By nearly all accounts, Joe Gibbs has changed a great deal since becoming head coach of the Washington Redskins.

No one dares imply that the four-year metamorphosis of Joe Jackson Gibbs, son of a former North Carolina county sheriff, has been from good guy to evil. Rather, the consensus seems to be that the transformation of Gibbs has been from good guy to NFL head coach and that, in this profession, you can be one or the other, but not both.

Gibbs has been the Redskins' opening day coach for five seasons, which is two more than Jack Pardee lasted and two fewer than George Allen endured.

"I've heard people say that I've changed and that's bothered me," Gibbs says. "Someone very close to me told me that I had changed after we won the Super Bowl and that scared me. I've tried to go back in my life and ask myself, 'Am I getting caught up in it?' because I don't want to."

Players say Gibbs is more prone to blowups in the locker room or at practice than he was in the past. Assistant coaches say that maybe -- just maybe -- criticism has made Gibbs become inflexible when it comes to tinkering with his offense.

Reporters see Gibbs stiffen and become defensive when asked how his coach-to-player loyalties -- long the self-professed cornerstone of his coaching success -- have been challenged by the aging of the players who helped him spin Super Bowl gold only two and three years ago.

Gibbs now faces the eerie football chamber music: Do you stay with those vets for one more year or do you get rid of them? Where does loyalty end and the cold-hearted truth of the waiver wire begin?

High-visibility veterans such as running back Joe Washington and Charlie Brown were traded and safety Mark Murphy, kick returner Mike Nelms, wide receiver Alvin Garrett and defensive tackle Perry Brooks were released. Head Hog George Starke was given the option of retiring or being released shortly after camp and he took the face-saving route. Gibbs admits final roster decisions are difficult. He also says firmly the final decisions are his.

One year ago, Gibbs became disgusted with his players' effort and walked off the training camp practice field. He still refuses to talk about the moment or what it might have meant. All he will say is that it wasn't a premediated ploy. But was this a coach reacting to self-imposed pressures?

Of course Mark May, the offensive tackle, points out, "If (Gibbs) had the same attitude now that he had in his first year four years ago, we'd probably start 0-5 every season. He was a lot more laid-back then."

Darryl Grant, the defensive tackle, says, "If there's a change in Coach Gibbs, it's in how he reacts to the pressures. The expectations of him are so high now.

"Also, the guys on this team have been together for a long time. Now, we're being dispersed. I'm sure that concerns Coach Gibbs. I think now he is learning the political side and the business side of everything. It's one thing to know the guys and another thing to have to release them."

The record indicates Gibbs has been more than just a good coach. Gibbs says that he would like to match Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Don Shula and Don Coryell, who was his coach at San Diego State -- not in coaching style, but in longevity in the profession.

Perhaps Landry, Noll, Shula and Coryell might like to match Gibbs in coaching style. After all, Gibbs' four-year regular season mark of 41-16 gives him a higher regular season career winning percentage (.719) than each of the other fabled four. Over the past four years, only Shula (44-12-1) and San Francisco's Bill Walsh (41-16) can match or better Gibbs' regular-season record and all three have appeared in two Super Bowls.

Throughout his success, Gibbs says, "I would just like to be one of the people in the world who people can count on." In a job such as Gibbs', one dependent on so many people and so many uncontrollable ciurcumstances, perhaps this philosophy, too, is a tough burden to bear.

Gibbs likes to say about evolving NFL offenses, "It's like the theory of the dinosaur -- adapt or die." Maybe the same holds true for NFL coaches. It's a tough business for a nice guy, so you adapt and you cope with the pressures.

There was a time late last season, Gibbs admits, when he went for a jog and couldn't make it up a hill. He felt a pang in his chest. The postseason pressures were rising.

"It scared me," he admits. He says doctors attributed the pain to too much work, too little exercise. Gibbs says that the fact that he is 44 must be considered, too. "You have to realize, I guess, that you can't do all the things you used to be able to do when you were younger," he says, adding that doctors "say I'm fine now."

His time as Redskins coach has been one of such extremes that, on the one hand, it seems hard to believe that he already has been coach for four years and, on the other hand, it seems hard to believe that he has been coach for only four years.

In 1981, Gibbs not only began his first year as the Redskins head coach but also his first year as a head coach at any level, college or pro. The Redskins began 0-5 and some in the city cried for his firing. Then the team leveled off at a season-ending 8-8.

In the second year, the strike-shortened 1982 season, Gibbs' team won the Super Bowl with a funky, space-age offense that was so innovative that he was awarded the fragile, penciled-in title of genius. His team was full of Hogs, Smurfs and Fun Bunchers, and Gibbs was such a new commodity that the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, listed him as "Jim Gibbs" on a plaque of championship-winning coaches.

Then in 1983, Gibbs' team finished 14-2 in the regular season. He was on a roll. Poundin' the run. Chalkin' up the Ws. Not only that, Gibbs accomplished all of this after his starting cornerback (Jeris White) began a holdout that ended his career, and his all-pro safety (Tony Peters) was lost for the season after pleading guilty to drug charges.

So smooth, Gibbs quietly asked the Redskins' public relations director not to write about all of those record-breaking numbers in the team's weekly releases, lest his players' heads swell. He knew he had something good. He just didn't want to break it.

Later it became obvious why Gibbs used the "save the applause till the curtain closes" approach. The Redskins were crushed, 38-9, by the Raiders in the Super Bowl and Gibbs' offense was dealt the title of predictable. No wonder why he says, "In the world of football, one game can change everything."

Then in his fourth year, 1984, Gibbs' team finished 11-5 to outlast Tom Landry's Cowboys, St. Louis and so many injuries of its own to win the NFC East Division. Gibbs proudly called the season "a gut-check performance." But then in the playoffs, only two games short of a record-tying third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, the Bears defeated the Redskins, 23-19.

Once again, the offense was called predictable. Except this time the question wasn't, "Why did you always run Riggins left?" and the answer wasn't, "Because it's our bread-and-butter play."

This time, Gibbs had opted for the pass in the fourth quarter to compensate for an offensive line depleted by injury and unable to block for its runners. The question was: "Why'd you stop running? Isn't that your bread-and-butter play?" Gibbs was left muttering into the offseason.

Which brings us to the present and another realization: Maybe it is true what Gibbs has been saying all along, that in times of victory the coach receives too much credit and in times of defeat the coach receives too much blame.

"I've experienced all of the highs and lows. I've learned from the experiences," Gibbs says. "When you lose, the criticism comes like a rush. A lot of people are unrealistic. They don't realize how hard it is to win . . . I'm trying to guard against some things. I'm trying to be myself. I don't want to change, unless it's for the better. "People see me and they might say, 'He acted like a jerk. Why'd he do it?' But, you see, you face a lot of disappointments in this job. You have a lot of people working for you and they don't always do what you hope for. You see disappointments here and there. So you blow up."

He has had to make difficult roster moves, parting with veterans of glories past. "Competition is the key," Gibbs says. "You have to weigh age and other things. Last year, some of the older guys fell on hard years. They lost on some of their production. As a coach, I had to ask myself: Can Joe Washington be a great producer this year? His production last year showed me that maybe his production has gone way down.

"Murphy hurt me," says Gibbs, about the veteran safety who had asked for some guaranteed payment before he would report to camp. The Redskins didn't give the guarantees. Murphy didn't report to minicamp, then he was released.

"It was the first time a player said, 'I can't get a fair shot here,' " Gibbs said. "Mark was saying, 'I don't think the coaching staff will pick the best player.' He had played for me for four years and to me he just crossed the line by saying that."

He refers to the Super Bowl loss to the Raiders as "the very realization of coaching -- where we played so great week to week, then we had the collapse in the Super Bowl."

But if others remain blind to the 14-2 climb up that 1983 mountain, Gibbs does not. "We scored more points (541) than anybody in history and we set a giveaway/takeaway record (43 more turnovers caused then committed). As coach, you can't get caught up in all of the criticism. I've spent my whole life in this business. So many of the people who criticize have barely been in it at all.

"People turn on you so fast. After we lost the Super Bowl, people came up to me and said, 'We're still behind you.' That infuriated me. I try not to be bothered by the nonsensical. I've been called a genius and predictable within a two-week period. It's like a double-edged sword.

"No, it doesn't hurt me (to be called predictable with his offensive concepts). Obviously, I feel like it's the farthest thing from the truth. The only people who would hurt me are the people who have spent their life in football. And there isn't one of those people who would say that the Redskins' offense is predictable."

Gibbs gave a smile that said, 'Trust me.' More than being defensive, he remains confident about his offense. "I can look at the film and see, technically, whether teams have caught up with us. Last year, I was most comfortable with what I found. When I can say to myself that there is somebody stopping us, that's when you evolve to other things."

Several defenses crowded the line of scrimmage against the Redskins, playing tackle to tackle, waiting for John Riggins to come barreling forward. If the defensive concepts were the same, the alignments were different.

Dallas actually abandoned its run-stopping Flex against the Redskins on running downs. Out went the Cowboys' middle linebacker and in came a fifth defensive back. This was done to try to cancel the Redskins' option of using a three-wide-receiver formation as they had in dismantling Dallas the year before.

The Cardinals used a five-man defensive front at times and incorporated uncustomary blitz tactics.

The Giants crowded the line and allowed linebacker Lawrence Taylor to roam.

The Bears blitzed and blitzed and blitzed. Each week, it was something new, yet something the same. Tough times for the Redskins.

After lengthy examination of last year's game films, Gibbs says he is convinced that the Redskins' troubles were caused as much by offensive breakdown as they were by defensive ingenuity. He believes in his offense and presses forward, hoping for regained health for his offensive linemen.

"People say you can do this or that on offense, but the key in coaching is doing what your people do best and to use them that way," he said. "There are certain things that don't fit our people. People said last year, 'Why don't you use a two-back offense?'

"There are basic principles of a two-back offense. If you give John Riggins the football, do you have Joe Washington block for him? Do you want Joe Washington to block Lawrence Taylor?"

The answer, of course, is no. That's why Gibbs, who believes that running the ball produces victories and that passing the ball produces well-balanced ways to open up the run, likes having a second (H-back, motion) tight end in the game instead of a second running back: more blocking to add support on run plays.

So, for better or worse, Gibbs continues to adapt. Likely, his coaching metamorphosis will end only when his coaching itself ends. It has been proven from the time of Halas and the Chicago Staleys (a.k.a. The Beginning) that being an NFL coach makes a man's spirit and will harden, like cement.

"You know, as a football coach, you're always on the cliff ready to fall off. It's been proven here over a short time," Gibbs says. "The pressure just goes vroom! You can't afford to lose or you're gone. I've never fooled myself once. I have to win."