By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Standing in an auditorium before a gleaming row of Super Bowl trophies -- the monuments of a legacy he was unable to re-create -- Joe Gibbs resigned as coach and president of the Washington Redskins yesterday. Much as he did at the end of his previous, more successful run as Redskins coach, Gibbs said he was quitting for family reasons.
Back in 1993, he said it was because he missed his two sons, J.D. and Coy. This time, he quit in large part because of a grandson, Taylor, who received a diagnosis of leukemia one year ago and is undergoing treatment in North Carolina.
A successor to the 67-year-old Gibbs was not named. While the Redskins employ three assistant coaches who previously have been head coaches in Gregg Williams, Al Saunders and Joe Bugel, neither Gibbs nor team owner Daniel Snyder would endorse any of the three for the position, leading to speculation that the new coach may come from outside the organization, possibly former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
Snyder said at Gibbs's news conference yesterday that he had yet to start the process of finding a new coach. He had been up with Gibbs until 2:30 a.m. yesterday trying to persuade the coach to change his mind. Ultimately, he was unable to do so, Snyder said, finally extracting a promise from Gibbs that he would stay on as a team adviser.
"You can never replace Joe Gibbs," Snyder said.
There certainly is no more beloved figure in Redskins history than the bookish-looking Gibbs, a deeply religious man who won the hearts of Redskins fans in his first run as the team's coach with a quiet, humble nature and wildly successful football teams. While Gibbs routinely deflected attention from himself, his teams won 124 regular season and 16 postseason games, including three Super Bowls, in his first 12-season run as coach, making him the most popular man in the city. And when Snyder persuaded Gibbs to return in 2004, Gibbs was hailed as the savior of a floundering franchise that had been to the playoffs just once since his initial retirement.
Still, Gibbs's second run with the Redskins, beginning with the 2004 season, was not as successful. Inheriting a struggling team previously coached by Steve Spurrier, he labored to turn around the Redskins, and he left the job yesterday with mixed success. He twice led the team on frantic end-of-season runs that resulted in playoff appearances, including Saturday's playoff loss in Seattle. Yet the Redskins' overall record was 31-36 in the four seasons after his return, drawing the ire of many fans who said the game had passed Gibbs by.
The Redskins in Gibbs's second tour were marked by inconsistency and a frequent turnover of players and assistant coaches. Gibbs said his lowest moment came Dec. 2, the first game after the death of safety Sean Taylor, when he illegally called consecutive timeouts at the end of the game in an attempt to distract Buffalo Bills place kicker Rian Lindell as he lined up for a game-winning field goal. The ensuing penalty gave Lindell an easier kick.
After that loss, the team was 5-7 and, combined with the timeout debacle, many veteran players privately expressed concern their coach no longer was capable of handling the job.
Defensive end Phillip Daniels said yesterday that he remembered speaking to one of his teammates that week, and both of them expressed worry about their coach's health. "He just looked so tired," Daniels said.
Yet in the ensuing weeks, the players found a strength in Gibbs many had not seen before. After Taylor was killed, several of the coach's former associates said Gibbs's greatest ability as a coach was to lead a team through chaos. A day after Taylor died, Gibbs was in his office, preparing a game plan for the Bills. By compartmentalizing his grief for Taylor and redirecting the team's focus to the last quarter of its schedule, he was praised as the driving force for the four-game winning streak that propelled the Redskins into the playoffs.
Ironically, the postseason run may have hastened his departure. During yesterday's news conference, Gibbs said that after a 5-11 finish in the 2006 season, he didn't feel ready to leave three years into his five-year contract because he had failed to revive the franchise. "I hate to leave something unfinished," he said.
But after the recent run, Gibbs seemed to feel better about the team's standing. The defense, a problem in 2006, had stabilized, the players bonded after Taylor's death and there was a hope around the team that it had identified its quarterback of the future in Jason Campbell.
"I know this: He would never want to leave an organization in disarray," said Brett Fuller, the team chaplain who spent a great deal of time with Gibbs, an evangelical Christian. "So us making the playoffs probably more than anything helped him make his decision."
Gibbs talked frequently yesterday about the tug he felt from his family. After promising his wife, Pat, that he would not repeat his lifestyle from his first coaching run and spend many nights sleeping in the office, he quickly fell back into old habits, talking fondly of hearing the trash truck at Redskins Park at 3 a.m. and knowing that it was probably time to sleep.
After Saturday's loss in Seattle, Gibbs went to Charlotte, where he and Pat have a home, to meet with his family and discuss his future. Several times, his wife and children told him that if he wanted to return to the Redskins they would support him, Gibbs said. But he added "there were a couple of things that were said that just kind of grab you."
At that point, he figured it best he no longer coach. He returned to Redskins Park on Monday and told Snyder that night that he wanted to leave. Snyder, who had sensed Gibbs was unsure about returning as early as Sunday when the two talked, tried vainly to talk the coach into staying.
Yesterday, the two men were a contrast in emotions. Snyder sat quietly at the news conference, giving short, subdued answers to questions, while Gibbs stood behind a lectern and laughed several times. It was the Gibbs that people who know him best say he often is like -- glib with a cutting humor -- but one few saw in public. When Snyder said he learned "passion and desire" from Gibbs, the coach threw his head back and laughed.
"That's a joke, the passion of a zillionaire? At 40? Give me a break," he roared, mocking Snyder, a young multimillionaire.
Later, standing outside of Redskins Park, Fuller said "this is as content as I have seen him."
While Gibbs no longer will keep an office at Redskins Park, saying he doesn't want to loom over his successor, he has other projects outside of football, including Joe Gibbs Racing, his successful NASCAR team run in his absence by his son, J.D. He visited with the team at its headquarters in Huntersville, N.C., this week before heading back to Washington. He also created a foster care home and private school for troubled children in Bristow called Youth for Tomorrow.
As night fell at the team's training facility yesterday, the Redskins allowed the two dozen or so fans gathered near the entry road nearly a mile away to come to the building to say goodbye to Gibbs. He walked out, waved, shook their hands, signed autographs and told jokes. There were no Super Bowls to celebrate this time, but six weeks after his best player died, there was a sense his legacy had been salvaged.