By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 22, 2006
When a pro basketball team is in need of a victory, it turns to the franchise player, the megastar. A big league baseball team turns to its ace to stop a losing streak. In pro football, a team turns to its head coach. Which brings me to Joe Gibbs.
Probably no coach the past 30 years has been as successful at rallying a team, at pulling players out of a funk as Gibbs, which is one of the many reasons his bronze bust sits in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's why he pronounced late Sunday night, after the Redskins had dropped to 0-2, "We have to find a way to win a game and it starts with the head coach."
It was as if Gibbs were talking to himself as much as the reporters he was addressing. "Gotta find a way to fix a bunch of things," he said.
We've seen Gibbs fix things so many times, there's every reason to believe he'll do it again, beginning Sunday in Houston in what, absurdly enough, is a must-win game even though it's only Week 3 of the season.
The problem is that the list of things to fix just gets longer. Yesterday, for instance, the Redskins learned they will not have their best cornerback (and one of the best in the NFL), Shawn Springs, for at least this week.
This, unquestionably, is a setback. And it should have been avoided at all costs.
Springs should not have been on the practice field Wednesday. The surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle isn't a minor deal. It's fairly major surgery. And from talking to two players who have had the surgery, eight weeks is a reasonable time for recovery. So why was Springs trying to practice after five?
Because the culture of the NFL pressures players to come back too quickly. Because Springs couldn't go to dinner, pick up a newspaper or meet with his coaches without hearing that, without the team's best cornerback, Gregg Williams was limited in what he could do defensively.
In other words, without Springs available to cover the other team's best receiver man-to-man, Williams can't call on all those creative and effective blitzes the Redskins have used to devastate offenses. As one NFL player told me this week: "Gregg can't go after anybody right now. He has no dominant pass rusher, so he has to rely on blitzes. He does that as well as anybody, but everybody knows he can't do that without Shawn Springs."
Just about every NFL player, especially the best ones, feel a sense of obligation to try to play before it's wise to do so.
Every team in the NFL, and the Redskins are no exception, operate with that kind of unspoken pressure. Rarely if ever do coaches say, "Son, hurry it up." They just look at 'em with dreamy eyes and say: "Boy, it would be so much better for the whole team if we had you in there. Wow, just think of all the things we could do with you on the field."
And next thing you know, LaVar Arrington is practicing on a wet field and re-injuring his knee or Springs is suffering a new injury that is definitely related to the one that hadn't healed.
Springs played in 31 games the last two years. He's no slacker. He grew up here and is dying to help his team win and the coaches should have held him out. The coaches should not have allowed Clinton Portis to play in Week 1, either. This isn't hindsight. People close to both players were begging them to wait and not risk it. Portis, with six full weeks off after suffering that injury in the season opener, might well be 100 percent by now. Getting Springs back for 12 or 13 games in tip-top condition would have been a huge benefit. He calls the signals in the secondary. He calms down Sean Taylor. Now what?
As is, the Redskins are missing probably their best all-around offensive player, Portis. And they're missing probably their most important defensive player, Springs.
It's going to be hard to fix that, even for a man whose bust sits in Canton. But it would be silly to bet against Gibbs because we've seen him over the years successfully get teams to refocus.
Former Redskins offensive lineman Jeff Bostic, in a conversation yesterday about Gibbs, said: "I think it was 1989 when we started out 5-6. We didn't make the playoffs but finished 10-6. It was similar to last season when they were 5-6 and went 10-6 to make the playoffs. Look, Joe is just the type of general you want when things are bad. He steps right in front and says, 'Let me figure out how to get us out of this.' On the other hand, in 1991 when we were 11-0, his comment was, 'I'm just along for the ride.' "
Bostic, like anybody who has been with Gibbs during a slump, has a sense of what Gibbs has been emphasizing in practice this week. "He'll go back to basics," he said. "He'll do things like work on blitz pickups, even with a veteran offensive line."
Former players talk about Gibbs, in a stressful week like this one, being hands-on, grinding through each practice.
The question now is whether that will go far enough toward fixing a laundry list of problems.
There's the third-down deficiency -- opponents are converting 45 percent of their third downs while the Redskins are converting 22 percent of theirs. Staying out of third-and-long is a must.
There's the lack of a pass rush -- the Redskins have two sacks in two games; opponents have six.
Mark Brunell hasn't played very well, as his 67.7 passer rating indicates. But this isn't like when the Redskins had Doug Williams sitting behind Jay Schroeder. Gibbs is going to have to get better play out of Brunell right now, this week in Houston. No coach, not even Bill Walsh, has gotten such great results from as many different quarterbacks as Gibbs has out of Joe Theismann, Schroeder, Williams and Mark Rypien.
It's easy to nod off when Gibbs talks about grinding it out and going back to work and finding solutions rather than changing for the sake of change. But that's precisely what this week is about. Look, it appears the Redskins did a couple of goofy things in the offseason, such as getting rid of Ryan Clark, whom fellow defensive players loved and trusted. But they've got enough good players to beat most of the teams they play -- and certainly the Houston Texans.
Years ago, Gibbs made changes on the fly at halftime, which is why his peers have long considered him the best adjustment-maker in the NFL. But one has to wonder now whether Gibbs can make those kinds of adjustments since Al Saunders is calling the plays. If Gibbs, at halftime, has a sense that certain run plays will be effective to start the third quarter, how does he effect the change if Saunders doesn't agree or sees something else?
The Redskins have gotten themselves into a pickle by losing that season-opening home game to the Minnesota Vikings. And, at 0-2, they face the equivalent of NFL disaster. There's really only one man who can steer them back on course, and fortunately for the Redskins, Joe Gibbs seems to have a keener sense of that responsibility than anybody.