Fine Line Between Tragedy, Strategy

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Long before the sun came up on the morning Sean Taylor died, Joe Gibbs walked down the hallway of Redskins Park to the office of his assistant head coach-defense, Gregg Williams. At that moment they were the only two people in the building who knew that Taylor was dead and somehow there was a need for both of them to be together in that room, sharing stories, hoping to keep the other from breaking down.

"You know, it's funny," Williams said. "He came to my office to make sure I was okay and about halfway through I had to make sure he was okay."

In private times this week, Gibbs cried hard for Taylor. Those who revealed this fact weren't sure he would want that known. It defies the stoic facade the coach likes to show. Tears don't run well on a face that has been bronzed in the Football Hall of Fame.

"I know he really loved that boy," said Brett Fuller, the Washington Redskins' co-chaplain.

But there was also this about Gibbs: Late Wednesday night, sometime not long before midnight, Fuller stopped by the coach's office just to see how things were going. And there was Gibbs, sitting at his desk "trying to figure out a way to beat the Buffalo Bills," Fuller said.

Gibbs's legacy in his second run as the Redskins' coach has been tarnished in recent months, fed by a perception that at age 67 he has lost touch with the modern NFL. Detractors have pointed to his presumed insistence on a run-first offense and the fact the team has appeared undisciplined at times.

And yet those who know him say Gibbs is at his best at moments such as these, when devastating news seems to knock everyone else flat. He refuses to show the same weakness.

"Don't ever underestimate Joe," said Bobby Beathard, the Redskins general manager through much of Gibbs's first tenure with the team. "My experience with Joe is that he doesn't get rattled when something comes up. He might internalize things but he has a way to handle it. If anybody can handle it, he can."

Beathard and others brought up Gibbs's grandson Zachary, who had leukemia diagnosed at age 2 earlier this year. The discovery was heartbreaking to the coach, they said, but he would not allow the boy's ailment to interfere with his coaching. The subject rarely comes up around Redskins Park and Gibbs never brings it up publicly.

So on Thursday morning, after the shock of Taylor's death two days before had worn off just slightly, Gibbs walked into a big meeting room at the team's training facility, had a projector turned on and showed the players footage of the Buffalo Bills, tomorrow's opponent at FedEx Field. The conversation was not about Taylor, but rather what the Bills do and how the coaches hoped to attack them.

"I don't know if anything really needs to be said," linebacker London Fletcher said about what he thought Gibbs might tell the team in coming days.

Which might be the best Gibbs feature, those who know him say. He seems to possess an acute understanding of exactly what his players need, whether it's a shorter practice, more pep talks or even a stern lecture. This week there was an emotional release, a visit from Taylor's father and girlfriend, and then as the days went by a return to football at what many felt was exactly the right time.

"I think he's done a tremendous job," said Charley Casserly, who was an assistant general manager in Washington for much of Gibbs's first tenure. "I thought his press conference the other day was brilliant, though brilliant might be the wrong word to use at a time like this. I think you saw compassion and that first day you saw leadership. He was a strong presence. He had human-interest stories and he had honesty when he said, 'I've never dealt with this before.' When you're sitting there you've got a guy who is strong, compassionate and has a plan."

Casserly added that he was not surprised that one of the first things Gibbs did after finding out about Taylor was to call Denver Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan and San Francisco Coach Mike Nolan to see how they dealt with players dying on their own teams.

"I know how Joe thinks," he said. "He would say, 'Let me get those guys on the phone.' I think he is smart, he's organized and he's very analytical on any process."

What amazes those who have worked with Gibbs is his ability to compartmentalize issues, managing to take the bad news such as an injury to a star player and tuck the frustration about that incident into one place while outwardly still showing the same confident face he had all along. This is why players listen to him, they say, even as he grows older and today's players become increasingly independent. In the end, everyone wants a leader who won't go to pieces at the worst possible times.

Beathard said he has dealt with head coaches who fell apart after learning of an injury to just one player. That despair trickled down to the players, who took on the unease of their coach and soon the whole team was shaky. Such things never happen to Gibbs, he said. The coach has the unique ability to remain compassionate, almost fatherly, and yet at the same time put on the stoic front, reminding everyone of what lies ahead.

"I've see Joe go through some personal things that would have done us in and he handled them well," Beathard said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company