Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs doesn't believe in whistles. He thinks they can interfere with the flow of practice. So his assistants have to improvise to gain the attention of their players.
Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach, is most handicapped -- don't all kicking situations start as soon as the referee blows his whistle?
Sevier has come up with a marvelous solution. Whenever he wants a play to begin, he yells, with a straight face, "Tweet, Tweet."
Somehow, the players can keep from laughing, but not onlookers. Sevier's tweets have become a highlight of Gibbs' first training camp.
"Had to think of something," said Sevier. "I'm not used to working without a whistle."
Eliminating whistles isn't the only change Gibbs has made. After a decade of George Allen's bromides and Jack Pardee's cautious pronouncements, Gibbs and his staff have instilled in this camp a college-like enthusiasm and intensity.
Joe Bugel, the line coach, is constantly in motion, bouncing, prodding and pushing. Don Breaux, the running back coach, practically follows his players into the line, yelling encouragement and clapping his hands on almost every down.
Even Gibbs, who tries at times to remove himself and stand back in his best head-coach posture to contemplate the proceedings, gets wrapped up in the flow.
When the offense runs a two-minute drill, Gibbs spots the ball and dashes away before he gets run over by the linemen. Gibbs corrects the quarterbacks and chews out the club for talking too much on the sidelines. And Gibbs decides, mostly on the basis of instinct, when to end one drill and begin another. So there is no need for whistles.
"I've really never seen anything quite like this staff," said Joe Kuczo, the trainer, who has been to 29 Redskin camps and hardly needs to endorse a head coach to keep his job. "The way they bounce around. And the way they teach. That's what impresses me."
This is a teaching staff. Allen knew he wouldn't have young players around, so his assistants needed to be strong on game plans and tactics. Pardee's staff was a mixture of personalities, some of whom relied more on yelling than patience. But Gibbs' aides are guiding a team that is making a transition to youth. In the process, there is little hollering.
"When I was a young coach, I used to yell to make sure those around me knew I knew what was being done wrong," said Larry Peccatiello, linebacker coach. "But now I have a lot more confidence in myself. If you yell, it turns off the players. No one likes to be yelled at. You get upset at times and you let them know that, but just to humiliate them, that doesn't do any good."
This could be known as the best coaching staff money could buy. It is acknowledged around the league T that Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke was most generous to Gibbs' assistants, one reason the Redskins were able to lure most of them away from stable jobs.
Cooke was convinced that a highly capable staff was the reason Philadelphia was able to improve rapidly under Dick Vermeil. So when Gibbs, who had spent 17 years as an assistant coach, pushed for high wages (most of the staff is in the $70,000 to $90,000 annual salary range), Cooke readily agreed.
"I knew what life was like for an assistant in this league," Gibbs said. "I wanted to give them security and the feeling they were wanted. I knew how I wanted to be treated when I was an assistant and I wasn't going to forget it when I got a head coaching job."
There are fascinating connections between all nine assistants and Gibbs, who reached into the past and hired familiar faces. There isn't a Redskin assistant who has not coached on the same team with at least one other member of the staff. There are no strangers here, no unknown personalities, none of the friction that Gibbs believes can destroy not only a staff but a team. "One problem guy," he said, "and you can be ruined."
The offensive staff is tied most closely to Gibbs, the offensive specialist. Dan Henning, the assistant head coach, had a secure job as a top Don Shula aide at Miami. "We said working under Shula was like being under the Fireman's Fund umbrella," said Gibbs. "You had all that great security. Shula is never going to be fired." But Gibbs helped Henning, then a substitute high school teacher, get his first college coaching job 13 years ago at Florida State and the two have remained close ever since.
"I thought it would be good for my career to be exposed to Joe's offensive thinking," said Henning, 39, a reserved, sometimes aloof man with a keen knowledge of the game who was interviewed last year by New Orleans before Bum Phillips was hired. Of all the staff members, Henning probably yearns the most for a head coaching job.
Warren (Rennie) Simmons, the tight end coach, is Gibbs' closest friend. The two went through W high school, junior college and college together. They married high school sweethearts who also are best friends. Simmons, now a svelte 210 pounds, once weighed 240 before a knee injury the last game of his college career ended hopes of a pro career as a center. He was a college coach in California, happy and secure, before Gibbs called.
"I think it's good to have someone near you who has been through the good and the bad -- someone you can trust and who knows you," Gibbs said. "Rennie and I have shared a lot, and he's a good coach. We had always talked about being on the same staff together some day."
Simmons, 39, Gibbs, 40, and Sevier, 40, played on the same San Diego State team coached by Don Coryell. Gibbs, the tight end, helped Sevier, the quarterback, get a job with Coryell at St. Louis, working with statistics. Sevier later moved to the Charger staff, which also included Gibbs.
Breaux, 41, was instrumental in getting Gibbs his first full-time college position, with Florida State in 1967. When Breaux left the next season to go to Arkansas, the offensive coordinator's job at Florida State went to Gibbs.
"I remember going over to Don's place and asking him to tell me everything he could about the offense," said Gibbs. "So Don was sitting at a table with two tablespoons, eating a half-gallon of ice cream and I'm pumping him in between bites about the options on this or that pass pattern."
Breaux is a legendary eater. "He's the one guy I know who runs not to lose weight but to be able to eat more," said Bugel. Breaux, a deeply religious man raised in rural Louisiana, where he once caddied for Jay and Lionel Hebert, also is the best cook on the staff. His chicken gumbo is a culinary delight, as long as your mouth can withstand the pepper.
Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, is no slouch at the table, either. The former all-Pro safety now has an all-pro stomach. "You've got to work hard to keep up a figure like mine," he jokes. Petitbon has a wonderful sense of humor and a steady, let-things-ride approach to life. He probably is the most popular staff member among the players.
Gibbs had never worked with Petitbon, 43, the lone holdover from the Pardee staff. But Petitbon had been on the same Houston Oiler staff with Peccatiello, who also coached Henning at William and Mary before serving on the same staff with Henning at Houston and Florida State. Bugel and Peccatiello also were on the Navy staff in 1969 and Petitbon and Torgy Torgeson, the defensive line coach, knew each other during Allen's early Redskin years.
Torgeson, 52, is back for his third term as a Redskin assistant. Gibbs had lured Henning away from Shula; Peccatiello, the Seattle defensive coordinator, away from the Seahawks, and Bugel, the most sought-after line coach in the league, away from Phillips' enticements to go to New Orleans. Torgeson, who had a veteran front four with the Rams, hesitated the longest before giving in to Gibbs' salesmanship.
"Joe is very, very persuasive," said Simmons. "One-on-one, it's hard to say no to him."
After 23 years in the NFL, Torgeson is one of the most respected assistants in the business. He's a mild, likeable man whose even disposition is interrupted only occasionally on the practice field. But when he gets angry, his players listen up quickly.
"Torgy was one of my favorite players when I was growing up around Pittsburgh," Bugel said. "I'd go to Forbes Field to watch him play with the Steelers. I always wanted to coach with him. When I knew Joe was going after him, it influenced me."
Buegel, 41, had job offers from four teams last winter after Phillips was fired by Houston. His work with the Oiler offensive line had earned him a good reputation in the league. Gibbs knew he would need a teacher for his offensive line, and Bugel's strength is his ability to coach inexperienced players.
Why did Bugel come here? "It was a good step in my career," he said. "Besides, I had coached against Joe Gibbs. You go head to head enough and you want a chance to work with a guy like that for a change."
Bugel, too, desires to be a head coach after working with the likes of Woody Hayes, Rick Forzano and Phillips. That's one reason Peccatiello, 45, whose wife is from Alexandria, came to Washington. He figured it was a career move that would get him closer to being his own boss.
Billy Hickman, 58, who handles administrative chores for Gibbs, fulfilled similiar duties for Allen at Redskin Park. He won the admiration of fellow workers in the process, since they wondered how he could ever put up with Allen's constant demands and long working hours.
"You knew Billy had had it," said one team official, "when he began walking the halls at the Park. He had to get out of there before he lost his sanity."
Hickman has the disposition and shrewdness to withstand Allen. When he was an assistant coach at H Vanderbilt prior to the annual spring intrasquad game, Hickman won the coin toss that decided the dressing rooms for each team. Hickman chose the visitors' locker room.
"Why are you taking the visitors' room?" asked another coach. "Because I've seen more winners come out of that side than the home side since I've been here," he replied.
Last Wednesday, after a night practice, the Redskins were treated to a pizza party in their Dickinson College dorm. It's part of what Gibbs likes to call his practical approach to training camp.
As much as possible, he has tried to reduce friction between the coaches and the athletes. There will always be a natural tension in that relationship, but his nightly postmeeting snack break at least helped to create a slightly more relaxed atmosphere for the players.
The feedback from the Redskins so far has been positive. Sometimes they don't like the longer practices of the last week. But Gibbs prides himself on being a players' coach, and he demands that his assistants think in that vein, too. He also helped himself out by employing Charley Taylor, the former all-pro who is a Redskin scout, as an assistant helping with the receivers during camp. Taylor's talents, never utilized by either Allen or Pardee, have aided some of the young ends.
Gibbs also has eliminated end-of-practice conditioning and most of the contact drills that veterans have hated for years. Instead, the Redskins work out for lengthy periods and watch films twice a day, double the time Pardee and Allen set aside for that chore. But Gibbs also takes more practice film, utilizing two cameras at every session.
This heavy workload means long hours for the staff. The assistants see each other almost nonstop throughout the day, even eating every meal at the same table. So far, at least, they've remained harmonious.
"I think it's because we all have a funny bone," said Bugel. "We can all laugh at each other. Of course, we haven't played a game yet. You'd have to believe, though, that no matter what happens this season, our relationships won't change."
Gibbs creates the light atmosphere with his ability to tell stories. He's acclaimed by his associates as a G master at recalling old tales.
This staff socializes much more than Pardee's, especially on the golf course, where Sevier is the champion and Gibbs the duffer. By midway through last season, there was a split among Pardee's assistants, some of whom were disliked intensely by coworkers at Redskin Park.
"Sevier's job is golf, his hobby is special teams coach," said one staffer with a smile. Simmons, Torgeson, Bugel and Henning are low- to mid-80s players. Petitbon chips well, Torgeson is a pressure putter, Henning sometimes is a gorilla both off the tee and on the green. Breaux once was good but needs to polish his game.
Peccatiello, a low-key type whose financial acumen is the envy of his peers, plays better on the racquetball court, where he is a former Washington State masters champion. Of course, Gibbs is the acknowledged racquetball king. A former national age-group champ, he still maintains a high-level game.
"When I was an assistant and was seriously thinking about trying to be a head coach, I would think about who I would hire as assistants," Gibbs said. "I'd run the names past my wife and we'd discuss them. You want guys who will stand up under pressure and who you can have great fellowship with.
"I wound up hiring everyone I ever wanted to get. I mean, they had to give up good jobs to come here, and I'm delighted about that. Now it's a real easy situation, there are open discussions and no one really resents anyone else."
Gibbs anticipated the next question: Will it last if things start going badly at some point? "You never know. That'll be the test. But I've seen them all under pressure before. None of them have fallen apart.
"There's no reason to believe that will happen this time. I think we'll still be able to laugh, even when we think the walls are closing in on us."