By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 8, 2006
The large wall behind Joe Gibbs's desk at Redskins Park is covered with pictures of his seven grandchildren. The thought of them lights up his face. "If I died tomorrow, they should put on my tombstone, 'He had a ball,' " Gibbs said yesterday. "I've crowded everything into life that I can get." Then his face darkens. "I just don't want this for everybody else."
"This" is the losing, the embarrassment of a 4-8 record for a franchise that has broken all records for providing a coach with everything money can buy so that he can return his team to glory. Despite all the expensive free agents signed and assistant coaches hired to surround him on his return, and after a lifetime of success in the NFL and NASCAR, Gibbs is failing this season.
"It kind of tears me apart," Gibbs said in an interview. "In life I've had other times like this. You ask yourself: 'How did I get here? How do I get back? And how do I learn from this?' You have to face where you are. Don't be blind to the truth. Otherwise, you can't fix it."
The Redskins' coach is a walking contradiction, a contented man at peace in many ways, yet also deeply frustrated and ready to do anything, even discuss hiring a general manager, if it will get his Redskins out of the ditch.
"Sometimes I think, 'I want out of the mess.' That's how people are. We want to run from the mess," said Gibbs, whose team might be voted the biggest mess in the NFL this season. "But I'll fight, change, whatever it takes. This is my problem. It's my responsibility and I feel bad. [Owner] Dan [Snyder] has done everything he can. And I haven't [done the job] this year. But I'm not turnin' loose of it until we get it right. Sooner or later, I'm gonna get it."
What if, after problems in player personnel since his return, the Redskins decide that a traditional general manager -- such as Bobby Beathard or Charley Casserly in the old days -- is needed? "I have no problems with any of that. I changed a lot last year," said Gibbs, who in essence fired himself after last season as the Redskins' play-caller and hired Al Saunders as associate head coach, handing over a task for which Gibbs was famous. "I'm not afraid of new ideas."
Or, in this case, the very old idea that personnel should be run by a career-long expert in that area, rather than the current odd triumvirate of Gibbs, Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato and, to some degree, Snyder. Gibbs rules that room on aura alone. When he and Beathard or Casserly went to the late Jack Kent Cooke for a tiebreaking vote, Gibbs had no upper hand.
Perhaps no one in Washington is as mystified as Gibbs by the Redskins' collapse. Why? Because he has always believed that if he gets his type of players -- "true Redskins" -- who are smart, physically tough and willing to sacrifice for the team, then the rest will follow.
Believe it or not, Gibbs is absolutely convinced that he has that core of players already. Has he lost his ability to judge modern players, or is this year the aberration and last season's playoff run the proper measure?
"I think we've got the right people right now. This is what I do -- pick people. This is all I'm doing," Gibbs said, holding his hands wide, perhaps mocking his NFL CEO image. "It's what it's always been about -- in football and the race team."
Is it possible that he is getting the "character" issue wrong this time?
"I don't think I'm missing it. There will be exceptions. People will cross the line and I'll tell them, 'We can't do that,' " said Gibbs, who had two attitude-adjustment meetings this week with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.
"There are always some guys who are different, like Gary Clark always screaming on the sideline. You find out who the person is at the base of it. Is he your kind of person, even though he'll make mistakes? How far will I go with him? I've seen Dexter [Manley] crying his eyes out when we visited little kids. There was such a good part of him."
Gibbs will go the extra mile to find the best in his players, which, in turn, has often brought out the best in them. But stars such as Manley, Clark and John Riggins, despite their high-maintenance requirements, had Super Bowl talent. Some current Redskins don't. Last month, an anonymous defensive player ripped several defensive coaches, including Gregg Williams, at length in a story in ESPN Magazine. Now, Lloyd shows signs of being an immature T.O. wannabe. When teams are 4-8, such cracks in the locker room fabric can do the most damage.
"When I came back, I had dreams about the way it could go," Gibbs said. "But we're not guaranteed anything. The NFL is high risk and high reward. You put your heart and soul into it, but that doesn't mean it'll work out right. It's almost like starting over."
And the pain never lessens. "On Monday, one of our coaches told me, 'I had to talk myself out of bed.' "
If others doubt, Gibbs never seems to fall prey to lost faith in his football values. After the Redskins lost in Tampa, Gibbs spoke to the team and ordered a return to the core concepts of his first term in office -- running with intimidating power on offense and stopping the run on defense. Play smart, hit hard, sacrifice for the team. Those who fit that mold would play. Also, sources say, the Redskins now have full-contact, full-speed sessions -- perhaps only 10 or 11 plays -- during some practices. In December in the NFL, that's rare. But it's the kind of commitment to physical play that Gibbs's old teams made.
"They don't shy away" from the contact, one coach said.
"We are 2 1/2 weeks into this. In six of our last eight quarters, we have played the way we want to play," Gibbs said. "This is where we are. This is what we want to be. This is not something we can't do."
Still, Gibbs's second era as Redskins coach has shown him to be far more reflective than he was in the '80s. "The first go-round, I thought, 'At least I had my chance to coach in the NFL,' " Gibbs said. Yet, before long, that perspective changed. In his second season, he won the Super Bowl, then returned to the Super Bowl the next year. When the Redskins lost a first-round playoff game in his fourth season, Gibbs had a new and unsettling feeling. "I thought, 'I'm letting everybody down,' " he said.
Now, that's how he feels again. "The first year I was back, we had many of the same problems we do now. The second year [when the Redskins won a playoff game], everybody said: 'You guys figured all those things out. You're great,' " Gibbs said. "Now, we're back" to the first year.
Gibbs has one of the great stone faces in sports. On the sideline, his expression seldom changes. With a hat often pulled low over his eyes, few can guess what the Redskins' coach is thinking. TV cameras ignore him. After a win, and far more often after a loss, he commands his emotions, measures his words and keeps the world at stiff-arm length.
But the man behind the mask feels everything. A nearly perfect life, appropriate to a man who just turned 66, awaits him anytime he wants to throw off his sense of duty to the Redskins. Yet he gives that no thought. "I'm committed," he says. "We will get back."
Perhaps for relief, he looks at a picture of the grandson who is named Joe Jackson Gibbs, after him. Two years ago, when the boy was 6, he and his father, J.D., were in a restaurant watching on TV as the Redskins played at Dallas. "That was the game we lost at the end when we gave up a bomb," Joe Gibbs said. "J.D. turned around and the boy is just bawling in tears. Then he says, 'Dad, I just hate those Cowboys.' "
Gibbs breaks into his biggest grin, one he hasn't used much this season. "That," he says proudly, "is my namesake."