It's Been a Challenge This Time Around

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 12, 2007

Memory can be a curse.

If you never saw the real Joe Gibbs-coached Redskins up close, if you never wrote about them or watched their furious faces in the locker room in defeat, if you never went to Super Bowls to cover them or training camps to get to know them, it wouldn't be so painful to say what is so obvious now.

Forget the mystique, the Hall of Fame bust and even, to some small degree, the city's debt of gratitude. Right now, it looks like Joe Gibbs is right when he keeps insisting he's part of the problem. The Redskins can't hold second-half leads, can't beat division foes at home, can't avoid waves of mental mistakes, don't play with late-game poise, can't manage timeouts and can't come up with the right calls on the goal line with the game on the line. Not even when they get six chances in a row.

If you had not spent a dozen seasons admiring the intelligence of his teams, their killer-instinct and poise under pressure, and if you didn't know that Gibbs himself, not some star quarterback, was the central reason for Washington's three Super Bowl titles, then it wouldn't seem so ungrateful, almost indecent, to criticize Gibbs now.

But, after Sunday's 33-25 loss to Philadelphia at FedEx Field, after more than three-and-a-half seasons of 26-31 football, it's time to treat Gibbs just like anyone else in sports who must reprove himself constantly. Coming just two weeks after a 52-7 loss to New England, this defeat to a mundane Philadelphia Eagles team was a brutal demonstration of how far the Redskins still have to go to be a genuine contender, even after all of Gibbs's no-expense-spared rebuilding with a roster of mostly hand-picked players.

"Today we played hard but we made a lot of mistakes. There were penalties and we turned the ball over at crucial times. In a game like that, you have to find a way to win. We all lost it together. That always includes me," said Gibbs, who burned his last timeout with 8 minutes 9 seconds left, leaving the Redskins without the option to throw a challenge flag. "It was a tough day for us. It was a tough one to take.

"This is a big loss for us. We didn't hold the lead today just like what happened with the Giants. . . . [A] 6-3 [record] would have looked a whole lot better than 5-4. We talked all week about that. This week was a chance for us to have the best start we have had in 15 years. If we had wound up 6-3, that would have been a huge deal for us. And we made great preparation for it."

If the preparations had really been all that great, the result would have been different. That's how it works.

So, lets throw Joe under the bus, just like we would any other NFL coach. Come on, we can do it. Grab an arm or a leg. Then we'll all feel better. Right now, Washington is just a city of burgundy-and-gold enablers, holding our fire, covering our eyes and pretending we don't see what's in front of us. Isn't it time for tough love, time to intervene?

(We pause now for a show of hands.)

Oh, I see. You're not joining me? This whole Joe-throwing contest is my idea, my problem? You're going to suffer in silence as the Redskins jump offside at the 2-yard line two more times? You're going to explain away a timeout with 2:08 left in the first half that made no sense? Hello? Remember the two-minute warning? You're going to excuse the way Gibbs wasted a timeout at the Eagles 5-yard line in the third quarter because his field goal team couldn't get organized? This is the replay age. Hoarding timeouts is vital. You take a five-yard, delay-of-game penalty. You don't call a timeout. Then you kick your chip-shot field goal from 28, not 23, yards. You're all going to hold your fire until, finally, after one more sideline brain cramp, you explode, "This would never have happened if Joe Gibbs was still the coach"?

At this point, my father, who seldom cursed except when his beloved Gibbs-coached Redskins got a bad break, is no doubt spinning in his grave. And my mother, who went out on their front porch in Northeast and beat pots and pans to celebrate after the Redskins won their first Super Bowl, is no doubt doing the same, scolding me about my bad manners and respecting my betters.

Points taken. And let it be noted that the Redskins themselves see the blame lying elsewhere -- with themselves.

"We've given away three games," said Antwaan Randle El, who was part of a Super Bowl champion in Pittsburgh. "We've had chances to close games out and we haven't done it. We don't have a killer instinct. You just hate it to happen. It's not conditioning. It's not play-calling. The effort is never in question. We've just got to find out how to finish."

Running back Rock Cartwright was, like many Redskins after many games in the last four seasons, almost mystified that the team had lost a close, winnable game at home. "It doesn't make sense. This is not supposed to happen. C.P. [Clinton Portis, 137 yards on 30 carries] ran the ball great. Then we get to the 2-yard line we can't score."

Many Redskins, especially veterans, often seem ashamed that they can't live up to the Gibbs legacy. But perhaps they don't understand how much harder their predecessors took defeat, how much less they tolerated mistakes among themselves -- just exactly like the hyper-competitive, internally critical powerhouse teams that currently reside in New England and Indianapolis.

"I think the devil is doing it," said offensive tackle Chris Samuels, bewildered, joking, shaking his head. "I believe in standing up like a man and taking the blame myself. The coaches work their behinds off. They live over there [at Redskins Park]. Coach Gibbs, I felt so bad for him. He deserves better than this. He's a nice man, but he still has the fire. He'll come in yelling and rattle things up.

"Write what you have to write, but he can still coach. We're letting him down."

Okay, forget the part about Joe and the bus. But the truth still hurts.

Of all the great NFL teams of recent decades, few were so much about the prowess of the coach -- no matter how much he deflected credit -- as the Redskins and Gibbs. His offensive intelligence was ahead of its time. His in-game alertness, constantly out-coaching opponents at halftime, was often breathtaking. His motivational skill, willing his teams to capitalize on any opportunity, was palpable. And his competitive intensity, fierce but decent, set him apart, making his players stand taller in his presence, fear mistakes that would embarrass him and drive each other to be worthy of him. The word "genial" was never used.

Now, the edge in offensive theory, the in-game adjustments and the ability through charismatic leadership to will his team to the kill are gone. Of course, few coaches in any generation had such gifts to begin with. However, Gibbs's work ethic, his ability to inspire men to play hard for him, is not gone. If execution often wavers, and sometimes, as against the Eagles, is downright embarrassing, the Redskins' will to fight along side the old-goat coaches remains intact.

"Right now, we're not playing smart. Coach Gibbs wants us to be a smart team. He prepares us to play that way. But we have to take what he says and use it. We're not following his lead. We keep making the same mistakes over and over. That's what's killing us. It's not the coaching," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "But there's no need to panic. Beat Dallas, be 6-4, be fine."

The first time Gibbs was in town, such Redskins deeds really were as simply done as said. Not any more. At least not yet.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company