For the Redskins, the Unthinkable Has Happened

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 8, 2008 11:29 AM

The one turn of events that nobody wanted to believe would happen, and that few inside the team even dreamed could happen, has suddenly hit the Redskins. Today, Joe Gibbs retired.

On Sunday in Seattle, Gibbs's players uniformly praised their coach for holding them together for the past six brutally difficult weeks as the team fought back after the death of teammate Sean Taylor to make the playoffs with a four-game winning streak. Many off-season ramifications were hashed over by players after their 35-14 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, especially their hope that quarterback Todd Collins could be re-signed. But when the status of Gibbs, who had one year remaining on his contract, was raised, no player took the possibility seriously that the man who had kept them together might suddenly leave them. Yet for reasons Gibbs will certainly explain this afternoon, he will not honor that fifth season on his deal.

Receiver Antwaan Randle El was typical, refusing to take seriously any thought that the 67-year-old coach might not return. "We all certainly want to see Coach Gibbs back," said Randle El. "He's our leader." Linebacker London Fletcher said: "I don't think it'll be needed, but I might go up to him and say, 'Hey, coach, come back. We're going to get this thing done.' "

Yesterday, at a season-wrap news conference at which Gibbs was noncommittal about his return as coach next season, many, including me, assumed that Gibbs's desire to "get things wrapped up as soon as possible" with owner Dan Snyder on his coaching status was a standard-operating-procedure means of opening the door to a one-year contract extension.

After all, even if Gibbs privately leaned toward retiring after the 2008 season, he, like many coaches, might feel it was better for all concerned, especially his coaching staff, if he was signed through 2009 and was not seen as a lame duck coach. Instead, other tea leaves should have been read. But then, perhaps, we don't focus on what we wish we didn't have to see. Gibbs reiterated what he had said after Saturday's game, that "this has been the toughest year I've been through."

After Taylor's death, Gibbs talked openly about how the traumatic experience made everyone, himself included, reconsider every priority in their life. Gibbs specifically mentioned the relative weight that every person gives to family, work and friends and how the death of a 24-year-old makes everyone value the private side of their life far more. Last, but far from least, Gibbs added "grandchildren" to the list of personal affections that made him consider spending less time with football.

Yesterday, Gibbs said that one reason he and Snyder had "not sat down sooner" to discuss his coaching status was because he had "snuck home" to see his family in North Carolina after the Seattle game for what he implied was a pre-planned and festive occasion. Had he already made his decision to retire as coach and team president, even though he will remain an "adviser" to Snyder? What discussions might he and his wife Pat, who has always supported his preferences, have had that were different than in the past? And what role, if any, may have been played by the poor health of a beloved young grandchild who is battling leukemia?

While Gibbs's retirement, of which he gave absolutely no hint at any time, was a shock and disappointment to his team and its fans, it at least came at a time when his coaching reputation had been restored. Just five weeks ago, he said he had the lowest moment of his career when his gaffe in the final seconds against Buffalo, calling illegal back-to-back timeouts to ice the Bills kicker, resulted in a 15-yard penalty to set up a game-winning 36-yard field goal with four seconds left.

After that defeat, Gibbs had one of the finest months of his coaching career. He also may have dropped subtle hints, to those whose ears were more receptive than mine that he was actually moving away from the sport. Of his "Gibbs gaffe" against the Bills, he said that the mistake put him in touch with some things he needed to understand. Did that mean he realized, or at least feared, that if he stayed in the NFL too long, it might become clear that the game had passed him by?

In his prayers, he said he emphasized that he wanted "what the Lord wants for me, not what I want."

Yet, as always, he handled his final act with the Redskins with consummate class. Even at his news conference yesterday, after which several players called reporters to inquire what Gibbs might have meant, Gibbs refused to tip his hand until he had met with Snyder face to face. Even one of Gibbs's key coaches said, after hearing his remarks, said that he would be totally shocked if any major changes were made.

Now, the most major change imaginable has dropped upon the Redskins. The coach who brought them back to a measure of NFL dignity, reaching the playoffs two of the last three years, has left the team for others to run. Perhaps the most likely candidate is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. In Seattle, less than an hour after the Redskins lost, Williams told me, "I have had a front row seat at watching a master hold his team together."

In his first term as Redskins coach, Gibbs became famous for many things, including a cutting-edge offensive system, superlative halftime adjustments and some of the best game management tactics in the NFL. In his second term, all that reversed.

In his first year back, one veteran player, meaning no harm, casually referred to Gibbs's "1991 offense." By the 2006 season, Gibbs had fired himself as offensive guru, and the team brought in Al Saunders for that role after years of success in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Instead of faring well after intermissions, the Redskins became perhaps the worst team in the NFL at holding second-half leads over the last four seasons. Narrow losses, which Gibbs always called "heartbreaking," became the rule. A shattering 52-7 defeat to the perfect Patriots in New England may also have been a sign to Gibbs that his era as a premiere builder of champions was in the past and that, perhaps, some of his assistants, like Williams or Saunders, might do better with more or complete authority.

Despite his shortcomings in his second tour with the Redskins, Gibbs had a glorious final chapter in which his strongest suit -- his character -- was on display to a greater degree than ever before. From his private words and personnel warmth to his players to his public statements and words from the pulpit at Taylor's funeral in Miami, Gibbs struck exactly the right notes to minister to his players as people. And he also helped them to bond behind the memory of their teammate to be a better, closer and more focused football team.

All season, Gibbs praised his players' character and said that, in the last month, he even saw groups of players in small team-called meetings do extra work or simply talk about how much they wanted to play their best. When Gibbs came back four years ago, he inherited a team, and an organization, with almost zero cohesion, collective self-esteem or leadership. Steve Spurrier, the most casual and disengaged of NFL coaches, barely seemed to know all his players' first names let alone worry about their character or ability to interact and lead. Gibbs rebuilt the team from the inside out, stressing personal qualities almost as much, at times, as raw athletic ability.

Now the Redskins face an enormous test. Will they hold fast to the lessons Gibbs taught them? Will they play as an unselfish group, as they did increasingly under his guidance, or will they splinter, withdraw from each other and revert to the easy cynicism and selfishness that tempts every pro athlete?

Later today, Gibbs will speak about the reasons for his retirement. But for every player and coach that he has left behind, the meaning of the last four years must be kept fresh and in the front of every mind. Whether Gibbs is the coach or not, they can still interact with each other, and play on game day, like a true Joe Gibbs team.

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