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."
So when the Redskins finished 2004 at the bottom of the NFC East standings, Gibbs threw himself into righting things -- particularly the offense, upon which his NFL Hall of Fame credentials had once been earned.
"We had a playoff defense last year, and offensively we were sort of the 10-pound weight around the neck," said veteran offensive lineman Ray Brown. "We held this thing back."
Gibbs assigned each member of his offensive coaching staff specific areas of successful offenses around the league -- the running game of Denver, for example, or the passing game of Indianapolis -- and had them analyze game film, interview coaches and report back to the staff.
He ordered players, regardless of where they made their permanent homes, to report to Redskins Park in Ashburn for offseason workouts, and 97 percent complied. "Because he's done it before -- he's won Super Bowls -- he's a guy that we respect," said Daniels, who had trained in Atlanta for years. "When he said he wanted everybody here, I said, 'Okay. I'm going to be here, then.' "
Gibbs zeroed in on the team's failure to convert third downs. He hired a young quarterbacks coach with fresh ideas. And he culled the roster of players with poor attitudes. In exchange for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, Gibbs found the receiver he had been looking for in Santana Moss of the New York Jets. The trade proved prescient, with Moss breaking Bobby Mitchell's 42-year-old franchise record for receiving yards this season and, in the process, loosening up defenses enough to help running back Clinton Portis to a record year, as well.
Gibbs engineered the deals that brought both playmakers to the team. And the unselfish play of Moss and Portis -- neither shies from the chance to block for a teammate -- embodies what Gibbs insists he's seeking when he combs the draft and free agent market for what he characterizes in the most hallowed tone as "Redskin players."
"You can't weigh a heart," Gibbs said when asked about the challenge of identifying character in a prospect. "You can't see how high it jumps. It's morally, what is this person all about? This is a team sport, and some people can't get away from the individual aspects of life and sacrifice for the team. But those are the key issues in how good a guy is going to be."
That's exactly what made Don Warren such a valuable tight end in his 12 seasons with Gibbs: His huge heart, rather than raw speed or natural ability. And that's why Warren didn't worry too much when Gibbs didn't win immediately.
"I don't care who you are, you're not going to turn an organization around in one year," said Warren, now a scout with the team. "People kept asking me, 'What's the deal?' And I said, 'He's taking this year, and he's catching up on the game. He's looking to get his Redskin players in there that he knows are going to play for four quarters, not two. He's getting his personalities; he's getting his hearts. And then he's going to start winning games.' "
The 2005 roster in place, Gibbs started fine-tuning his playbook to suit his players' strengths -- incorporating the shotgun formation in which the quarterback takes the snap a few yards behind the center, despite longstanding misgivings, because quarterback Mark Brunell felt it helped him see the field better.
He rewarded uncommon effort with reserved parking spaces close to the front door of Redskins Park (surrendering his own space for the cause); upgrades to hotel suites the night before games; and game balls for unsung contributors such as the team's long snapper and athletic training staff.
After losses, Gibbs worked harder. Even when the team's record stood at 5-6, nothing rattled him, according to Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach for offense. "He kept the team very steady," Bugel said. "After the game was over, it was over. He didn't point any fingers. He didn't blame a player. He didn't blame a coach. He didn't blame anybody. His response was, 'Let's just work a little harder.' "
Players and coaches followed his lead.
"We would do anything for him because we know that he is never -- it sounds trite -- but he is never going to ask us to so anything that he doesn't do first," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux, who, like Bugel, was on Gibbs's first Redskins staff when he coached the team from 1981 to 1992. "We're not in here working our butt off, and he's over there playing golf or something. He's in here."
Gibbs added drills to address the team's lopsided turnover differential. Players who under-performed were summoned for one-on-one talks in his office -- never embarrassed in the media or in front of teammates. And he huddled every few weeks with his veteran players to take the team's pulse, responding to their concerns when possible.
On the eve of last Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the one that clinched a playoff spot and sent the Redskins into the postseason with a 10-6 record, Breaux couldn't contain his excitement and happiness for Gibbs.
"We hadn't done anything yet," Breaux said. "But I went to Bubba [Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine] and I said, 'Bubba, this is why Joe came back! What's taking place right now. The feeling that we have right now! To start winning games in the NFC East!' "
In the process, Gibbs has changed the culture at Redskins Park. From groundskeepers to front-office staff, they've been talking this week about wishing that football could go on forever. It's a sharp contrast to the waning months of so many losing seasons, when players hung their heads and glowered as if they couldn't start packing their belongings soon enough.
"There's no history of success for a lot of these guys," said Brown, 43. "But it's a different environment now because guys are believing; guys are trusting that it's going to work out."
Gibbs, who is two years into a five-year, $25 million contract, is slightly more cautious, calling the 2005 Redskins "a work in progress."
"The past is fantastic for me because it gives me great memories of all the fun things I've been a part of, so you can never take that away," he said. "But I think the players want to do something today."