Soul-Searching at Home Led to the Decision

By Jason Reid and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

As Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs settled into his seat aboard a plane that would take him from Charlotte to Dulles International Airport on Monday afternoon, he considered returning to the sideline next season. Gibbs thought he had decided to retire from coaching for a second time after discussing his future with his family on a whirlwind trip home, but doubt crept into his mind while owner Daniel Snyder awaited Gibbs's return to Redskins Park.

"That was always there," Gibbs said yesterday, "because I hate to leave something unfinished."

By the time Gibbs arrived at the complex, however, there would only be hours remaining in his latest -- and presumably last -- coaching stint. Gibbs's decision to walk away capped a dizzying 72-hour period that began with the Redskins' season-ending 35-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in a first-round playoff game at Qwest Field.

Although Gibbs was undecided about returning until meeting with his family in Charlotte and briefly considered honoring the final year of his five-year contract while on the flight, there were signs as early as Saturday he would be leaving after the most difficult season in franchise history, according to people who spoke with Gibbs and observed him immediately after the playoff loss. For three days, Gibbs inched toward a decision that provided him with a sense of relief and left Washington searching for a coach and team president.

"With everything that happened, with everything that went on the last few days for him, you could maybe see this coming," defensive lineman Phillip Daniels said. "I know that when I talked with him the other day, we spent most of our time talking about family, life and things like that. There really wasn't a whole lot of football in what we talked about, so that kind of got me thinking a little bit. I don't know everything that happened the last few days, but something did that led him to this."

Usually reserved in team chapel meetings, Gibbs gave an emotional account of his life in the gathering before the game. But in the locker room immediately after the loss to Seattle, Gibbs did not offer hints about his future in a private moment with the team before addressing reporters. "You really didn't put anything together there," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "You couldn't point to one thing that day and see that it was coming."

Gibbs did not discuss his future with his assistants and sidestepped the issue with reporters, but Snyder sensed something while watching the news conference on TV. "I know him so well," Snyder said.

On the bus ride to Sea-Tac International Airport, Gibbs discussed the season and his then-impending decision with Redskins chaplain Brett Fuller. Gibbs mentioned how much he missed his grandchildren, and Fuller said he would pray for Gibbs.

Gibbs and Fuller played key roles in helping the Redskins cope with the death of safety Sean Taylor in November, and they had grown closer in the process. It wasn't surprising that Gibbs would share his thoughts with Fuller while he was in the early stages of contemplating his future.

But few aboard the flight that night were aware that Gibbs had doubts about coaching in 2008. Many in the organization had credited Gibbs with holding the team together in the wake of Taylor's shooting, and the Redskins' season-ending, four-game winning streak enabled them to clinch their first playoff appearance since the 2005 season and only their third in the last 15 seasons.

The feeling on the flight from Seattle was that "we're really headed in the right direction," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "You look at how the team came together, and Coach Gibbs is responsible for a lot of that. You really didn't hear anything" about Gibbs retiring.

The plane landed at about 4 a.m. and Gibbs scheduled a 2 p.m. team meeting at the complex. He addressed the group, thanking them for their effort in a quick turnaround down the stretch, and also met with players individually. Again, Gibbs focused on the team and players.

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