Joe Gibbs was speaking about the emotions swelling inside him as he prepares to coach his first game before a home crowd since ending an 11-year retirement, when a rush of nostalgia resulted in a momentary lapse of geography. Gibbs expressed his love for "getting back to RFK [Stadium] and getting a chance to coach a game there," when he was in fact referring to FedEx Field, the Washington Redskins' home since 1997 and a locale completely foreign to the Hall of Famer.
For Gibbs, separating his team from its old environs is nearly impossible, given the passion he has for RFK Stadium and the crazy atmosphere the fans established there, shaking the lower bowl profusely, intimidating opponents and inspiring the Redskins. Tonight, Gibbs will coach his first game at FedEx Field, against the Carolina Panthers, and begin a new era of sorts, for although the results of the preseason contest will be quickly forgotten, the salute that Gibbs will receive from a stadium that holds 91,665 will resonate much longer.
"Certainly, that's important to us, having our fans here," Gibbs said. "I always felt like -- I haven't been in this stadium, but I felt like we had a tremendous advantage in RFK [which held 56,000]. It was an older stadium and it was different and the fans were close and they were loud and I know they're loud here, too, and we've got a lot of them in there. So our fans are one thing about being in Washington, I never questioned that. Our fans, to the best I can remember, I don't care what the weather was, it was jam-packed. I mean, I don't care how cold it was, raining, jam-packed every seat. I always admired that about our people, and you go to some other places and that's not the case."
A foreboding forecast, which calls for gusting winds and torrential downpours as hurricanes sweep through the South, may keep some fans from venturing out, however, and it may complicate the ability to assess the starting quarterback candidates (Gibbs said the conditions would not cause him to alter his personnel or remove starters sooner). Incumbent Patrick Ramsey will start tonight after 11-year veteran Mark Brunell got the start on Monday night in Canton, Ohio; Brunell played through the first quarter and into the second quarter before making way for Ramsey, and Gibbs could stick with a similar rotation tonight. The coach does not address his plans for playing time before games.
"I want to try to complete passes and try to move the team and just be effective out there," said Ramsey, who is friends with Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. "Truly, I'm not approaching this much differently from the last game, when I didn't start."
"We need a good start," Brunell said. "Our offense, at least in the first half [Monday], we didn't really move the ball as everyone knows, and didn't put any points on the boards. So hopefully, whatever quarterback is in there . . . we need to move the ball. We need some production."
Neither quarterback distinguished himself Monday night and Gibbs has repeatedly used the word "rough" to describe his offense. The players are still adjusting to his system and execution in practice has not been crisp. Both Brunell and Ramsey completed a few quality long passes in Wednesday's practice, the last sessions open to the media and the public, but that was a rarity through the first two weeks of training camp. Gibbs is expected to go back to Brunell as the starter for next week's game in Miami and has said the competition will last into September.
The Panthers, who made a surprising run to the Super Bowl last season, will be making their preseason debut, and their starters likely will play only a few series. However, that may be enough time to put a scare into Ramsey and a reconfigured offensive line. Carolina has a fearsome defensive line, led by sack specialist Julius Peppers, who will line up against Washington's new right tackle, Kenyatta Jones. Jones is replacing stalwart Jon Jansen, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury on Monday night, and veteran guard Randy Thomas likely will start as well after battling a series of nagging injuries during camp.
"This will be a great test for Kenyatta," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "Trust me, this front four may be the best in the NFL. They can throw you around, yes they can."
Redskins Notes: Linebacker Mike Barrow (tendinitis in left knee and strained quadriceps), defensive end Phillip Daniels (abdominal strain), wide receiver Cliff Russell (hamstring), running back Ladell Betts (hamstring), tackle Brandon Winey (ankle sprain), cornerback Rashad Bauman (hamstring), center Ben Nowland (sprained knee) and cornerback Walt Harris (knee) are out for tonight's game. All but Harris are considered day-to-day. Punter Tom Tupa is questionable because of a sprained back. . . . The Redskins will decide today whether to sign tackle Marcus Spriggs, according to team sources. Spriggs worked out for the club on Thursday, then returned home. . . . The Redskins have installed a new playing surface at FedEx Field, which has state-of-the-art draining capacity that should come in handy tonight. . . . Former Redskins running back Stephen Davis returns to Washington tonight for the first time since signing with Carolina. "I talked to everybody, and the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, 'Class guy,' " Gibbs said. "They said he was really classy, which means a lot to me." . . . A group of Redskins fans plan to honor Jansen, one of the team's longest-serving players, before the game with signs and chants before the coin toss.