By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Later, Gibbs would use the term "surrender" to capture his mind-set at the time, saying Taylor's death had made him realize how powerless he was to affect every outcome. In perhaps unintended ways, that humility also influenced his changing role as the Redskins' coach in the weeks ahead.
In the interview this week, Gibbs said he had a spiritual awakening over the past month. His steadfast views as an evangelical Christian didn't change, he said, but he began to look hard and long at his own motivations behind spreading the message of his faith.
"I kind of had gone through these four years and I found myself sayin', 'Hey, Lord, you know, I really want to win football games and wind up coming out of this with a platform that I can honor you,' " Gibbs said. "That's what I was trying to say to the Lord. And it really caused some soul-searching for me because I realized probably in there that I was probably kidding myself and kidding the Lord.
"What I was doing was probably wanting it a lot for myself and not really being honest with the Lord," he continued. "And I think I needed to ask him for forgiveness on that. What I should be sayin' is what he wants. I should be sayin,' this is what God wants, not what I want."
The three-hour funeral service became an emotional celebration of Taylor's life. Several players and coaches said they left Miami feeling the funeral had permitted them to focus on their profession again.
"There was a finality to it, but yet there was a rejoicing," said Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense. "Once I shed the final tear, I had a smile on my face because other people got to know the kid I already knew."
On the plane ride home, kick return specialist Rock Cartwright sat next to his girlfriend and wept. Defensive lineman Demetric Evans sat near the emergency exit row in the middle with his wife, Aungel. Running back Ladell Betts sat one row in front of Evans and defensive back Vernon Fox sat behind him. Linebacker London Fletcher sat next to team owner Daniel Snyder, who had chartered the flight. After they spoke about Taylor, Fletcher listened as Snyder specifically went over what the team needed to do to win.
"The points he was making were very valid points, just about finishing teams better, how, when we had a team down, the attitude we needed to take to put them away," Fletcher said.
Nearby, Gibbs was deep in thought about what he would tell his team the next day.
"Right after we came back from Sean's, I had to make a decision what we were going to do that week," he said. "I knew that, confidence-wise, we were up against it. I had to do something, so I came up with the idea, 'Look, we played the best. Why wouldn't we think we could play with other people up here?' "
In the hours between the Bills game and the team meeting, Gibbs also would meet with his assistants and the players' leadership council.
When he spoke with the team the Tuesday morning after the funeral, players on both the offense and defense said they were buoyed by Gibbs's sudden display of moxie as he compared them with the best teams in the conference.
"He was basically saying, 'We can do something great by winning these next four ballgames, getting into the playoffs and doing some special things in the playoffs,' " Fletcher said.
Added Cartwright, "I'm thinkin', 'That's what I'm talking about.' "
Gibbs also made another key decision. Mounting injuries to key players coupled with a short workweek -- the Chicago game was on Thursday night -- led to Gibbs deciding to hold a much less demanding practice that Tuesday.
After the Redskins beat the Bears, Gibbs stuck with the change. Wednesdays, normally the team's most intense physical work day, became another walk-through day -- time for players to heal rather than bump helmets and run till they dropped. For the Calvinistic Gibbs, who based his career on his belief in the virtues of long, hard work for his team, this was a sea change.
"It was a big change for me," Gibbs said. "But I just felt like that week was very emotional. And then the short week and everything. All of us talked about it, walking through and mentally being ready. And then the way we played against Chicago; there was a totally different excitement, guys were flying around. So that was it. Wednesdays were walk-through days."
Before he joined Washington's coaching staff, Williams had heard that one of Gibbs's great coaching traits was his ability to understand the mood of his teams. Now he was witnessing it first-hand.
"Coach has done a tremendous job of keeping the thumb on the pulse of what needs to be done around here," Williams said. "I know it took a lot for him to make that change. At the time he did that, he was probably wondering if it was right. But when you see the results and you see the production numbers, I think it's easy to go ahead and continue doing that."
Redskins players appreciated the lighter physical workload. But it went beyond the practice field. Many found their already substantial respect for Gibbs deepen as they watched his response to the Taylor tragedy and followed his lead.
"His ability to just continue to push us to go play was big enough," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "We were struggling. We just lost our friend. But he just kept, 'You gotta practice, you gotta get ready for the game.' He helped everybody realize we gotta push forward. He helped us get through that by telling us, 'Hey, no matter what's going on, we can still win ballgames.'"
"When he put the teams up there that could possibly make it" to the playoffs, "I just thought we could beat everybody up there on the board if we put our mind to it," Cartwright said.
"The message that day was, 'Normally, before you achieve something great in life it's after you go through some difficult times,' " Fletcher said. "[Coach Gibbs] turned out to be the right person for us in this situation."
Before quarterback Todd Collins came off the bench after 10 years as a backup to perform almost flawlessly the past month, before wide receiver Santana Moss's banged-up body began to heal, and before and running back Clinton Portis ran with a renewed purpose and passion, the coach of the Redskins had struck a chord with his players at that morning meeting on Dec. 4.
"When we got out to practice that one day, Mark Brunell came up to me and said, 'I think this is probably the best thing that's happened,'" Gibbs said. "We got back to work."