By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 28, 2007
While there's precious little that connects labor disputes and the killing of a player, fact is they are acts that put undue and atypical stress on any team. Yet, the longer we observe Joe Gibbs and his football teams the more certain we become that he is uniquely adept at dealing with upheaval that overwhelms most other men.
In 1982, when a 57-day players' strike reduced the regular season from 16 games to nine and forced an unprecedented "Super Bowl Tournament," the Redskins stayed together like no other team in the NFL and won it. In 1987, when a month-long strike led to veteran players crossing the picket lines in most cities and the league's use of replacement players, Gibbs was again able to keep his regular players from fracturing, and the Redskins, amid the chaos, won a second Super Bowl.
And now, hit with something much worse -- the in-season death of Sean Taylor -- Gibbs has steered his team to the brink of even greater improbable on-field success. The men who have played for Gibbs, particularly the ones who were with him in Super Bowl seasons, have seen their coach successfully manage the chaos before. In fact, they think negotiating the most trying, most nerve-wracking situations has become a defining characteristic of Gibbs's career.
Jeff Bostic, a center and a member of The Hogs for Gibbs's entire first run as Redskins head coach, said yesterday: "Joe thrives under stressful times, irregular times. When it's not normal, he's at his best."
Doc Walker, who played for Gibbs and who has covered his former coach as a member of the media, said: "I don't want to be insensitive, but Atlanta lost one player, Michael Vick, and the entire program collapsed. Not only did the Redskins have a player die during a season, which is unthinkable, but look at all the other things that have happened that would derail most teams:
"They lost the guys who were supposed to be the right side of the offensive line, Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas, essentially for the entire season. Shawn Springs's father is in a coma and he's traveling back and forth to see his dad. You've got a free agent rookie [Stephon Heyer] starting at right guard. You've got the whole team flying to a funeral and playing the Bears three days later. You've got your franchise quarterback going down in that very game, then you've got the backup quarterback's wife giving birth . . . on the eve of his first start in 10 years, then coming out and going 0 for 8 but steadying himself to win the game. It's a movie. We can't imagine how difficult it is to manage all that. But Joe knows how to manage in the chaos. Go all the way back to his 0-5 start in his very first season as head coach. That was so chaotic. But he believed. Even if you don't believe initially, he does. And he just doesn't waver."
Both Walker and Bostic can recall, word-for-word, some of what Gibbs would say at the beginning of every training camp. They both talk of his legendary calm. Bostic says he remembers Gibbs losing his temper twice in 12 seasons. And they, among others, cite Gibbs's spiritual faith as being instrumental in getting his teams to believe.
"We all know about Joe's great belief in God," Bostic said. "And I think he has a way of imposing his belief. Whether you're a believer or not, or you think you are or not, he has you believing in something larger than yourself."
It's not that Gibbs converts everyone to believe in what he believes in spiritually, just that, regardless of whether the team is in contention or struggling, the people on hand are not going to indulge in selfish behavior. Walker recalled that during the 1982 strike season, "98, 99 percent of the team was practicing every day . . . I mean we were having real practices, ones where we were running the offense. Hell, we didn't play for more than 50 days and we're out there with Joe [Theismann] running plays. Guys were lifting fanatically. And remember in the 1987 strike the Cowboys had guys like Tony Dorsett and Danny White crossing the picket lines. Joe told the guys to stay together and nobody crossed the picket line."
Bostic, a member of that 1987 team, said: "Joe said to us: 'This is out of my hands guys. You've got to stay together.' And it's the culture he has created in and around the team that leads guys to do just what he asks, especially when you've got crazy stuff going on all around you. I think the Redskins were the only team that didn't have a guy cross the picket line."
From all indications, Gibbs's ability to remain calm is what a team needs in crisis, and 180 degrees from the way most people react.
"Joe never panics. There's only calm," Bostic said. "It helps the team feel a certain confidence when things are going badly. He says at the beginning of every training camp, 'The most important job I have is choosing the right people.' Joe really is a collector of people, a collector of good people. He'd have to be to get through something like this. . . . Nobody prepares for the death of a 24-year-old. I can't fathom a teammate being shot and killed during the season when I was playing. . . . It has to be so easy to wallow in pity."
Yet the Redskins haven't. If they beat the Cowboys on Sunday, they go into the playoffs, which was nearly unthinkable when they lost to Buffalo six days after Taylor's death. Gibbs said several times that this would be the most difficult thing he's had to negotiate as a coach, and it's infinitely more emotionally draining than keeping a team together during a strike.
Still, Gibbs's trademark characteristics -- unwavering faith, being extremely organized, his remarkable calm and his ability to accept all the blame but take no credit -- have created the kind of environment that make players want to follow his lead. And the Redskins have.
The New England Patriots' biggest concern this season has been whether to kick a field goal or run it in for a touchdown with a 30-point lead. Chaos was what to do about "Spygate." The Redskins, conversely, have dealt with an unlikely range of jolts from aggravating to tragic. Yet the Redskins have "bought in," to use Bostic's phrase, or as Walker said, "drank the Kool-Aid. . . . Most teams, facing what this team has faced, are done . . . way done."
Bostic, watching the games from afar, can't imagine the circumstances these Redskins have had to overcome, but understands to a great degree how they have. "This push they're in now," he said, "they're playing as well as anybody in the NFC right now."