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New Opening, Same Old Question

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

There was always a risk in bringing Joe Gibbs back: If it didn't work out, then what? No matter whether you view Gibbs as a success or a failure in his second term, you have to admit that he's an icon and a hard act to follow. The Redskins have tried every kind of coach these last few years. They've tried the high-priced retread, they've tried the big-name college coach, they've tried the revered legend. None of it worked. The question is, now what?

It wasn't so much that the 67-year-old Gibbs lost too many games, although he lost more than he won. Rather, he simply lost his belief that the exchange rate of work to wins was worth it. He started counting up the hours and the percentage of time spent locked in an office with owner Daniel Snyder and his coaches, listening to them argue, chew ice and flush the commode, all for a perpetual struggle to be better than .500, and he decided he'd rather be with his family. If he couldn't do it with his whole heart, then he didn't want to do it all, so he stunned players and staff alike by abruptly announcing his retirement as coach and president of the organization.

Now that Gibbs has called it quits, he can no longer be praised or blamed for the Redskins' fortunes. He's not their front man anymore, or their excuse. His resignation exposes the organization. If you're a Redskins fan and Coach Joe can't fix it, the question you're asking is, can it be fixed?

The merits of Gibbs's 31-36 mark, including playoffs, over the last four years are disputable, but when he stepped down, you realized just what a steadying leader he has been. No matter what you thought of Gibbs's game management, he wasn't their chief liability. Yes, there were mistakes, setbacks and seasonal swoons from 6-10 to 10-6 to 5-11 to 9-7. But here's the thing: You got the feeling that Gibbs did all he could. If it was wearying to watch the Redskins struggle, the prospect of watching them struggle without him is more wearying. What's really wearying is the suspicion that Gibbs got absolutely the most out of the organization -- and the result was still 31-36.

Gibbs did two things undeniably well. First, he was a great, charismatic motivator who never lost his team, even when it dropped four and five games at a time, and was flattened by shock and grief over the shooting death of Sean Taylor. Second, he had a reassuring ability to manage the chaos in the building. Somehow, he got the Redskins to the playoffs twice despite an incoherent administrative setup that the coaches generously termed a "leadership council."

It was never clear who was really calling the shots. Snyder and his surrogate, Vinny Cerrato, sat atop the pyramid, while Gibbs was a vague sort of grandee. The rest of the staff is a tangle of titles that makes your hair hurt. Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams and associate head coach-offense Al Saunders have their executive wings. "We made the decisions together. . . . It was never one person," Gibbs acknowledged.

It's a fundamentally unsound structure, judging by the Redskins' overall record of the last few years. Snyder has now hired and fired every type of coach, and yet the wins and losses total minimally changes. He's hired drill sergeants (Marty Schottenheimer) and creative geniuses (Steve Spurrier). He dumped Norv Turner before the end of an 8-8 season; Schottenheimer left with an 8-8 record; Spurrier resigned after successive marks of 7-9 and 5-11. All of those coaches went on to success elsewhere. Schottenheimer, so abysmal in Washington, went 14-2 in San Diego. Turner currently has the Chargers in the second round of the playoffs.

What this suggests is that the organization's biggest problem isn't coaching-related. It's personnel-related. More important than who replaces Gibbs the coach is who replaces Gibbs the team president, and how the power structure on that side of the organization is going to work. The Redskins badly need a proven general manager, someone to oversee the drafting, scouting, salary cap management, etc. Especially given the way the team habitually mortgages draft picks and cap space.

We're back to the same old questions, the ones that dogged the franchise before the Gibbs restoration. At least publicly, Snyder moved into the background during the Gibbs regime, but will he be able to keep himself there when the coach isn't his boyhood hero? Gibbs had the owner's support and seemed to be immune to second-guessing. It's hard to imagine any other head coach enjoying the same from Snyder.

If the star-addicted Snyder decides to overlook head-coach-in-waiting Gregg Williams and hire a coach from outside, it could be a long, fraught search. Perhaps Snyder will try to find another Bill Belichick or Wade Phillips. The trouble with that is, it takes an eye to recognize a coaching talent from among the faceless ranks of assistant coaches. Or he can try to get Bill Cowher, but does anyone think the iron-jawed Cowher would come to the Redskins under the current management structure?

Gibbs said he will stay on with the team in an advisory capacity and insists that he wants to complete a turnaround in the fortunes of the franchise. "We got a lot of pieces in place. I personally want to be a part of that. I want to see it finished," he says. If he means it, then the best piece of advice he could give Snyder is this: make the next hire a general manager, not a head coach. Hire a proven GM, and let him find the next head coach.

The single biggest question for the organization may be, what has Snyder learned from all this? Will he be going back to his role as meddlesome boy genius? Or has the Gibbs era matured him as an owner, a leader and a person?

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