Joe Gibbs's shadow persistently hovers over the Washington Redskins

By Mike Wise
Monday, December 28, 2009

Two years after Joe Gibbs's first retirement, the Redskins did not win a single division game. Two years after his second retirement, 0-for-the-NFC East has been embarrassingly repeated.

Symmetry never said more.

For all the good public relations and "fought-our-guts-out" truisms Joe Jackson Gibbs brought from 2004-2007, a hangover of epic proportion always follows. The great leader steps aside and those promoted too soon, or too often, get found out. Chaos ensues, and the legend of St. Joe grows.

Gibbs actually showed Sunday night for Dallas, the last night of Jim Zorn in charge of the home team at FedEx Field. Barring a surprise in San Diego, the Z-man's two-year résumé will be 12-20.

There is a reason Gibbs had a lightness of being about him as he walked into the press box before the Cowboys kept Zorn's team outside the red zone. Gibbs looked serene and rested because he has officially been out of the Resuscitating the Redskins business for nearly two full years.

"I feel I'm where I need to be," he said, explaining over and over, spelling it out with clarity, making sure everyone heard it right: He has nothing to do with the Redskins anymore. Not as an unpaid consultant. Not as a special adviser to Daniel Snyder -- nothing.

"For me, personally, I haven't talked to Dan about major decisions or anything," Gibbs said. "So for me, when I talk to him, it's kind of a friend. . . . We hope all the decisions and everything he's going to make -- whatever they may be, I'm not aware of them -- I think we all hope that they're going to turn out best for the Redskins."

Loose Gibbsian translation: The farther everyone gets away from overseeing this maddening mess of an organization, the better off every coach is. He doesn't have to worry about Albert Butterworth's caloric intake or his crass insubordination. He doesn't have to worry about his own assistant coach interviewing for Zorn's job. Or the second abysmal offensive performance in six nights, which the cruel-humor people at ESPN and NBC made America watch.

Most of all, Joe Gibbs doesn't have to worry about being compared to Joe Gibbs. Whatever anyone thought of his second coaching tenure in Washington heading into 2008 -- three playoff games in four years -- it sure looks better today, no?

As the group of reporters with their cameras and microphones surrounded him before the game, growing larger as people in the press box realized who was trapped against the wall next to the entrance, as the man who led the franchise to three Super Bowl championships in 12 years spoke affectionately of George Michael, the legendary sportscaster who lost his two-year battle with leukemia on Thursday (Michael was the reason Gibbs was in the press box), something became clear:

Even in a casual setting, Gibbs is so disarming while being infinitely respectful of everyone he spoke of. This is the most obvious statement of all-time, but it was brought home again with clarity on Sunday night.

He is a leader of the highest renown, a man who commands respect because he affords it. With the exception of London Fletcher and very few others, he is about the most rare commodity of the failed Snyder regime. Zorn tried in vain to create that kind of respect. He tried so hard to set himself apart from Gibbs, going so far as to not mention the Hall of Fame coach's name very often -- especially that first season, even when direct questions were asked about Gibbs.

He wasn't being disrespectful; Zorn just wanted this team to be his, knowing people were going to remember Gibbs fondly no matter what. Maybe he wasn't going to be Jimmy Johnson after Tom Landry, but Zorn figured with his new-school offensive schemes and his old-fangled "Hip-Hip-Hooray" way, something would take shape in the way of a long career in Washington.

The veterans and the kids bought into it for a while, especially after the 6-2 start in 2008. But when the owner and his former right-hand man took away his toys -- especially the playbook earlier this season -- it was over.

The Z-man was not ever going to diminish the legacy of St. Joe; he was going to get the same amount of games Steve Spurrier got. Zorn was going to do what every coach since Gibbs first left in 1992 has done: make Gibbs's legacy look even more untouchable.

As a service to genuine fans, there will be no breakdown of this alleged rivalry game that becomes more one-sided each year. Oh, the crowd number was impressive given the weather and a holiday weekend.

But for people to actually spend their time booing Shaun Suisham when he took the field to kick a field goal for the Cowboys in the fourth quarter was about the most misplaced scorn heaped on anyone this season. Did the kicker miss a gimme against New Orleans that led to his shipment out of town three weeks ago, a journey that eventually ended up in Dallas? Yes. Did Suisham pick Zorn to replace Gibbs two years ago? Did he undermine any authority Zorn truly had, ensuring no one would ever look up to him like Gibbs? Did he spin a mantra of continuity and building through the draft, and then fork over the largest contract ever for a defensive player that looks more and more like a slovenly, petulant kid and not a difference-maker?

Poor Greg Blache. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, where he once coached the real-life Rudy -- Daniel Ruettiger, an undersized walk-on who nearly donated his organs to play one down in college. Now he finishes with Albert, this loutish lug, upset he got thrown out of practice for being late on Christmas Day, still slowly slouching off to the locker room as this is being read. Don't fret, he may beat the vernal equinox.

Who put his employees, post-Gibbs, into impossibly awkward situations, in which Blache was asked to sign on the night before as the defensive coordinator before the man who brought him in, Gregg Williams, was told he was out?

No. In the end, Suisham's biggest crime was merely Zorn's biggest crime: He wasn't as good or clutch as the best guy to play the position in franchise history. He wasn't Mark Moseley just as Zorn was never going to be Gibbs. Writing after the induction of Art Monk and Darrell Green into the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year and a half ago, the thought was that it was time to move on, let these Redskins be who they will be, to quit the incessant, unfair comparison to the franchise's glorious past.

But as Gibbs walked into that press box Sunday night, as the masses looked longingly into his eyes and hung on his every utterance nearly two decades after Washington's last appearance in a Super Bowl, it's clear the search for a genuine leader goes on, that no one is letting the past go just yet.

After the game, "Auld Lang Syne" blared through the stadium, a fitting end to not just this chaotic year but an absolutely abysmal decade. The Redskins scored the third-fewest points the past 10 years, nudging out only Cleveland and Detroit in putting up a hefty 18 points per game.

On Zorn's last night as head coach on the home field, let's be honest about one thing: If this warped, watch-your-back culture continues, Mike Shanahan won't change that. He'll just cost more money.

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