Slouched on a tan couch at the back of a small room adjacent to the coaches lockers at Redskin Park, Joe Gibbs said: "You have so many tough things happen to you in coaching. Every now and then something so good comes along that you'll probably remember it forever."

Losses almost always linger longer inside football coaches than victories. But beating the Detroit Lions last Sunday had come in such a thrilling and bizarre way as to give Gibbs a uniquely warm glow as he looked at a piece of paper about the dimensions of an oversized legal pad that a reporter was holding.

The paper was a copy of Gibbs's game plan for the Lions. Exactly a week earlier, Gibbs had agreed to talk each day about how the game plan was being formed, about how it was taking shape during practice and about how he expected it to be executed. Win or lose, he promised a lookback the Monday after.

Never had he anticipated anything close to what actually took place.

The week began as emotionally as it ended. If Gibbs could not have been much higher after that comeback victory in overtime, he could not have been much lower before starting serious preparations for it. Slightly more than 24 hours after being beaten by the Giants, again, an exceedingly frustrated Gibbs had to focus on the Lions.

"One of the toughest things for a coach," he said of the mental turnaround. "A tough loss. Grading films {earlier in the day} and then coming back tonight and having to do some of your best work. Never a day off. Never a day when you can kind of regroup, sleep in once and kind of get freshened up."

This was early on the evening of Monday, Oct. 29. Gibbs had completed his call-in television show and was about to join offensive assistants who earlier had compiled all the relevant stats and tapes.

"Football," Gibbs said, "is a guessing game based on percentages."

The meeting Gibbs joined was in a room known as The Sub because everybody gets submerged in strategy and only comes out, during most of four days, for occasional sleep and practice. As is his habit, Gibbs arrived at Redskin Park on Monday morning and didn't leave until late Thursday afternoon.

Inside The Sub, each offensive coach each day occupies the same chair around a long, brown rectangular table. Line coach Rennie Simmons is at the near end and works the tape machine; Gibbs is upper right. No one sits at the head of the table, because he would blot out important parts of the huge screen behind.

"What we decide first," Gibbs said, "is what formations we'll use. And what runs we like from those formations. We kind of tie the pass stuff to that." Formations Foundation

Formations, not plays, are the keys to football's mint. That became evident when Gibbs on Wednesday pulled a copy of his practice plan, folded twice, from a hip pocket.

Was that valuable?

"This is, extremely," he said, pointing to the quadrant with tiny, almost illegible printing and dotted lines. Those were formations. And if a team didn't know those formations, the plays that dominated the rest of the page were meaningless.

Even decently serious football fans are not keen on formations. With seven players having to be on the line of scrimmage, with every running play being limited to left, right or straight ahead, how many formations are possible? "Our defense last year did a breakdown of our offense," said Gibbs's administrative assistant, Bobby DePaul, "and in one three-game period they used 130 formations. They gave our opponents 130 different looks in three games. The only other team that does that is the 49ers."

So on their own, plays such as Scat Banana, 80/90 Pinch Mingo, Robert and Larry 735 and the lyrical Walk-Left-Leap Charlie 10 Deep mean little except to illustrate how complicated pro football has gotten over the years.

"With the Browns {in the late-'50s}," said assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell, "a run around right end was called 38. That's 38 on two. Today 38 on two goes on for about 35 words. Same play. Now they're telling each guy something."

Monday's meeting lasted until about 2 a.m. Gibbs figured Tuesday and Wednesday were similarly exhausting, although his mind later in the week was on the blurry side about such details. He did admit that meetings for the Giants had gone far longer, perhaps until 5 a.m.

Plays are chosen for general situations: first and 10, second and long, third and two to six, third and seven-plus, runs and passes from the opponent's 20 on in, runs and passes from the 10 on in, goal-line, short yardage and two-minute.

The Redskins' two-minute drill is called Red Ball. It's the hurry-up procedure for the final moments of each half -- or when the other guys are ahead by a lot and quick-strike catchup is necessary.

Gibbs had planned on not being behind. The Lions figured to be vulnerable to his signature counter game, runs that followed a pulling guard and tackle and the passes those runs make possible.

Another factor would be tight end Don Warren returning to his familiar role as blocker after a 10-catch performance against the Giants.

"We'll try and separate the defense with him," Gibbs said. "He'll come in motion and then bang inside. Bang the linemen on trap-type plays."

The critical Lions on defense were linebacker Michael Cofer and nose tackle Jerry Ball. Washington's offensive line would "slide" Cofer's way, Gibbs said. At different times, Warren would provide extra help handling both Cofer on the outside and Ball on the inside.

Separately, the defensive coaches were plotting their own game plan for the distinctive run-and-shoot Lions offense. It's a system that frequently dazzles but also grates against tradition.

Nearly every NFL coach, and Gibbs especially, has stressed balance on offense. The run and shoot features passing. Nearly every NFL coach, and Gibbs especially, has stressed power football. The run and shoot features little fellows. No fullback anywhere to be seen; no tight ends.

Gibbs on trying to manacle the run-and-shoot: "Give 'em the same look, whether we're man or zone. Keep 'em guessing. We've got to go get them sometimes, without them realizing we're coming.

"Their quarterback does a half-sprint and tries to hit seam routes {along the hash marks}. We've got some combination coverages inside to take that away, make them do something they don't want to do. But the most unique part of that offense is the running back, {Barry} Sanders. He's our No. 1 priority. We have to put someone specifically on him every play.

'Meat of What We Do'

"That causes problems, when you put someone on him and then try and play zone. But if we don't get on him every play, the whole game will boil down to him running draws and screens. And he can beat you himself. So we'll attack him {with a linebacker or, sometimes, with an end}. If we can keep him from dominating, we have a chance."

What Gibbs calls "the meat of what we do" on offense was presented to the players Wednesday during meetings and rehearsed for two hours later on the field: all formations and packages for first and second downs, third down and two to six and third down and seven-plus.

Gibbs may not be as paranoid as the coach who devised Redskin Park, George Allen, but he has his moments. On Thursday, after the formal practice had ended, a crew taping a public-service announcement for the Prince George's County public schools began setting up a camera.

Gibbs shooed the men away. They had innocently pointed a lense toward the onsides kickoff being practiced a few yards away.

On Thursday, after the offense worked on most of the rest of the likely Sunday situations, Gibbs said: "We've got a couple of plays on short yardage that could give us big plays on the run. They play their safeties real soft."

Friday, Gibbs said: "We feel they'll be fired up, hot on pursuit early. So we've got some misdirection plays, reverses we want to use early in the game. We always have at least two special plays a game. Our guys expect them."

A great deal of preparation is devoted to those few tense moments that decide most games. With that in mind, Gibbs said: "When it gets to real critical plays, like third-down passing or third down and 10 in, there'll be nothing they have seen on film. It might be the same pass play {used earlier}, but from a totally different formation."

On Saturday, there was this notation on the two-minute plans: "A" QB DRAW. The A meant audible, in case the Lions covered the inside. If that happened, the quarterback would change to a pass. Stan Humphries ran the play once, practice ended soon and the team left for Detroit.

Later, Bobby DePaul recopied all the plays onto both sides of the white piece of cardboard Gibbs later slipped into his clipboard. He made about 15 copies, for the quarterbacks and other assistant coaches to refer to in pregame meetings.

Not long before kickoff, all game-plan notes were collected from the players. As a precaution, Simmons later would tear nearly everything up. "You never know," DePaul said, "who's going through trash cans."

Gibbs long since had memorized his game plan. Still, as usual, he went to a quiet place and recopied all the plays for the 20-yard line in. He then taped that sheet to the back of his clipboard, for even easier reference.

Came the opening kickoff -- and any idea Gibbs had about momentum-turning reverses was quickly doused. A holding penalty meant the Redskins started from their 12.

Earnest Byner ran twice for a total of one yard. Who stuffed him each time? The man the Redskins were determined to handle, nose tackle Ball. On the fourth play from scrimmage, a Humphries pass bounced off Gary Clark and into the hands of -- who else? -- the other Lion the Redskins were determined to tame, linebacker Cofer.

"We stayed pretty much with the game plan the first part of the game," Gibbs said later. The first quarter ended with the score tied at 7, but with the Lions on the move.

Two minutes into the second quarter, Peete and Sanders tried an option left and a Redskin hustled toward Sanders. Unfortunately, the Redskin assigned to Peete got hooked inside and the quarterback scurried into the end zone.

First play of the next series, Humphries threw an inexcusable interception, which William White returned 34 yards for what quickly became a 21-7 lead for Detroit.

Suddenly, Red Ball

Fast-forward to early in the third quarter. With the Lions up by 35-14, after Sanders broke free on a draw for a 45-yard touchdown, Gibbs turned to backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge. He also turned to Red Ball.

What followed for most of the next 24-plus minutes was a series of plays designed for the two-minute drill. Posse passes. Scat Banana and Robert and Larry 100.

"If we get beat," Gibbs had said Thursday, "it'll probably be on big plays. We're not gonna sit back and let 'em throw up those seams. We're gonna get after 'em."

In the first three quarters, the Lions had 13 plays that gained at least 10 yards; in the fourth quarter, they had one. The Redskins pulled closer. On fourth and six from the Lions 34, Jeff Rutledge hit Gary Clark across the middle at about the 20. Clark then cut through the defense and scored the touchdown that narrowed the deficit to 38-31.

"It was a pass we'd run," Gibbs said, "but the formation was different." That helped set up the ultimate crunch-time play: 'A' QB DRAW. On third and five from the Detroit 12. With 24 seconds left and the Redskins out of timeouts. The play had been run once in practice, by the more mobile Humphries.

"Green Bay had run it on 'em a couple of times," Gibbs said, "and somebody else had, too, because they play a kind of loose structure there."

A dozen things easily could have gone wrong. But everything went right and, with two blocks by center Jeff Bostic, Rutledge got into the end zone by about the width of a jersey thread.

In overtime, the Redskins either made a marvelous stand from just inside midfield or the Lions couldn't pass or catch on two of the three futile downs. Soon, Rutledge was executing a long sideline pass to Monk, on a play set up earlier by a bunch of stop patterns, and Chip Lohmiller was trying the winning field goal.

Only rarely does drama bring Gibbs to his knee on the sideline; Lohmiller's winning kick may have been the first since the playoff in RFK Stadium against the Vikings three seasons ago.

Do such endings make all the hours worthwhile?

"Yeah," he said. "But I'm wiped out."

Same as he'd been the week before. Only joyous this time. Quickly, Gibbs needed to click off the Lions and become coolly analytical about the Eagles. It was early Monday evening and he was headed for The Sub.