All football teams have a personality, a history and a state of current development. The two coaches to precede Joe Gibbs were very successful. George Allen established the modern (post-1971) Redskins mystique. Jack Pardee, an Allen disciple, continued it.
George was a master motivator. He was able to take a bunch of old castoffs -- The Over The Hill Gang -- and get them to play with a wily intensity and win immediately. It was "The Future Is Now," all the while building for the future. Leaving no stone unturned, George used his motivational skills on the city itself, making the Dallas Cowboys and their coach, Tom Landry, the personification of evil. His idea was to whip Washington into such a frenzy. The feeling couldn't help but spill over onto his players.
Jack Pardee was not George Allen, but was a good coach and, like his mentor, named coach of the year and oversaw some of the most incredible Redskins-Cowboys confrontations. Remember the 35-34 loss down in Texas at the end of the 1979 season? Roger Staubach led that comeback, bringing Dallas from 13 points behind with two minutes to go. Harvey Martin threw a funeral wreath into the Redskins locker room and Edward Bennett Williams gave a speech saluting his team's courage, determination and toughness down in the devil's lair, trying to raise an emotionally devastated Washington team. That was sports drama at its best.
Into that arena stepped Joe Gibbs -- Pardee having been fired -- and in his first meeting said: "I'm a rookie head coach and as such, have a little patience with me, odds are I'll get fired some day, the only question is when, and that depends on you."
Seldom do teams change leadership when they are good teams. These weren't the hapless Saints, Eagles or Oilers teams with a succession of coaches, each looking to establish a tradition of excellence. These were the Washington Redskins, with the ghosts of Lenny Hauss, Charley Taylor, Larry Brown, Pat Fischer, Billy and Sonny, Kenny Houston, Chris Hanburger, Pardee and Brig Owens. We had that glorious history. And we had the seasoned veterans -- Butz, Theismann, Riggins, Monk, Olkewicz and Coleman. Joe had plenty to work with, but they were veterans and his burden was to convince them that the new system would work.
We had played against Gibbs many times when he was an assistant with the St. Louis Cardinals. Their head coach then was Don Coryell, who later jumped to San Diego, taking Gibbs with him.
The offensive system at San Diego, with players like Winslow and Fouts, was built around the pass and known as "Air Coryell." It was understandable that Gibbs would institute the system he knew best: The offense would be built around the pass.
The Redskins began the season 0-5.
It's difficult to relay the pressure of not winning. Suffice it to say that all of us wondered if we would ever win. The world doesn't end after any one loss or two losses, but with a new system and a new coach, the football past, the media scrutiny, that Joe maintained any santity or sense of humor is very much to his credit.
On the Redskins staff was Joe Bugel, the offensive line coach.. Bugel had coached with Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Bugel had on his line the original young Hogs: Dean, May, Jacoby, Bostic, Grimm, Warren, Walker. Great blockers all and backed up by a not-so-young but hard-as-nails fullback named Riggins.
In management one of the most admired qualities is the ability to make a change; stuff one's ego and try something different. Thus was born the modern-day Redskins.
The Redskins went on a winning streak that lasted for years and in many ways still characterizes their game today, which could explain some of the problems they're having now. But that is another story.
Back to Joe's first year. If a coach takes over a franchise that plays with a pitiful helplessness, his job is simply to overcome the past and -- assuming he has the skill and the owner has the patience -- build a winning team. I don't believe in that circumstance Gibbs would have been successful, motivational skills not being his long suit.
Joe's strengths are: being a nice guy; never painting himself into a corner from which he couldn't escape and knowing how to compromise; and being in the right place at the right time with a good idea, i.e., the one-back offense (when in fact he only had one back).
Gibbs's demeanor and the wisdom to punt rather than go down in flames is illustrated in his handling of possible confrontations with his veteran players. To say the 1981 Redskins were colorful, headstrong players is putting it mildly. Joe would have preferred that the players dress nicely when they traveled: sports jacket, tie and such. When 50 guys in jeans and T-shirts arrived at the plane, Joe made a smooth transition and thereafter assigned team dress codes to one of the captains (a captain not particularly known for snappy attire).
Speaking of dress, it brings to mind the day the Redskins went to Dallas in 1983 and beat the Cowboys. The team, on its own, without mentioning it to the coaches, decided to wear military outfits purchased at army surplus stores. While the press surrounded the buses for the big Dallas sendoff, the players marched out of the locker room, down the street and onto the buses.
Having agreed beforehand not to speak to the media about the attire, it was left to Gibbs to explain the proceedings. Joe rose to the occasion, mumbling something about the war being the theme for this week's game. A veteran save!
Of all the colorful characters on the modern Redskins, everyone's favorite would have to be Riggo. A true inspiration to his teammates both on and off the field.
The object of pro football is to win. To do that a coach must hold his team together and foster a singlemindedness of intent and direction on all parties. What if there is a great team with a winning style exemplified by a tough runner and a bunch of buddies called Hogs? Fine so far, but what if after practice they retire to an equipment shed full of grass and mowing machines, right next to the football field, just a spitting distance from the coach's office and proceed to drink beer and tell loud jokes long into the night. This is very much against the rules, but might be helping the team's camaraderie and all that. A true veteran never tampers with success.
As the Redskins enter the new season, there are a lot of unknowns. One certainty is that there will be some tough times, but regardless of how difficult, Joe Gibbs can handle it. We broke him in right.
George Starke was a Redskins offensive lineman from 1973 to '84.