The genius of Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs is not easy to understand. Asked why his teams win so often, especially in December and January, various players, assistant coaches and team officials mention a variety of things.

They mention the man, his work habits, game plans and personality. They point to his relationship with players, which doesn't have the emotional appeal of George Allen or the aloofness of Tom Landry, but is a mixture of both.

The Gibbs that most of the world sees is straitlaced, dry as sand and seemingly doing a never-ending audition tape for the Boy Scouts. The private Gibbs is different. Players say he can be funny and engaging, a wonderful storyteller, and someone who gets his point across.

They cite the system he has created. The Redskins under Gibbs have perhaps the shortest training camp, but the longest and hardest regular season practices. After a couple of weeks in the daily grind, new defensive tackle Eric Williams said, "These aren't practices, these are midweek games."

Gibbs also was the first NFL coach to give up training-camp practice time to allow his players to lift weights. That program rolls right into the regular season. One of the results may be that they're as strong in January as they are in December. And because they're strong, they may not get the small aches and pains.

There's also the matter of style. From John Riggins to Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs, the Redskins have prided themselves on tough, physical football.

Finally, they point to the system itself. Gibbs and defensive chief Richie Petitbon have complex schemes that get better as players settle into their roles. This season the defense got better as youngsters Andre Collins and Martin Mayhew and newcomers Tim Johnson, Williams and Jumpy Geathers fit in.

Whatever the reasons, few teams have played better when it has counted most. Gibbs will take a 12-3 (.800) postseason record into Candlestick Park against the San Francisco 49ers Saturday afternoon, and among coaches with at least 100 victories, only Vince Lombardi, at 9-1, has a better postseason winning percentage (.900).

In all, the Redskins under Gibbs are 40-12 in December and the playoffs. That's a .769 winning percentage and considerably better than their .635 percentage (73-42) in September, October and November.

First, there's the matter of Gibbs himself.

"What you respect about him the most is he's such a hard worker," said tight end Don Warren, who has been around for all of Gibbs's 110 nonstrike victories. "You know he's up in that office until all hours and that he's putting everything he has into it. Other coaches might be going home at 10 or 11, but he's in there until 4 or 5 in the morning. He works his tail off and you have to respect him for that. He's not asking you to do anything he doesn't do himself."

Gibbs and his staff routinely work on game plans three nights a week until 3 a.m. Most of the assistants drive home for their four hours of sleep, but Gibbs sleeps on a sofa in his office.

"You get the feeling they may be working a few hours overtime when a coach's hand sticks on the projector, and you look over and see him dozing," quarterback Mark Rypien said. "They're giving it everything they have and who are we to complain about whatever hours we're asked to work."

Warren: "It's not just the hours. Over the years -- and this is the biggest thing to me -- he has been a great motivator. It's not scare tactics or anything like that. It's the way he talks to us in groups, it's the way he relates to you. There's a lot of things involved: money, fear, pride, all of it. He appeals to all of it. He never varies, and if he tells you something, you know it's coming from his heart."

Warren and players like him certainly are also part of the reason. Gibbs begins every explanation of his success with: "It's the players."

When the Redskins were 6-5 this season, Gibbs heard that he'd held onto some guys too long. Down the stretch, having Warren, Art Monk, Monte Coleman, Darryl Grant, Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm and others has been one of the team's biggest assets.

Warren and Monk may be the prototype Gibbs players. They give interviews about twice a year and are so reluctant to speak publicly that neither dresses in the locker room at RFK Stadium.

But both have close to 100 percent attendance records for offseason workouts and both are gifted and fanatical about their preparations. Gibbs almost never blows his public cool, but this year when a reporter kept asking if Warren hadn't run the wrong route on an interception, Gibbs snapped: "No. Donnie Warren doesn't run the wrong route."

Gibbs may not have created a family. That's probably not possible in a business in which players come and go. But it may not be the typical coach-player relationship either. "I can't say players really know him," one ex-Redskin said this week. "I don't know if you're ever going to have that. But I do know it's twice as good here as anyplace else."

Gibbs often has talked about coaches who've used an array of psychological tricks to get their teams excited. The punch line usually is that the players either saw right through the gimmick or thought it was silly.

"My point is this: Be yourself," he said. "If you're an excitable guy and that's what gets you motivated, go ahead. But if you try that, and it's not really you . . . that won't work."

Grant said: "It comes down to coaching, the system and the players. What else is involved? Coach Gibbs knows how to prepare a team, gets everybody ready and points out what we need to focus on. He gets smart guys in here, and when you have smart guys, there's certain things you may not have to do. You don't have to give a speech every week. Smart players can figure things out."

Perhaps more than at any other time, the playoffs belong to the coaches. By then every team has a good idea of what every other team will do, and January matchups can be decided by coaches' chess matches.

That's why, while almost no one gave Washington a chance against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, most of the Redskins believed that if it came down to a Gibbs game vs. a Buddy Ryan game, they'd be advancing.

For his part, Gibbs points almost everywhere except to his own desk. He has refused to allow the Redskins to put his picture on the cover of the media guide and answers questions about success with: "It's Mr. {Jack Kent} Cooke. It's the players. It's the system we have here."