The man hired to out-Vermeil the latest NFL coaching genius even looks like him. Anyone with no prior knowledge of Joe Gibbs might well have walked into the press conference introducing him as the Redskins' new coach yesterday and assumed, to his atonishment, that Jack Kent Cooke had done the impossible after all -- gone out and stolen the coach he admires above all others at the moment, Dick Vermeil.
Gibbs is stylish and articulate, though seemingly more comfortable one on one than the mass-coverage setting of his first day on the job. He is instantly likeable and, also in the fashion of the Philadelphia Eagle coach, an apparent motivator. Unlike Vermeil, though, Joe Gibbs preaches fast-break football. Daring and innovative football.
Or does he? For more than an hour, the fellow thought to be the mad bomber himself talked in awfully familiar -- and sensible -- terms. He said the Redskin offense would "strive for balance." He hinted that a John Riggins-like runner would not be over-looked, that in fact "I'm sure we'll try to get Riggins back."
What he seemed to be saying is a vintage cliche: that the Joe Gibbs offense takes what the defense gives him. He expects it to give him a lot. That was one of the questions that mattered yesterday. What is the Gibbs touch on offense? Let's have a glimpse at the offense of the '80s. Can some of those special Xs and Os be spilled intelligently from his mind to ours?
Just before he left for Mobile, Ala., to scout his future, players who might turn his household-common name into a name known in every football household, Gibbs drew up some of what has made him so respected among his peers. He calls it "read screens."
On paper, the information seems harmless enough. Two backs are split behind the quarterback, and end is far to the left side and the flanker and tight end are to the right. The ball is snapped and all hell breaks loose.
"What we're trying to do is put the defense in a situation where they can't win," he said.
By showing the defense one thing and possibly giving it another. What might happen is one back and two linemen moving to the right in screen-pass fashion. The flanker and tight end, meanwhile, dash 10 or so yards downfield, stop and turn around.
Everybody reads how the defense reacts. If the two nearest linebackers drop back and cover the tight end and flanker, the screen should work. If they blast to foil the screen, either or both of the other receivers should be open.
Instead of three yards and a cloud of cleats, Gibbs wants five -- or 15 if the defense decides to be generous and Joe Theismann reacts properly.
"We kinda developed this in St. Louis (when he was with Charger Coach Don Coryell there)," Gibbs said. "It's not easy to read, because the back swings out there the same on all of his passes. We're always trying to do that -- put the defense in a situation where it can't win."
If the Redskins did not hire a San Diego chicken, neither did they hire a fool. Gibbs seems to be bold without being reckless -- and he knows entertaining football remains that way only as long as it beats Vermeil and Tom Landry regularly!
Redskin fans who have been in Washington longer than Cooke sense they have heard much of what he has been saying lately before. Four coaches ago to be exact. What Cooke has hinted at in the last two weeks Otto Graham said 15 years ago: "Losing 35-34 sometimes can be as good as winning 6-3."
But Joe Gibbs running the offense and Richie Petitbon running the defense seems a fine way to run a team -- as long as Cooke spends the money necessary to give them capable assistants and General Manager Bobby Beathard drafts enough gems everyone else considers worthless.
Theismann is almost desperate to direct this Gibbs Express.
"Like Christmas and New Year's wrapped up in one announcement," he said. "For my 10 years (in pro football) everybody has been trying to put a governor on my. But his (Gibbs') philosophy and mine are so much alike. It's also very sound." but it will work as spectacularly in Washington as it did in San Diego? With the Chargers, Gibbs was working withe the best wide receiver (John Jefferson) and best tight end (Kellen Winslow) on the face of the earth.
The scouting report on the offense Gibbs inherits, from purged Redskin coaches and other teams, reads: Theirsmann and Art Monk the only better-than-average players. Most of the blockers, except for guard Jeff Williams, too old to be overly effective. And Williams often does not overextend himself. Wilbur Jackson cold be above average, but only in a backfield that includes Riggins as the primary runner.
"Nobody here has really asked our people to do what the San Diego people have done," he said. "We've been playing defense on offense. That was fine in '79, when we had Riggins.But in '80, without him, we couldn't do it. I'm excited.
"What I'm gonna do is rest my right arm four or five months. No tennis. Eat only with my left hand. Grow a beard, like Danny (Fouts)."
For quite some time, no one will be entirely certain whether the Redskins have given a three-year contract to the next great coach in the NFL or a glorified offensive coordinator, whether Gibbs will be his own man in matters that affect him most or whether there are unseen strings attached to him Bearthard will pull.
Ironically, the Redskins will be paying Jack Pardee more not to coach the Redskins next year then they will be paying Gibbs to coach them. With their first draft choice, they also are likely to acquire a defensive lineman rather than somebody to make the Gibbs Express more potent.
"The more I think about this," said Theismann, "the more I'd like to start (practice) immediately." The beginning was yesterday, when Theismann met his coach for the first time. Very shortly, he will try to get inside the man's mind.