The Redskins were 0-5 and playing progressively worse every week.
The players braced themselves for yelling, finger-pointing and the threats coaches usually make when teams are losing.
"You figured it all had to come," guard Russ Grimm said. "That's how it always is on losing teams. Coaches start blaming the players, they start blaming each other and everyone points fingers at everyone else."
In team meetings before Game 6, Joe Gibbs was firm and serious. But instead of berating his players, he spoke about patience, self-esteem and dedication.
He told them they would win soon. That Sunday, they beat Chicago.
"He kept his cool no matter how bad things got," safety Mark Murphy said. "He handled a most difficult situation very well. People already were asking him about his job security, but he stayed calm. That impressed a lot of players. Sure, he got upset sometimes and we were chastized, but nothing out of the ordinary. I'd say he earned our respect during that period, and I think that's essential before a coach can do anything with a team."
The Redskins are 4-6 going into today's 4 p.m. game against the New York Giants (WDVM-TV-9). Gibbs isn't gloating over their resurgence the past five weeks any more than he sulked over their horrid start.
But if he eventually becomes a standout coach in the National Football League, as the team owner and general manager have predicted, it will be due in large part to his demeanor during those nightmarish early days of his rookie season.
General Manager Bobby Beathard feared at one point that Gibbs would break under the pressure, so he decided to give his coach a pep talk. Gibbs wound up consoling Beathard.
"I can't imagine a worse situation for a new coach," Beathard said. "Here was a guy with great expectations still trying to get his first win in a town that's really serious about their football team.
"I thought he would break, but he didn't come close. He has a great confidence in himself. I don't know where it comes from, but he has it. The team had every reason to fall apart, but he didn't let it."
Gibbs was hired from the San Diego Chargers staff by team owner Jack Kent Cooke, who was impressed with Gibbs' intelligence, outgoing personality and tactical imagination.
Gibbs has made some coaching blunders, particularly in his offensive scheme at the beginning of the season. He sometimes grows too close to players, which influences his personnel decisions. He delegates authority well but has trouble delegating his own time. He tends to drive himself almost to the point of exhaustion every week. He also has had to learn to be a head coach the toughest way possible, through on-the-job training in a city where every move is reported and analyzed.
Gibbs says he'll never be able to keep his distance from players. "I like people too much. If that's a fault, it's something I'm going to have to live with."
He also admits if he had been more familiar with his personnel, he probably would not have begun the season with a wide-open passing offense that contributed heavily to the team's sloppy play.
"We are still in the process of learning what we all can do," he said. "I took a look at our running backs and figured we needed to have two backs in there at all times. I was really more comfortable with one back and two tight ends. It's the way I probably should have gone, but once you make a decision, you can't second guess it. I did what I thought was right and then when I saw it wasn't, I changed."
Even now, when the team is winning, his players still laugh occasionally at some of his behavior. And not all of them agree with the way he has maneuvered personnel. For the most part, however, they say his attempts to be a "player's coach" have worked. He has been firm without being abusive, inspirational without being melodramatic.
"What impressed me the most," Grimm said, "was when he told us that if we mess up, the coaches feel they have messed up too, because they didn't teach us right. He didn't pass the buck on to us.
"If you are around him any length of time, you realize he is honest and fair. That's why we respect him. If you need him, he'll talk to you. And he's always around, walking through the locker room, talking to people. It impresses you when you see him giving instructions during practice instead of hanging back and observing."
Said quarterback Joe Theismann, who was benched once by Gibbs: "We all appreciate that he doesn't criticize us in public. No player likes to see a coach single him out. He took the blame himself, whether it was deserved or not. People should realize that we are just now starting to see him work at his best. He feels comfortable now. The job really fits him."
The players never knew the self-doubts that troubled Gibbs during the losing streak. "In the worst moments, you question yourself, sure," he said. "I always have felt this is where I'm supposed to be, as a head coach in this league, in Washington.
"But to get off to that kind of start, you wonder. It couldn't have been a worse beginning, especially for a new staff that's a little more excited to begin with. You have to worry about what your owner is thinking and how tolerant the fans are going to be. But I was so sure what we were doing was right that I stayed with it. And just hoped I had made the right decision."
During those early weeks, Gibbs started sleeping three nights every week at Redskin Park on a pull-out sofa purchased by his wife, Patricia. He knew he was becoming drained but all his life he had met every crisis by working harder. So he put in longer hours, watched more film, looked at more computer printouts.
"I'd go home on Friday nights and sleep for 12 hours straight," he said. "I still do. You can feel the walls closing in, but there isn't much you can do about it. I know they took my blood pressure before the start of one season and it was something like 75 over 138. Before a game against Oakland, it was 95 over 155."
"I think what kept them all going was their ability to laugh," said Gibbs' secretary, Barbara Kelley. "No matter how bad it got, all the coaches still could find something to laugh about."
Gibbs intentionally surrounded himself with assistants who also were close friends. He then delegated major authority to them. "I know how they will react in times of crisis," he said during training camp. And when the crisis occurred sooner than he had expected, his assistants helped him get through it.
"Joe likes to tell stories and laugh," said Joe Bugel, the offensive line coach. "We all do. It eases the tension. I've been around coaches who take things so seriously you never could smile. That'll kill you for sure."
The latest sure-fire comedy hit at Redskin Park is a film, run at high speed, of Gibbs and Don Breaux, the backfield coach, signalling plays to the quarterbacks during practice. Every time it is shown, Gibbs' high-pitched belly laugh can be heard in the surrounding halls.
His automobile exploits also have been somewhat hilarious.
There was the night he walked outside Redskin Park and couldn't find his car. He thought it was stolen, then remembered he had parked it at the nearby Dulles Marriott. And then he couldn't find keys to open it.
Another night, he had a flat tire and couldn't remove the hub cap. He finally tried to take the hub cap off by beating it with a tire jack before driving the car, flat tire and all, to a gas station.
"Oh, I see you were too lazy to use the key to get the hub cap off," the attendent said.
"What key?" Gibbs asked.
"During the football season," Gibbs explained the other day, "my mind is totally involved with football. I try to exercise and it doesn't work. I've gained eight pounds already. I started to run for a couple of days in the morning and by the third day, I said 'the heck with it, I'll get a few more minutes sleep.'
"I've got to do better. It's like playing racquetball, you like it so much that you think if you play it all the time, it'll be great. But after a while, you get sick of hearing the ball hit the wall. The most relaxed year I had in coaching, I played racquetball once a week at midnight. Cleared my mind every time."
In some ways, losing seemed to clear his mind here. He was forced to grow up quickly as the head coach of a team in transition and make some difficult early decisions. Should he abandon the pass-at-every-chance offensive approach he used at San Diego? Should he drop Coy Bacon, his best pass rusher, for disciplinary reasons? Should he bench John Riggins for a quicker Wilbur Jackson?
"Those are the type things that can make or break you," Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon said. "It's different being an assistant than being a head coach. You don't have to face the press every day, and you don't have the responsibility of the whole team and all the players either. Nothing really can ever prepare you for that."
Gibbs agrees. He looks back at those early weeks and tries to remember only the good things, and not that 17 years of preparation for the job might have been wasted.
"When you are 0-5, nothing that has ever happened to you can help you completely," he said. "But people like Bobby and Mr. Cooke were great. And so were a lot of the fans. One sent me a plant to cheer me up. I'll always remember that.
"And I'll remember the players, too, a guy like Joe Lavender. He came over to me after one of the losses and put his hand on my shoulder. 'Don't worry, coach,' he told me. 'Everything is going to be okay.'
"You know, he was right. If I mess up here, it will be my own fault, no one else's. I'm convinced of that more than ever now."