Before Coach Joe Gibbs stunned the NFL last winter by announcing a return to the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Falcons had held discussions with him about their coaching vacancy. Gibbs gets a first-hand look tonight at the team he could have been leading when star quarterback Michael Vick and the Falcons come to FedEx Field for the exhibition finale.
The chances of Gibbs coaching in Atlanta were shot down when Redskins owner Daniel Snyder showed interest and offered the coach a five-year, $28 million contract to return to Washington, where he cemented his NFL legend a decade earlier. But the Falcons and Redskins share plenty of recent history.
Gibbs had been on the board of directors the previous two seasons in Atlanta, where he worked closely with owner Arthur Blank and Bobby Beathard, the former GM of the Redskins. Beathard was a consultant with the Falcons before retiring this year.
"I consider [Blank] a real friend, and I think that's a real close relationship," Gibbs said this week. Of his time in Atlanta, Gibbs said there was "Bobby Beathard and a lot of the other guys down there that I know real well. But you don't think as much about that when you're ready to play them in football."
After the Redskins announced Gibbs's return, Blank issued a statement saying Atlanta didn't have a chance because Gibbs was too inextricably linked to the franchise he guided to three Super Bowl titles from 1981 to 1992. The Falcons hired Jim Mora Jr. as coach and executive vice president.
During his NFL hiatus, Gibbs reportedly was involved with a group that attempted to buy the Redskins after owner Jack Kent Cooke's death. After Snyder purchased the Redskins in 1999, Gibbs joined Atlanta's ownership group. Blank, who helped found the Home Depot chain of stores, met Gibbs through the company's sponsorship of Gibbs's racing team. Gibbs and two partners bought five percent of the Falcons for $27 million. Gibbs sold that ownership stake after returning to the Redskins.
Since coming back to Washington, Gibbs has shown no hesitation to poach from the Falcons to help fill out his own coaching staff.
Quarterbacks coach Jack Burns had been an Atlanta assistant since 1997 and originally coached under Gibbs from 1989 to 1991. Burns was Atlanta's quarterbacks coach when Vick was the top pick of the 2001 draft before making the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Redskins tight ends coach Rennie Simmons was offensive line coach in Atlanta the previous three seasons after joining the Falcons in 1997. Simmons was an assistant under Gibbs during his first NFL stint.
Even Redskins offensive quality control assistant, Bill Lazor, was hired from Atlanta, where he held a similar job.
Although Vick -- one the NFL's most dynamic players -- is scheduled to start, Atlanta is expected to limit his snaps to limit his risk of injury. Vick has been hobbled this preseason by a sore hamstring (limiting him to only nine passes) and last season he broke his right leg in a preseason game against Baltimore that cost him most of the season.
"I think he's one of the most gifted people in the league," Gibbs said. "I think what they're doing is saying: 'Hey, we don't want to get him hurt in the preseason,' which makes a lot of sense."
Gibbs has been characteristically tight-lipped about playing time during the preseason, and the finale is no exception. Teams are typically cautious about starters, limiting them to two or three series to decrease the chances of an injury.
"I don't know what to expect. Nothing has been told to the quarterbacks," Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said. "If it's two plays or two quarters, you go out there and whatever you have, you're efficient: You move the team, you put some points on the board and that's how we want to finish.
"We could use some rhythm. We've got to move the ball and put some points up. We'd like some momentum going into the opener."
Gibbs said: "We'll just see what happens. I always kind of go off this is what we feel and this is how we're playing."
Brunell plays his first game as Washington's official starter. Brunell won the competition against Patrick Ramsey by going 22 or 40 for 244 yards with a 71.3 quarterback rating. Brunell admits that he hadn't taken an active leadership role because of the competition.
"The point we're at now, there'll be more opportunity and more of a chance to be outspoken," Brunell said. "There'll be more of a chance to be a leader that the starting quarterback is supposed to be."
With the NFL's final roster cutdown coming Sunday, tonight's game is critical for those on the bubble of the 53-man list. It's one reason that tailback Rock Cartwright (right shoulder stinger) insists on playing. Cartwright is competing with Ladell Betts, Sultan McCullough and John Simon apparently for two roster spots.
"I don't think any one game ever changes your mind," Gibbs said. "But certainly, it's another page in there, and it's an important page because you're evaluating guys. I'd say in a way, it's important for some guys that we're going to have to make decisions on."
The game will also provide ailing players an opportunity for game action before the season opener on Sept. 12 vs. Tampa Bay. Linebacker LaVar Arrington (sprained knee) is expected to play for the first time in three weeks, and defensive end Phillip Daniels (abdominal strain) plans to make his exhibition debut.
Linebacker Mike Barrow (knee tendinitis) is expected to miss the game, meaning that the starting middle linebacker has yet to see game action with his new team.
The offensive line will also be a little thin without left tackle Chris Samuels (sprained ankle) and right guard Randy Thomas (sprained neck).