By Mike Wise
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Less than two months ago, I was a part of a growing mass who thought Joe Gibbs should say goodbye to the NFL for the second time. I bought into the notion he had lost his laser focus and there were younger, better-suited coaches to lead the Washington Redskins back to the Super Bowl.
Today, I believe there is no better soul to lead this team. Regardless of what happens around midnight tonight in Minnesota against the Vikings -- in the crucible of a huge game that amounts to Washington's Super Bowl -- Gibbs should return next season and finish the job he started.
Come back, Joe. Over the past two months, it's become clear this franchise needs you -- more than you might need the Redskins.
Why the change? It's not solely because Gibbs has won his last two games with a backup quarterback who had not started a game in 10 years -- although being there when the Redskins beat the Giants in a game they had no business winning on a brutal weather night at the Meadowlands last week helped.
And it's not simply the compassion he used to guide the organization through its most sorrowful days -- though his leadership after Sean Taylor's death clearly illustrated that.
It's the totality of the last two months, the way in which Gibbs has begun to successfully heal a physically and emotionally injured team and how his players responded as he balanced gentleness with competitiveness, his humanity with his heart.
Having been around the man recently, it's also a gut feeling. Everyone has somewhere they are supposed to be in this world at a particular time. For Gibbs, there is no better or right place to be than here, leading this team.
All indications are that the team owner, Daniel Snyder, never waffled regarding whether Gibbs should return. According to a team official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Snyder is ready to offer Gibbs a contract extension beyond his fifth and final year in 2008. I've heard two years, because that's the realistic feeling of how long a genuine Super Bowl run will take. But another team official said a duration has not been discussed.
More importantly, Snyder has no contingency plan. The ball is in Joe's court. And while he bristles at the mention of the word "contract" these days -- committing to nothing more than saying he will sit down with Snyder at season's end and open a dialogue about coming back -- all signs point to Gibbs returning to coach the Redskins for his fifth straight season and 17th overall.
Joe Gibbs Racing is in good hands with his son, J.D., who admires his father's leadership in their NASCAR business but knows, down deep, that football is where Joe Gibbs's heart remains.
J.D.'s youngest son, Taylor, caused his grandfather much angst and many tears the past year. But the courageous 3-year-old is now winning his battle against leukemia. Taylor is now in the maintenance stage of the disease, alleviating many of Gibbs's family concerns.
Most of all, Gibbs still has a passion for coaching the Redskins, a passion that percolates and sometimes boils over. Sixty-seven-year-old men ready to walk away don't behave like Gibbs.
After his team fumbled away four of its first five offensive possessions in a loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 25, I was convinced the Redskins were headed south in December and that the nonchalance his team displayed in the first half of that game was clearly the beginning of the end.
But in speaking about that game with three players recently, I was told of the ugly dressing-down Gibbs gave them at halftime of that game, a tirade many had never heard before from their bespectacled, usually even-keel coach. Gibbs wouldn't go into detail when I asked him about it, but suffice to say his players have taken that tongue-lashing to heart.
I'd be remiss if I didn't say Gibbs's behavior in the aftermath of Taylor's death played a significant part in the transformation of why I believe Gibbs should return.
Gibbs and Snyder shepherded the Redskins through that tragedy, showing heart and humility every step of the way. That wasn't lost on the players, many of whom were walking around in a fog for more than a week and still have a hard time reconciling Taylor is gone. It's still unfathomable in some ways. The Redskins sent out their annual Christmas cards last week and there he is on the fireplace mantel, No. 21, in the full bloom of life.
Gibbs probably internalizes that. His nature is not to walk away after difficult losses but work harder. The loss of a player, under his watch, taps into that nature exponentially. He feels not just a connection to these players, Snyder and the organization, but a profound sense of obligation that borders on obsession. His players, in turn, feel that for him.
When Santana Moss was recently asked what he believed Gibbs would do, he replied: "Are you asking me what he would do or what he should do? Because if you're asking me what he should do, he should stay. He should stay and finish this job with us."
Gibbs's record has been a less-than-exemplary 29-35 since his return, including two playoff games in 2005. But in the past four years, the Redskins have played just four, maybe five, dog games -- ones in which they should have stayed home. Otherwise, they've been a tough out. And that cannot be said about the Redskins under some of his predecessors.
Between the commitment to developing young players and not just playing fantasy league in the offseason with money and big names, this franchise has not been on firmer ground in the past decade. Gibbs represents that stability more than anyone.
It should be mentioned that Gibbs is good in December. Very good. He was 33-12 in his first 12 years, three of which ended with him clutching the Lombardi Trophy. He's 10-6 in December since the comeback. Throw out last season's 5-11 aberration, and he's 9-2 in the last month of the regular season.
He finishes well. Here's hoping he stays on as coach beyond this season and finishes this job. Under unimaginable strain for more than a month, he has proven this is where he should be.