Canton, Ohio, was supposed to be the end of the line for Joe Gibbs. On this very weekend eight years ago, Gibbs was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, capping a brilliant coaching career with the Washington Redskins that included three Super Bowl titles. He had retired after the 1992 season and was content with that decision, his desire to win quenched by his rapidly rising NASCAR racing team. So he came to Canton with friends and family for one final celebration of his accomplishments, never dreaming he would stalk the sideline again.
Gibbs returned to Canton on Saturday afternoon, leading a very different group of Redskins to town for their preseason opener, and tonight he will coach his first game in 12 years when Washington faces Denver in the nationally televised Hall of Fame game. While the results of this preseason game will be largely irrelevant, the jitters are back for a coaching staff that includes many of the same men who assisted Gibbs in his first stint with the Redskins. After so many years away, it is game day for Gibbs once again in a town that provided him with one of the fondest memories of his professional career.
"I'll tell you what was really enjoyable at [the induction] for me," Gibbs said, "was a lot our family and friends -- we had a lot of people come -- and as a matter of fact there were a lot of Redskins fans there, and it was fun. The party, they really do that first class, and I really had an enjoyable time, and I kind of thought -- and rightly so -- that that was it for me, and I enjoyed that part of it because it was probably the closing of a door there on my coaching career. And so I think about all those emotions, but mostly what I remember is our family had a great party that night, and everybody was out there and, of course, I went in with Dan Dierdorf and Charlie Joiner, and those are two guys I coached."
Gibbs would be the first to admit he did not return to Washington to relive the past and bask in sentimental moments; he came back to win and gauge whether he and his staff can duplicate their success in an era in which both the league and its players are quite different. The first real measure will come tonight, and Gibbs spent the last two days of practice ensuring there will be no embarrassing miscues, going over minutiae -- such as how the team will stretch during warmups, halftime procedures and rehearsing substitutions. There is a legacy to uphold and massive expectations to meet, and although the bulk of this game will be played by journeymen with little likelihood of opening the regular season with the team, Gibbs will be evaluating every player on every play.
The opponent is a perennial playoff threat with dynamic talent at key positions and a staff, led by Coach Mike Shanahan, considered among the most prepared in the game.
"We're just going to go out there and play the best we can," Gibbs said. "I think we're playing a veteran group and coaching staff -- one of the best -- and they're very creative, so I think it's probably good that we're playing against somebody who is a little bit the opposite of what we are, with a new staff and new players trying to get everybody together. That's pretty much a proven group over there, so it'll be interesting to us, and I'm sure it'll be a real challenge."
The battle between quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey for the starting job also will intensify. Brunell, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons and a former Pro Bowl player, will start the game, but Gibbs has not divulged how long Brunell will stay in the game with the first team. Ramsey, the starter last season, likely will follow him. Ramsey is expected to start the second of five preseason games, Saturday night at FedEx Field. Gibbs is looking for as smooth a performance as possible, with an emphasis on limiting penalties and turnovers.
"We'd like to win the football game," Brunell said. "But there are other things we're shooting for as well. We want to move the ball and play well, of course, and just be effective and get the season off in the right way."
Running back Clinton Portis, who has been bothered by a groin injury the past few days, likely will start against his former team; Portis was acquired from Denver in the offseason in exchange for stalwart cornerback Champ Bailey, who no doubt will look to disrupt the offense of his former team regardless of who is behind center or in the backfield. "He's happy in Denver, I can tell you that," said cornerback Fred Smoot, Bailey's former understudy who speaks with him three times a week.
But the evening will be most special for Gibbs. He will be the center of attention on the field and one of the most watched figures over this entire NFL season. All of the old feelings are back again.
"I know I'm going to be more nervous," Gibbs said. "It's like I'm going back and starting all over again, and I'd hate to look bad, and I think the players feel that way, too."