By Mike Wise
Monday, August 6, 2007
Since his detractors are already carting him off into the sunset, let's start with the most obvious question:
"It's understandable," Joe Gibbs said, earnestly. "He's a great coach. He's had a great history."
"But you're Joe Gibbs, the only active coach in the Hall of Fame. And they're talking about Bill Cowher replacing you next season if things don't go well. That doesn't bother you?"
"I gotta tell you the truth: If I was an owner, I'd sure be considerin' him," he said, adding that high-pitched cackle of his. "If it was me, I'd sure be thinking that way. He's a pretty impressive guy. He's done some good stuff."
The coach of the Washington Redskins cleaned his wire-rimmed spectacles with his shirt tail and sat back in a chair in front of his desk, where he receives visitors to his office in Ashburn. Burgundy-and-gold mementos compete for time and space on the wall. A stair-step fitness machine, which he uses daily, sits in one corner. He also says he gets on an elliptical machine regularly and a treadmill occasionally.
Gibbs is a diabetic and almost 2 1/2 years ago underwent a precautionary procedure in which a stent was placed in a clogged coronary artery. He's not the young coach of 40 who parlayed an 0-5 start in 1981 into three Super Bowl titles and immortality over the next 12 years. Oh, his thick forearms still look as if they could do damage to a split end crossing the middle on a look-in pattern, but Joe Gibbs has jowls now, like Joe Bugel, Don Breaux and the rest of the Space Cowboys he brought back to coach with him in 2004. He's not getting any younger and, at the moment, his team has much to prove after last season.
"I guess, if I had to be truthful about it, I'm 66," Gibbs said. "So that probably has something to do with [questions about retirement]. If you're up in years, most coaches probably get that."
Especially ones who go 5-11 and are knee-jerkingly described as out-of-touch with the NFL of the new millennium. The speculation whether he will coach the fifth and final year of his contract next season hovers over him like the muggy, hot air in training camp.
"I've tried to answer that as honestly as I can," Gibbs said. "Matter of fact, I asked the press guys, 'What should my answer be?' " Indeed, Gibbs threw his hands up in the air after the cameras went home one night last season, wandered back into the media room at the team's training facility and sought help from the people used to asking the questions.
"Basically, they said to me: 'You need to say, 'I have every intention of fulfilling my contract.' I said, 'Okay, that's good. I'll go along with whatever you guys said. That's the answer.' It doesn't stop the questions, but that's the answer."
Translation: Unless the Redskins absolutely fall off the map and coaching a fifth season becomes untenable, Joe Gibbs is not going anywhere. Only one other factor would take him away from the job of resuscitating the franchise: his 2-year-old grandson, Taylor, who's battling leukemia.
"That's the one thing that would kind of take over my life if something happened there, where he had a setback or something," he said. "When that happened, it scared me."
Gibbs talks to the youngster almost daily, calling him last Thursday night in the hospital after Taylor had been admitted for his next round of chemotherapy. Taylor has three treatments remaining and then it's on to a maintenance program. The day Gibbs returned to prepare for training camp, Taylor underwent yet another bone scan because his blood-cell counts had not risen as well as doctors had liked. But Gramps says Taylor is back on track, fighting the disease as best a child can.
"If a 2-year-old can be a role model for ya, he's it," Gibbs said. "That little guy goes down there. They put him out. Gets all that medication. Stays overnight. I call him last night, he's laughin, jokin' with me on the phone, talkin' about his cars. I said to him, 'Grandma brought you [the movie] 'Cars,' huh?' He said, 'Raviolis, raviolis.' He liked [Gibbs's wife's ravioli] better than 'Cars.' "
Gibbs paused for a moment. "He's been a hero to me," he said, his voice cracking. "That's the first major concern with our family. That's the one thing that would take precedence for me, no matter what."
Bill Walsh's death from leukemia last week at 75 clearly put him in touch with his own mortality. He and Walsh combined for five Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and played leapfrog in the NFC for most of the decade.
Gibbs said his good friend, Norm Miller, always tells him, "You know we're playing the fourth quarter with house money?" and Gibbs said he usually nods and says, "Hey, you're right."
"I can honestly say no one has had more fun than I've had in life," he said. "You couldn't have jammed any more into my life, so I've been blessed beyond belief. Who would have dreamed you'd get a chance to be in football, in racing, back in football, have eight grandbabies and two great kids and two great daughters-in-law?"
He doesn't mince words about his worst season as a coach, going 3-6 in the last nine games. "Last year was the hardest year I've gone through," Gibbs said. "It was such a disappointment for everybody. And for Dan [Snyder], who since I been here has said nothing but, 'What do you need?' He's been such a great partner. So I felt bad for him."
Gibbs also rejects the notion that players have irrevocably changed for the worse, that he can't connect with today's athlete. He said his talkers and rabble-rousers of yesteryear -- John Riggins, Dexter Manley, Gary Clark -- aren't much different than Clinton Portis flapping his gums or Sean Taylor marching to his own drum today, with maybe one exception.
When he was asked what would have happened if one of his former players would not have returned his calls, as was the case with Taylor after Gibbs reached out to him more than a year ago in the offseason, he said, "That, you probably wouldn't like.
"But the group in there, you need those guys that add something to the team," he said. "I go back to our teams before. People always say, 'Hey, Joe is a milquetoast,' and all that stuff. I like players with personality. I like players who've got a funny bone. What I'm saying is the modern-day player -- personality-wise, human nature-wise -- is just like 20 years ago. The same things bother them and get them motivated."
He still resists using foul language, ever since an uncle who ran a trucking line, Gus Blaylock, told him, "If you don't have good enough control of the English language to chew someone out, you probably don't have good enough control of the English language." But he won't say whether he used a curse word last season. He says that's between him and his team. (If Gibbs did, he said he can't remember.)
He also gives last year's underachievers high praise in one area: "Had you had the wrong set of guys, you could have had a mess," Gibbs said. "Guys would have been turning on each other. They didn't do that. I think that's a tribute to their character. . . . If we win, it's going to because of the guys in that room. And I believe we've got the right guys."
Gibbs said he thought the early-retirement questions would have subsided by now. But he's still begrudgingly putting up with them. When Gibbs is told he has won as many Super Bowls as Bill Walsh -- and that Walsh would not have had to put with the same scrutiny -- he said, "Probably if you were in San Francisco, they probably would."
The names of Jeff Fisher and Pete Carroll are also out there with Cowher, of course. "I hadn't heard all that," he said. Since he's also team president, Gibbs is jokingly asked who would he pick to succeed him. At this point, he has every right to say, "Get out." But that's not Joe Jackson Gibbs. He still takes everything head-on.
"I won't be pickin' it, Dan will," Gibbs said. He let out a belly laugh and added, "But let's not hurry him into that right now, okay?"