Soon after Joe Gibbs ended his 11-year retirement from football and reunited his distinguished offensive coaching staff this winter, a call went out to the NFL offices in New York. The coaches had heard about some rules that would be more strictly enforced for the 2004 season -- particularly the crackdown on contact with receivers -- and wanted a special session with referees to get a primer on the developments.
An officiating crew was dispatched to Washington and, after four days of grilling from one of the most experienced coaching staffs in league history, Gibbs and his cronies felt sufficiently educated on the matter. While their offensive system is predicated on a methodical, pounding running game, these men love the long ball as well, and have reunited in what could be the most pass-friendly climate ever. League officials are promoting the aerial attack and strictly curtailing what defensive players can get away with.
When asked about the possibilities this renewed enforcement might have on the Redskins' offense, Joe Bugel's eyes nearly popped out of his head. The team's assistant head coach-offense, Bugel savored the possibilities for a moment -- thoughts of speedy wideout Laveranues Coles dancing through his head -- all but licked his lips and said: "Ooooh. Yum-yum. Yum-yum, on that one. We love that. L.C. can go down the field sideways. That's spectacular."
Gibbs learned the passing game from Don Coryell, one of the masters, and relishes burning teams downfield. The punishing running game sets up the possibility of the game-breaking pass, as safeties slowly begin cheating closer to the line of scrimmage. Gibbs instructs his quarterbacks to look for the deep option first, then check down to safer possibilities and mid- to short-range options. According to this season's NFL mandate, no longer can defensive players get away with even slight pushes and gentle pulls of the jersey on receivers beyond five yards downfield. Doing so will result in a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down, even if the ball is never thrown to that side of the field (the quarterback must be in the pocket, however).
"One thing I've learned working with these guys in the short period I have," quarterback Patrick Ramsey said, "our coaches are going to find a way to exploit whatever they can. They're good at it and they're experienced at it, so it usually works. ... That rule is advantageous to our receivers and to our offense and to the passing game. It's something we'll try to capitalize on."
Of the league's 2004 points of emphasis on rules and officiating, Gibbs believes this change will have the greatest impact on the game.
"It's going to affect everybody's offense," Gibbs said. "The rules say now there's five yards for a defensive player to establish his position and basically the [receiver] has to run into him, and as long as the offense tries to avoid the defensive player [and there is contact] it's going to be pass interference. It's a big difference. Last year, you got down toward the playoff games and we saw some film where guys were literally tackling the receivers and something needed to be done."
Bugel credited the rule as a reaction to some of the aggressive defending tactics used by Super Bowl teams Carolina and New England last season. "They are very aggressive football teams and they're pulling shirts and badgering guys downfield," he said. "I think the NFL looked at that and said, 'Hey, we're trying to have an entertainment game. We've got to control our rules a little bit.'" For all of the excitement about the potential for offensive fireworks, it remains to be seen how the changes will be adapted into the regular season. The contact was strictly enforced in the preseason, and finding the fine line between accidental contact and illegal actions will take time. Gibbs thought a call on Redskins safety Sean Taylor in a preseason game in Miami was egregious and traditionally these issues have a way of becoming a bit more gray once the results really count.
"It remains to be seen," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "They always call it tougher when they're trying to make a point of it in the preseason and then you have to wait and see how serious they are in the regular season."
"You don't want it to go too far," Gibbs said. "How are they going to see it? I think they probably should have been calling it closer last year and then they wouldn't have to make a rule about it. ... But we don't want something like that determining the games."
Few teams will be more prepared for the changes than the Redskins. Besides the first meeting with the coaches, NFL officials also toured Redskins Park during training camp showing an instructional video and explaining the nuances in the rules -- all teams get such visits -- and Gibbs has employed a former NFL replay official, Larry Hill, who is an officiating consultant on the Redskins' staff and works with the coaches on a daily basis.
Gibbs instructed the officiating crews who handle every preseason practice to call penalties strictly and the coaches monitored how many calls went against each player and what they were penalized for. Hill will also watch games from the press box and wire down to Gibbs when he should or should not challenge an officiating decision and gauge how the players are adapting to the rule changes through the season.
"Having Larry really helps there," Gibbs said. "And it helps me get caught up. So whether it's challenging a play or working out all the stuff we have to work out in practice, it's pretty much a full-time deal."
Gibbs said he has not instructed his quarterbacks or receivers to seek out situations where they can draw an illegal contact penalty, however. He does not want the issue to become a distraction or throw off his offense. There are only a few seconds for all parties to connect and deviating from a route to attempt to elicit a flag could result in interceptions and stalled drives should that call not come.
"If you're doing that, in my opinion, you're not getting where we need to be," Gibbs said. "The passing game is so precise and you know what you need to try and do. I just told them a simple rule for the offense -- and this was [the same] 12 years ago -- was try and avoid the defense. If you try and avoid them, [and there is contact] then it's going to be a foul on them. That's what we try to do anyway. "If you try to run into someone or you've slowed down, then you're not going to get where you're supposed to be. I think as long as they understand the rule and understand what they're supposed to do in the timing passing game we have, you can't afford to be fooling around with something or thinking about trying to get a penalty."
The machinations of the downfield passing game have long fascinated Gibbs. He was one of Coryell's assistants at San Diego State and in the NFL in St. Louis and with the San Diego Chargers before being hired to coach the Redskins the first time in 1981. During his last stint with Coryell, quarterback Dan Fouts shredded defenses by slinging the ball to gifted receivers such as Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson. That gun-slinging approach is copied to this day. Coupling a dangerous aerial attack -- used sporadically to best effect -- with a tough-nosed running game produced three Super Bowls in Gibbs's first tenure, and that recipe will not change.
Gibbs admits he has borrowed heavily from Coryell's template -- "When I was with Joe in Washington," said Jim Hanifan, who worked under Coryell with Gibbs in St. Louis and spent six years on Gibbs's offensive staff with the Redskins, "it was the same terminology coach [Coryell] came up with many, many years ago at San Diego State."
Coryell sees no reason why those same tactics will not be successful today.
"I was very surprised" when Gibbs came back, Coryell said. "Yet the more I thought of it and knowing Joe and what a competitor he is ... he thought he had some more in him and he could go out and win some more football games and go to the Super Bowl, and I'm sure he will.
"Some people say, 'Hell, the game has gone by him probably. What, it's been eight or 10 years since he coached?' But he can get along with people, he can get the most out of people. He'll never ask a player to do something that he can't do well, and I know he's going to do very well."