The hours were flying by one night late last February as the grandfatherly coaches huddled around a conference room they dubbed The Submarine. The Washington Redskins were still more than six months from their opening game, but the second Joe Gibbs Era was well underway, as evidenced by the sound of booming voices echoing down the hallway at Redskins Park.
Bubba Tyer, the team's longtime trainer, heard the shouting and walked by the room to find Gibbs, 63, and his offensive assistants, Rennie Simmons, 62, Don Breaux, 63, Joe Bugel, 64, and Jack Burns, 55, passionately debating how to best attack a certain defensive scheme.
Tyer popped his head in the room to lighten the mood, chirping, "Any blood drawn in there yet?" After a brief chuckle, Tyer recounted, the coaches went back to their heated exchange.
This scene was repeated throughout the offseason as Gibbs and his offensive staff, which also includes 68-year-old consultant Ernie Zampese, immersed themselves in football. Gibbs, out of coaching for 11 years, has reassembled the band of offensive minds that helped him establish a dynasty in Washington in the 1980s and early '90s while largely turning the defense over to Gregg Williams, the talented former head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
As the Redskins gather this week in anticipation of the opening of training camp Saturday, Gibbs and his assistants are preparing for what might be the greatest challenge of their careers, jeopardizing their coaching reputations for one last stab at glory.
Their return to a franchise desperate for success is the most anticipated story line of the upcoming NFL season. Can Gibbs reach today's Redskins, who bask in a wealth Gibbs's former players never enjoyed? Will the Gibbs system that took the Redskins to four Super Bowls between 1981 and 1993 thrive in the NFL of 2004?
Gibbs, already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, spoke throughout the offseason about his need to reeducate himself in the sport after spending the past decade building a highly successful NASCAR racing team. Free agency and the salary cap, defining principles in football today, did not exist when Gibbs left the game after the 1992 season. Today's players are bigger, stronger, faster. Defenses are more complex and aggressive, with blitzing the quarterback having become the norm across the league.
The game has changed, but those who know Gibbs best say the coach remains largely the same. Gibbs is working as hard as ever -- he has already had a shower and pullout bed installed at Redskins Park -- despite his battle with diabetes. His attention to detail has not waned.
"They worked so hard this offseason breaking down and building game plans, and the players feed off of that," said Tyler, who began working for the Redskins in 1971 and came out of retirement this winter to rejoin Gibbs. "They can see how well prepared the coaches are on the field and in the meetings. Gosh, I don't see any changes at all. It's like we stepped right back into it after all the years, and they're getting right back after it."
Since emerging from retirement, Gibbs has watched countless hours of videotape. He studied tape of free agents and college players, shaping the team's signings and draft picks. During minicamps, Gibbs and his coaches assigned grades for each play, exhaustively replaying the drills and exercises on videotape. Gibbs, who also holds the title of team president, imparted his expectations to the rest of his Redskins staff, including the defensive coaches, scouts and front-office management who had not worked with him before, so that the entire organization had a grasp of what to look for in evaluating talent.
Yet, while clearly establishing himself as the team's leader, Gibbs routinely has sought the input of those around him, associates say. "He was a whirling dervish from the first time I saw him, and he hasn't stopped yet," linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said. "There are a lot of things that have changed since he left, and he puts his ego aside and just wants to know how to get it done and how to win. It doesn't mater if it's somebody else telling him how to help do it."
Many of the defensive coaches said they were overwhelmed by Gibbs's football intellect from their initial meetings with him. They could tell that he had given the decision to return to coaching much thought and had been paying closer attention to the NFL last season before accepting a five-year, $28 million contract from the Redskins in January.
"Quite candidly, at our first staff meeting you sat there pretty much awed and impressed by the skills he has," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "His managerial style, his knowledge, his passion for the game and his great intensity and sense for football and people. It's something you can't teach."
But Gibbs's closest confidants said that in the early going last winter and spring they knew the coach was not where he wanted to be. Reading modern defenses and preparing an offense to challenge them were not entirely second nature to him. His reactions and responses were not totally instinctual. He was still figuring things out, applying his old ways to the new game.
By April, however, the lexicon of the game was ingrained in him again, and the long nights were producing rewards.
"If you're away from it that long, it takes a while to get back in the swing of it," Breaux said, "and you could tell at first that he had watched some film, and there were some things he had heard about in the league, and those were the very first things he wanted to see on film when he got here. He had heard those things had changed -- I'm not going to say what they are -- and he wanted to get a grasp on it right away.
"It must have been about three months ago, I said, 'Well, Joe, you're back, man.' It was just a couple of things he said, some of the terminology involved. And I see that same intensity, the same standards, the way he deals with the team, and it was all that we're accustomed to seeing in Joe. That's why we were so excited about all of us coming back and trying to put this thing back together."
Reaching the players, most of whom have little or no direct recollection of Gibbs's previous tenure in Washington, and becoming comfortable with them has proven to be another challenge.
Gibbs's mere presence, and the three glistening Lombardi trophies for the Redskins' three Super Bowl wins displayed at Redskins Park, commanded immediate respect and created an environment of optimism about the new season. Even so, getting a group of athletes to coalesce as a team remains a major chore, one that is more difficult in today's NFL, where the top draft picks are millionaires, no one needs offseason jobs, the parking lot is filled with luxury cars and locker rooms could double as jewelry showrooms.
Gibbs, a devout Christian, says he believes he can still foster a family-like atmosphere and help instill the attributes he covets -- perseverance, selflessness, achieving beyond one's physical gifts -- within his players.
"I don't think they're different; I think people are people," Gibbs said. "I see so many stories here that relate back to a guy I coached in the past. . . . Obviously, there are some cultural changes that have gone on that are different, but I've always gone along with that and kind of admired that anyway."
Understanding how players operate and what type of instruction they respond to is fundamental to Gibbs's approach. He pushes them all to improve and is a proponent of crisp and demanding practices. But he also rewarded them with additional days off during offseason workouts and brought the team to training camp as late as possible this week, allowing for a longer vacation.
"Everybody is different as far as what motivates them and everything," Gibbs said. "Some guys, give them a little sugar, and they'll die for you, and you don't have to worry about it, and with other guys, it's like, 'Hey, look.' . . . Different things make us tick."
Gibbs addressed the entire team before each offseason workout, often speaking about things besides football. He tried to share life lessons and explain the type of qualities he wanted from his players. Once he brought in a list of all of the players on the roster who had spent at least 12 years in the NFL and asked the team about what they observed about the attitude and work ethic those individuals possess.
"His energy, fire, desire for excellence and the type of people Coach Gibbs is looking for, it's the same as before," said Earnest Byner, a running back under Gibbs from 1989 to '93 who is now the team's running backs coach. "He still wants those character guys, and when he makes those speeches to the guys those are some of the same things he used to stress to us."
Lindsey and Blache, coaches who have been around the league for years but never worked with Gibbs, said they were astounded by the ease with which he deals with players and the positive responses he elicits.
"Joe's care for the players is genuine; it's not an act," Lindsey said. "I've been with some coaches who are actors, and this is a man expressing genuine thoughts who treats everybody fairly and treats them like men."
Gibbs still keeps the team's playbook light, expecting players to take notes during each teaching session and be accountable for what is in their notebooks. There are few handouts from the staff, and the onus is on personal responsibility.
He has installed increased security measures at Redskins Park -- two private guards are always present at the facility -- to keep people away from restricted areas and protect players. Seemingly minor details such as precise airplane departure times are of great importance. His methods often run in complete contrast to the laissez-faire approach of former coach Steve Spurrier.
"I just think Coach Gibbs is handling things in the best manner you can possibly do it," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "He's kept problems out of the media, he's rectified problems and made this team better by stressing discipline. I can't speak enough on him and the coaching staff and how they have conducted things. I think they're doing it the right way."
Gibbs would be heartened to hear his star defender's assessment.
"The way I've always looked at it is the players are probably the ones to figure things out," he said. "There are 50 of them, and they're thinking, and they're looking, and they've all been coached by people, and so they're going to say this is smart, this is dumb, know what I mean? So what we're hoping they do is say, 'Hey, this makes sense, we're doing it because this will makes us a better football team.' We're hoping to appeal to the mind-set of 50 people."