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.
"All indications from our team meeting [Sunday] was that he was going to be back," center Casey Rabach said, "and that he was looking forward to next year."
After the meetings, Gibbs gave his assistants Monday off, told them to report to work Tuesday and left for Charlotte.
Gibbs visited with sons J.D. and Coy, their wives and his six grandchildren. While Gibbs spoke yesterday about the visit being pivotal in his decision, J.D. Gibbs said in an interview that he and his father didn't talk at length about it.
The time spent was more casual, he said -- unlike the lengthy family conversations that preceded Gibbs's decision to return to coaching in January 2004. "We got together [Monday] more to hang out," J.D. Gibbs said. "We talked a little about it and said, 'We'll support you either way.' "
Afterward, Gibbs and his wife, Pat, had a much longer talk, according to J.D. And when his father left to go back to Washington, J.D. wasn't entirely sure what his father had decided or when he'd make his decision public. "I knew where he was leaning," he said, "but I didn't know it would happen."
In the four years since Gibbs had returned to the Redskins, however, circumstances had changed in several respects. His younger son, Coy, was initially on the coaching staff, which gave father and son a chance to spend time together. But in time Coy left, returning to North Carolina to start a motocross venture. And Pat Gibbs, his wife, was spending more time in North Carolina to help with the five grandsons and granddaughter. Their 3-year-old grandson, Taylor, is battling leukemia.
That left Gibbs even more alone. As J.D. put it, with a chuckle: "My mom said: 'I want to be with the grandkids! You can stay up there by yourself all you want!' I think for him, it was one of those things that he thought about, and prayed about and had a peace about. It was a hard decision. He doesn't want to disappoint Dan [Snyder] or the players. And for him to still be part of the Redskins -- to still be a part of that -- he's really excited about that."
Gibbs shocked employees by showing up at his NASCAR shop in Huntersville, N.C., Monday around 1 p.m. Jimmy Makar, who has been with the team since its inception in 1991, was in a meeting in a conference room when he heard Gibbs's unmistakable voice down the hall. "Surely that's not Joe!?" Makar said he thought to himself. But Gibbs soon poked his head in the door, and Makar couldn't believe what a good mood his boss was in just two days removed from the loss at Seattle. "I was really surprised to see him here," Makar said. "He said he had some decisions to be making and to pray for him."
Though Gibbs didn't say what the decision was, Makar suspected it had to do with the Redskins. Everyone at the shop was aware of the toll that the past months had taken on Gibbs, particularly his concern over his grandson's diagnosis in January. "We didn't know where he was going to end up, if he was going to be able to make the full five years on the contract," Makar said. "We knew for a while that he had that concern in the back of his mind."
On Monday, Gibbs arrived at Redskins Park at about 2:30 p.m. He chatted briefly with some employees before his weekly 5 p.m. news conference. Gibbs was uncharacteristically evasive about his future, saying he had to speak with Snyder about his plans after the news conference ended.
But Gibbs's decision was already made. And he was unwavering.
"I felt after those conversations [with his family] . . . there were a couple of things that were said that just kind of grabbed you," Gibbs said. "I felt like leaving there and getting on the plane . . . there was a real strong feeling about what I wanted to talk to Dan about."
Snyder tried to persuade Gibbs to stay during a dinner meeting at Morton's, a steakhouse in Reston, that shifted back to the complex and continued into the next morning. Finally, at about 2:30 a.m., Snyder gave up.
"This is something no one wanted to see happen," Snyder said, "but all of us respect and understand it."