A peaceful Joe Gibbs amnesia has settled over Redskins Park on these steamy August days of training camp. The recent past of the perennially disappointing Redskins is conveniently misplaced in the collective memory banks of those who watch.
Long scoring passes go uncontested in routine drills. Simulated pressure on the quarterback is provided by gentlemanly 60-year-olds. Contact scrimmages are always a zero-sum game. A bad play by the offense always implies a good play by the defense, and vice versa, so no net evaluation of the whole team is ever possible. So, almost every Redskins act prompts cheers.
Players, too many to mention or blame, talk enthusiastically about a Super Bowl. They don't say when but, since Gibbs is 63 and the Redskins may have blown out their salary cap for a two- or three-year plan, nobody thinks it's the distant future.
In other words, almost everyone has blessedly forgotten how truly bad the Redskins were last year when, after winning three of their first four games, they lost all but two of their last 12 games. Only lousy teams finish 2-10 and quit on the coach to boot.
These days, every time Gibbs describes practice as "very rough" or "not smooth," no one believes the most obvious translation of his remarks: that his team, while promising, requires tons of fundamental improvement. And that its "roughness" sometimes scares him silly. Yesterday, Gibbs talked about his good luck "the first go-round" with gifted coaches and unselfish, talented players. "This time, who knows?" he said. "It could be totally different. Maybe [I'm here] to get plastered."
Sometimes, amid all the giddiness that surrounds him, only Gibbs seem to have a sense of the enormity of the job ahead of him and the gamble he has taken, if not with his long-term reputation, then perhaps with his short-term dignity.
Gibbs inherits a roster that has been blown to smithereens three times in the last 31/2 years as coaches with radically different tastes in personnel succeeded each other -- Norv Turner to Marty Schottenheimer to Steve Spurrier to Gibbs. Each brought in at least 20 new players his first year. Now, Gibbs's first team has 30 new players in camp, almost all of them considered part of the final roster.
"LaVar [Arrington] and I are the only two [defensive] starters from my rookie year," Fred Smoot said yesterday. Smoot is only in his fourth season. Jon Jansen laughs involuntarily when told he's the senior Redskin in point of service -- six years. Once, Darrell Green was a Redskin for 20 years. The only continuity here is discontinuity.
The result has been a locker room that, at times, has been the antithesis of the unselfishness and commitment, both physical and mental, that Gibbs's previous teams represented. The crew he inherits certainly appeared intent on getting its last coach fired. And succeeded. When they pulled together earlier in the season, they were derailed by mental mistakes and poor discipline.
Can Gibbs and his staff, who were mysterious masters of creating team feeling and crisp play in their "first go-round," somehow duplicate the feat? "That's the question. . . . How are we going to get along. It's hard to say. It's a work in process. You know you're going to be tested," said Gibbs. "You're never sure what gets a team started [in becoming a team]. Can you get that many people from that many different backgrounds to sacrifice their goals for a team sport? That's why people enjoy [the NFL] so much and admire it. And that's why it's so hard."
One core belief encourages Gibbs and, in fact, is the basic reason he's taken the risk of return. "Two things are different. The way you acquire talent [with free agency and a salary cap] is totally different. And pressure defenses have changed the offenses," he said. "But I think human nature is the same. You're still looking for the same qualities. People don't change."
That, far more than tactics, is what makes Gibbs's return genuinely dramatic. And his players sense it. Their challenge is more personal than professional, more a matter of character and choice than talent. Most of the key players have the money not to care -- or only half care. It's their call. The contracts are signed. Will they decide that what Gibbs offers -- a pound of promise about rings and tradition and a slightly higher level of self-respect gained at great cost -- is worth a ton of extra effort?
So far, they claim it is. Though such things are proved, not merely said.
"When Joe Gibbs arrived, this whole building changed. The attitude of every player changed. I know people are going to doubt that. I'm just telling you it's true," said safety Matt Bowen. "You see it in everything from who shows up and how often for their offseason conditioning programs to the way you pay attention to detail in meetings."
"It's been great to see the old Redskins come back around the complex, like alumni coming back to Iowa or Michigan. The way they act around Coach Gibbs and his staff, you can just see," says Bowen, "that they ruled the NFL."
But they won't rule this season. This is going to take time, if it happens at all. In '81, Gibbs took over a 6-10 team. However, it probably had more returning talent and more high-quality fresh blood than this one, as well as better morale. That team actually wanted to save the job of its previous coach, Jack Pardee, and won its last three games. Joe Theismann and Art Monk were in place. John Riggins came out of retirement. Joe Washington (1,474 yards rushing and receiving) was acquired. And three pretty good rookie linemen arrived together: Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic and Mark May, all future Hogs.
Yet the Redskins, as they learned and polished Gibbs's system, lost their first five games and ended 8-8. Few noticed the progress made under the surface. Until they won the Super Bowl the next year.
This season, Clinton Portis will fill the Joe Washington role. Quarterback Mark Brunell may bring a mobile Theismann style at quarterback. And half the defense has been rebuilt with solid, but seldom spectacular veterans, including linebackers Marcus Washington and Mike Barrow, cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive linemen Cornelius Griffin and Phillip Daniels.
Nonetheless, the defensive line must prove itself, front to back. One of the team's two Pro Bowl players, Champ Bailey, is gone. And the collection of tight ends and H-backs who are so central to Gibbs's shifting, man-in-motion offense are largely unproven.
The fascinating X-factor is how bad Spurrier's maligned staff really was the last two years. If they were competent, then improvement may be limited. But plenty of Redskins, especially much of the offensive line, think otherwise.
"Nothing against the people before, but these kids were starving to be badgered," says line coach Joe Bugel. "They want somebody to keep after 'em, show 'em things."
Let the badgering and hollering begin. Five exhibition games will give hints of whether a second Gibbs Era is possible. However, one small old-school sign may have arrived late on Tuesday night when an argument broke out on a team bus between 325-pound Jermaine Haley and 307-pound Kenyatta Jones about who was faster in the 40-yard dash. Or less slow.
"They were razing each other. When they went on the field to settle it, about 20 guys must have followed them to bet on it," said one of the Gibbs old hands. "I thought, 'Maybe it's starting again.' "