At Darkest Moment, Gibbs Found Spark
Saturday, January 5, 2008
The day after the Washington Redskins buried Sean Taylor, Coach Joe Gibbs strode into the team's conference room in Ashburn with a single purpose in mind: He needed to drastically change how his emotionally wounded team felt about itself.
He decided to shake up the players with an uncharacteristic departure from the routine that has characterized his 40-plus years of coaching. Instead of simply displaying images of that week's opponent, the Chicago Bears, on the screen, Gibbs detailed the fallibility of the Redskins' next four opponents -- a rarity in the one-game-at-a-time world of the National Football League.
On top of that, he boldly showed a list of every team ahead of Washington in the conference standings and told the team that the margin between Redskins and the top clubs was minimal.
"You've shown you can play with these guys," Gibbs told his players, adding that if the Redskins ran the table they had a good shot at making the playoffs. From there, he said, his message was clear: "Somebody is going to represent the NFC" in the Super Bowl.
Four straight victories set in motion an improbable NFC first-round playoff matchup with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon, where a once-reeling team has been transformed in the aftermath of a tragedy. At the center of that transformation is Gibbs, the 67-year-old coach who took an emphatic detour in the tone and style of his methods and, he acknowledged in an interview this week, reevaluated his understanding of his own religious faith to meet the needs of a grieving team in shock over the loss of Taylor, who was just 24 when he was shot during a home invasion in suburban Miami.
"Our confidence was hurting at that point," Gibbs said. "I was trying to say, 'If you take a look at this, Why not? This is who we played.' I was trying to say, 'Somebody is going to represent the NFC.' And I said, 'Do we belong to that group?' So I'm proud of the last four weeks. We stepped up and earned it."
In his 16 years as head coach of the Redskins, Gibbs has won three Super Bowls and -- after his first, 12-year tour with the team, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the days that followed the death of Taylor, Gibbs would summon all of that experience, and more, as he rallied the Redskins around him.
Along the way, he would make what he candidly admitted was the biggest game management mistake of his career -- forgetting a rule at the end of a wrenching loss to the Buffalo Bills that allowed a 36-yard field goal to drop the Redskins' record to 5-7 on the eve of Taylor's funeral.
After the loss, Lamar "Bubba" Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine for 36 years, remembered walking into Gibbs's coaching room at FedEx Field. "He was the lowest I'd ever seen," Tyer said. "We had a private talk and I'd never seen him so down."
"That was the low point," Gibbs said. "Just a bad experience for me personally and professionally."
Within 12 hours, Gibbs's football nadir was put into a much broader context. He and the entire Redskins organization and their families took a chartered flight to Miami to bury one of their own.
Gibbs ended his eulogy at the funeral with the words, "God, take care of Sean until we get home."