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Gibbs Shoulders the Weight Of the Critical Masses

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, November 17, 2007

To Joe Gibbs, it comes down to one foot. One more foot, and he doesn't have to make all those other decisions for which he's being mercilessly second-guessed. One foot, the length of a shoe, a stick or a hero sandwich, and this might be one of the better weeks of his career, instead of one of the worst.

It was just a foot, but it might as well have been a ditch, given the difference it made in the Washington Redskins' prospects and outlook. One foot, and maybe the Redskins have six wins instead of four losses. One foot, and they're a team with momentum, instead of a team that's 5-4 and on the verge of mediocrity. One foot, and the hounding, sharp-toothed critics shut up, and Gibbs doesn't have their bite marks on his back. One foot, and the fans still believe in him and are talking about what's going right, instead of wrong.

There were a lot of one-foot moments in the Redskins' 33-25 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, but a particular play stood out, Gibbs said. Late in the fourth quarter, Todd Yoder caught a four-yard pass from Jason Campbell near the end zone and was wrapped up by three Eagles defenders. Yoder briefly considered whether to stretch out and reach the ball across the goal line, but worried he might fumble. Instead, he curled around the ball and fell to the turf. "I probably could have put the ball out there but I was afraid I'd lose it," he told Gibbs later.

Gibbs said, wistfully, "Had we scored on that, had he got that ball over the line . . ."

He paused. "The game was 10 to 12 inches."

A touchdown might have rendered everything that came next irrelevant, Gibbs says. The false-start penalty, the three failed runs by Clinton Portis, including the infamous failed draw play. Gibbs has been pitilessly criticized ever since, for squandering timeouts, for procedural mistakes and turnovers, and above all, the conservative play-calling.

"When you make decisions, chances are you could have made another one," Gibbs said Thursday at the end of a long week, a week in which he has been judged more harshly than at any time in his career, except his first season when he started with five losses. "Every time you run, you could've passed. Normally, you can make a pretty good case for doing the other. To be truthful, sometimes you're standing there holding your breath. That's the world I live in."

Gibbs is paid handsomely to make such decisions, $5 million a year to be exact. But the money doesn't make it easier to make the right call, and in fact it may make it harder at times. "I have a tremendous feeling of letting people down," he said. "That's one of the hardest things to deal with."

The next time you imagine you could do a better job than Gibbs, a thought that may have passed through your mind late last Sunday, just consider that his livelihood, not to mention whole heart, depends on making the correct split-second guess, coordinating the actions of 11 ramped-up and occasionally mutinous gazillionaires, as well as 14 argumentative assistant coaches, most of whom he is trying to communicate with via radio. All this while 90,000 people scream at him and "Who Let the Dogs Out" blares at air-traffic control levels from loudspeakers. You try it.

Most of us face decisions with little or nothing at stake and still have trouble making them. Speaking for myself, where to bank and what to have for lunch are the major choices in my own working day. There are people who can't decide between mustard and mayo in the amount of time Gibbs has to elect what to do on fourth down. If voters had to punch their ballots in front of 90,000 fans, precincts still would be reporting in from the Gore-Bush race. Given that the words "whole or skim?" can cause a 14-minute delay in the Starbucks line, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to condemn the play-calling of a man with three Super Bowl rings.

Consider how many things have to be done right, and done well; how many good habits cultivated and bad habits erased; how much organization-wide discipline it requires to produce mistake-free football under pressure. And even then, it still can be a near thing. Just look at how the defending champion Indianapolis Colts chummed up their own last few minutes in an upset loss to the Chargers. "It's the point I've talked to the team about most this week," Gibbs said. "It's never one person or one player. It's all of us. How do we all find a way not to look at someone else, but to look at ourselves and say, 'How can I make another play?' "

Gibbs has been in the business longer than some of us have been alive, long enough to have acquired a calming perspective, and to refuse to let the criticism of amateurs bother him -- much. "Being a coach is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and most prized," he said. "The deal is, with me, if you don't win games, you take criticism. About 1989 is the last time I got all upset with criticism. The approach I take is, I can control that by winning games."

This is Gibbs at his most likable, all manly forthrightness and personal responsibility. Gibbs penalizes players for mistakes such as penalties and turnovers by making them run laps. You know what? He runs the laps, too. Right alongside them. Recently he joked to his players, "You're gonna kill a good coach."

When Gibbs tells that story on himself, it's tempting to believe that he's still got a chance to turn the Redskins around. The locker room has stuck with him. He commands loyalty even in the midst of this frustrating week and, in fact, player loyalty and affection for him have been a consistency for four uneven seasons. In the privacy of the locker room, players no doubt see a more charismatic and persuasive Gibbs than the frustratingly opaque character who appears at news conferences, the guarded dispenser of bromides careful to give nothing away. I discovered the existence of this other Gibbs several years ago, during his hiatus from the NFL, when he was an extremely good commentator for NBC. I interviewed him for a book project and found him to be charming and wickedly funny about himself and the game -- especially when we talked about how commonly coaches are second-guessed.

"Most people think they know more than they do," he said then. "Here is a sport I've worked all my life at, and my father would call up and want to tell me what plays to run."

One person who doesn't question Gibbs is his wife, Pat. For years, she has made a point of holding herself apart, so that there will be some semblance of balance in their lives. Except for one time. It was during his first tenure with the Redskins, and they were riding home from a game in the car together. It was their habit to be silent during the ride so he could think about what had happened on the field. But for some reason that night, he switched on the car radio and heard fans ripping his play-calling. After a while, he looked over at Pat.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"Well, I do have a question," she said.

"What?" he asked.

"Why do you run up the middle so much?" she asked.

"That's the last time I ever ask you anything," he said.

Gibbs heard the talk this week: He's too old, and tired, that he's been passed by. He's heard it, and he's not quitting. He's seeing this thing through. "I'm not addressing this anymore," he said. "It started in the second year and I've answered it in every way I could. I love this job, I have a great passion for it, and I go after it as hard as I can. I'm gonna give it everything I got. I'm gonna stay after it."

Stay after that one foot. Gibbs genuinely believes the Redskins are that close to being successful again.

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