs explained when reintroduced as the Redskins' head coach on Jan. 7, 2004, as a beaming team owner, a slew of adoring former players and a manic media throng looked on, confident that the team's deliverance from mediocrity had begun.

Two years after that day, Gibbs will lead the Redskins into their first playoff appearance since 1999 when the team travels to Florida for Saturday's National Football Conference first-round game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Some Redskins fans had grown skeptical the day would ever come, fearing the fast-paced NFL had passed Gibbs by as the team stumbled to a 6-10 record his first season back. But despite the sputtering offense and Gibbs's obvious unease a year ago in managing such basics as the clock and his own headset, those who knew him best -- his former players -- never wavered in their belief that he would revive the Redskins' sagging fortunes. They recognized amid the losses the coach's methodical efforts at team-building -- efforts that went beyond tactics of a power running game and tough-nosed defense and reflected Gibbs's core values of hard work, character and respect, which, over time, had manifested themselves in his previous squads.

The self-deprecating Gibbs is of little use in understanding how he got the Redskins pointed in the right direction. To hear him talk, he played no defining role in this season's success -- at least not on a scale with Snyder, whom he credits with supplying everything he needs; or with Redskins fans, whom he credits with inspiring the turnaround as the team teetered on the brink of playoff elimination at 5-6; or his players, most of whom he describes as so driven that they barely need coaching.

"If you treat people with respect, and you're dedicated to what you do, I think they look at it and say, 'Hey, this guy is doing his part,' " said Gibbs, 65. "I don't think it's as much me reaching them, as it is we've got the right kind of guys. We pick the right kind of guys, and they're kind of self-motivated."

But it starts with Gibbs, according to current and former players.

"You take the mentality of your head coach," said veteran defensive end Phillip Daniels, one of the first free agents Gibbs signed. "He looks after us, and we're definitely going to look after him. If you've got a coach that loves his players and looks after his players like that, you've got no choice but to play hard for him."

Said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an NFL commentator for ESPN: "Every wheel has an axle. Without that axle, the wheel doesn't turn. Joe is the axle of the organization. And this is probably his greatest quality: He fits in everywhere, but you don't know it. He has always been wonderful about deflecting the credit to other people and deflecting it to the players."

It's no different at his NASCAR operation, which in November won its third stock-car racing championship in six seasons despite the fact that Gibbs probably would struggle to change the sparkplugs on his car.

"I think the way he approaches football is the way he came into racing," said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, which is based in Huntersville, N.C. "He told me the number one thing on his list was, 'You don't win football games with X's and O's.' And he came into racing thinking you didn't win races with machinery and parts. You win with people. Quality people, and people who can get the job done."

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