'Every Decision Is His'

"I think this is the best way for us to be set up right now," Coach Joe Gibbs said of his altered role, "and I feel good about what we're doing on the field. So hopefully it'll work out." (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

While the Washington Redskins were practicing Aug. 9, rookie offensive lineman Kili Lefotu was lying unconscious in his room at the National Conference Center in Leesburg. By the time head coach and team president Joe Gibbs was informed of his absence, the 22-year-old was already being taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Had such an emergency unfolded at any point during Gibbs's first two years back in Washington, when he had a singular grip on everything related to the offense, it likely would have derailed the practice and forced the coaches to scramble without him. But on a humid night under the lights, the drills rolled on seamlessly. Gibbs's handpicked successor atop the offensive hierarchy, Al Saunders, simply ran the session as he had all others since being hired in January, while Gibbs contacted the team's doctors and security staff, briefed owner Daniel Snyder and ensured that Lefotu's family and agent were receiving updates on his status. (Lefotu, who returned to practice the following week after an apparent seizure triggered by sleep apnea, was one of the last cuts the team made on Saturday.)

When Gibbs turned over the offense to Saunders -- a move intended to jolt offensive production and allow Gibbs more time to focus on the duties of team president -- he could never have imagined a night like that. Yet Lefotu's illness, less than two weeks into training camp, served to reaffirm Saunders's role as well as define the club's division of labor.

Gibbs will seek a fourth Super Bowl title as the football equivalent of a CEO: managing the team at the macro level with ample time to interact with employees of every level and deal with other clubs, the NFL office, agents and reporters, while maintaining a hand in the oversight of the offense. It's a role in which Gibbs grew comfortable with his Joe Gibbs Racing team in NASCAR, but it remains rare in the NFL.

"There are so many things that come up around here, whether it's personnel issues or injuries, and certainly that [illness] was something that none of us counted on," Gibbs said. "So when something like that happens, it probably gives you more freedom. Before I could have done the same thing, but then the problem would have been that the offensive coaches normally were waiting, and I think now it's full speed ahead and Al handles everything. So I feel good about that, and I can definitely say that this year I would have held them up a lot."

Gibbs, 65, was willing to divest himself of the offense, though his scheme was the envy of the league during his first stint with the Redskins (1981-92). The playbook, practice routines and play-calling are all Saunders's domain, with Gibbs sitting in on meetings but no longer leading them, and no longer sequestered solely with the offense. Now he roams Redskins Park, and is more accessible to handle the minutiae of personnel matters, believing he will have a better feel for the entire team this season.

It was a shocking decision for a Hall of Fame coach and an admission that perhaps Saunders was better equipped to complete the evolution of an offense that went from horrid in 2004 to solid in 2005. Those associated with the team say the turnover already is paying off in ways both tangible and subtle, in everything from enhanced camaraderie to Gibbs's improved well-being after two straight years of juggling so much responsibility with so little downtime.

"He's a smart guy and an innovator, so I wasn't surprised by it," said Bubba Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine. "I am curious to see how he handles it, like all of us are, and thus far I think he's done fantastic. I think it makes him a better general in a sense in that he got so focused on the offense he didn't know exactly how they're talking or what they're thinking on the defense.

"And I've been able to talk to him more than in the past, because before, once he goes in the tank [offensive meeting room], you can't disrupt him. So he's been more available from my perspective, and that probably is true with everybody else, too. I'm enjoying it."

Tyer keeps a close eye on Gibbs, a diabetic who had a stent inserted in a heart artery to repair a clog after the 2004 season, and believes he has been rejuvenated, full of energy.

"I think he just felt that the way we were working, hey, he was going to kill himself and kill all of us, too," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense and a Gibbs confidant.

"Joe's just more comfortable right now," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "I see him being more relaxed and rested. He's not ground to a nub."

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