By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Up close, Joe Gibbs has a sort of beige pallor, a complexion that falls somewhere between sand and old cardboard. The color has left his face and it's not coming back. It's as if he's literally been drained, and what's left are the deep folds of worry, as if they were grooved there by lead pencil.
Have you ever wondered why so many head coaches wear those beltless pants? It's because they gain and lose so much weight during a season, what with all the stress, that their waistlines have to be adjustable. In the case of Gibbs, his weight has remained steady -- it's his reputation that has expanded and contracted. He's gone from hero to goat to hero again. Five games ago, he was a doddering old grandpa who needed to retire. Now that the Redskins are in the playoffs, he's George Patton in a headset. Because we held him so responsible for everything that went wrong, it's worth examining how responsible he is for everything that went right.
Gibbs always has preached personal responsibility; it's his daily hymn. But here's the thing about Gibbs: He doesn't just take responsibility for himself -- he takes responsibility for everyone else, too. Players only have to be accountable for themselves. Assistants only are responsible for their share of the offense or defense. But Gibbs is accountable for all of them; he's shouldered the blame for every mistake in this long and fraught season. Every bad snap, dumb penalty and failed conversion was on him, and no one else.
This is what great leaders do. It's called generalship, and it's why the Redskins won four straight games despite the in extremis circumstances of the last few weeks. The NFL is full of cerebral new-age strategists, but few of them could have done what Gibbs has with his old-fashioned core principle. This is no slap at Gregg Williams or Al Saunders, but what are the chances that either of them could get a team to win four straight after their best player was killed? You don't need a strategist for that. You need a leader.
Much has been made of the way Gibbs pulled his emotionally shattered team back together after the death of Sean Taylor. But it was the way Gibbs handled a smaller crisis that may have made as much of a difference. Gibbs committed the single most foolish mistake of his Hall of Fame career five weeks ago, when he likely cost the Redskins a victory over the Buffalo Bills by trying to call consecutive timeouts with eight seconds remaining as Buffalo place kicker Rian Lindell lined up to attempt a 51-yard field goal. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave Lindell a shorter kick, and he made it.
At that moment, and for the next day or so, Gibbs was on the verge of losing the team. Everybody in the locker room knew he had made a catastrophic mistake, and his credibility was on the line. Things could have gone either way -- it all threatened to dissolve into an ugly mess. Mainly, the mistake seemed a summing up of all of the Redskins' organizational problems, symptomatic of a team with all kinds of talent yet too many disparate elements. The players too often were mistake-prone, and the "leadership council," as Williams terms the team's multilayered staff, too often malfunctioned. You got the impression Gibbs and his old guard (such as Don Breaux and Joe Bugel) were one entity, Williams and the defense were another and Saunders went his own separate way until he called the plays on Sundays. Why, with all that money tied up in the coaching staff, did Gibbs have no one but the head linesman to ask about calling consecutive timeouts?
But Gibbs expressed none of this. Instead, he issued a heartfelt and forthright apology to the team. He admitted that he should have known the rule, and confessed that it was probably one of "the worst" blunders of his career.
"You always hold them accountable and you want to make sure if you have a bad moment that you acknowledge that," Gibbs recalled the other day. "I felt like that's kind of what happened there. I just kind of said what I felt."
When he finished speaking to the team, the locker room was silent. "I don't think anybody said a word," Gibbs said.
Somehow, Gibbs earned their sympathy instead of blame. Over the next few days, players offered quiet expressions of support. He always had covered for them, and now they covered for him. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin insisted: "It's not just on Coach Gibbs. No way is it just on him." Guard Pete Kendall said: "I know that it's easy to blame the guy who strikes out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. . . . But there was a lot of football played before that."
According to running back Clinton Portis, Gibbs's error became a rallying point for the team. Interestingly enough, the players began to use the same language that Gibbs always has used with them: They blamed themselves. "Nobody on the team would let him own up to it, because it shouldn't have got to that point," Portis said. "We had the opportunity to put the game away and we didn't, so nobody would let him own up to thinking that he cost us that game. We win as a team and lose as a team, and that game, we lost as a team. From that point on, the guys have been showing that if we go down, this how we going to go down. Fighting. That's how we do it."
The Redskins always are at their best when their identity comes from Gibbs. He likes to say that if he wasn't a head coach, he'd probably "be screwing in bolts somewhere." When Gibbs is at his most Gibbsian, and when the Redskins most reflect him -- tough, mud-caked, unselfish, unpretentious, unglamorous and unrelenting -- they win.
What the Redskins have done right and well during the winning streak amounts to this: They've adopted Gibbs's personal habits. They've gone beyond mere personal accountability, and been accountable for each other, too. Portis isn't just running well, he's blocking well. Veterans are covering for rookies who have been pressed into service. Second-stringers are covering for injured starters. Everyone is doing more for one another, and thinking less about himself.
Accepting responsibility -- truly shouldering it and not just mouthing the word -- is one of the most difficult things to do in any profession. It's not easy on your vanity or self-worth, and it's why so many leaders have ulcers and heart trouble, why the best coaches often are nervous wrecks who seem bound for a gurney or a sanitarium with a blanket over their knees. They feel responsible for every single thing that goes wrong, and they blame only themselves for not having done more for the people around them. Gibbs estimates that he's only had four or five teams over the course of his Hall of Fame career that truly took responsibility.
But this one, he contends, is among them. Typically, Gibbs declines credit for this. "I've always felt like the best teams we had were player-driven, and it wasn't the coaches trying to get something done," he says. "It was more or less players taking it on themselves. Each year you try to do that, and players try to do that. But it's hard to get, and to grasp."