Fifth in a seven-part series
Sixteen years later, former Redskins center and original Hog Jeff Bostic still remembers one of Joe Gibbs's finest coaching moments. It occurred in the heat of one of the most significant victories in Redskins history.
The date was Jan. 31, 1988, at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. It was Super Bowl XXII, and the Denver Broncos had stunned the Redskins by jumping to an early 10-0 lead. Most surprising, though, was the Broncos' abandonment of the standard four-linemen, three-linebacker, 4-3 defense they had employed all season in favor of a three-lineman, four-linebacker 3-4 look that had confused the Redskins' offense, particularly the Hogs on the offensive line.
"This was after our first couple of possessions," Bostic said. "Coach Gibbs almost never came back to our offensive line meetings when we were on the bench. This time he did. He says, 'What are they doing to you up front?' We tell him what's going on. He puts his finger up to his face like he always does when he's thinking deep and he says, 'Okay, we're gonna zone block the defensive ends and we're gonna let the nose tackle stunt wherever he wants to go. We'll come back at 'em and run our counter plays and bottle them up inside.'
"But on the first play, instead of running the ball, we give 'em a look, and we run a hitch pattern instead, and Ricky Sanders catches it for an 80-yard touchdown. Eighteen plays later, and that's all it was, we've basically won the Super Bowl at the half. We're up 35-10, Tim Smith is going crazy running the ball and we score 35 points in the second quarter and we're doing whatever we want to do.
"They had no idea how to stop us," Bostic continued. "Joe figured out how to block 'em, and they never had a chance. That's a Joe Gibbs adjustment in a nutshell."
Part II of Gibbs's pro coaching career officially begins at 1 p.m. Sunday in the regular season opener against Tampa Bay at FedEx Field. Most of the people responsible for the team's three Super Bowl victories and 124-60 regular season mark over the greatest 12-year span in team history have little doubt that Gibbs and his staff can again draw up the offensive plays during the week, then make the mid-game adjustments necessary to again place the Redskins among the NFL's elite teams.
More than anything over that era, Gibbs demonstrated an uncanny ability to change or ditch whatever wasn't working in a game plan -- either on the sidelines or during halftime. Virtually every coach in the NFL can make adjustments, but as former tackle Joe Jacoby said, "Most of them can't really pinpoint it to a specific play or time in a game when you know it's going to break things open. Joe just had that knack."
Though the Redskins kept their offense mostly simple in preseason games this summer, Gibbs already has employed some of the classic plays in his arsenal.
They included the counter trey, once the Redskins' signature running play that Gibbs implemented his first season and used for years to take advantage of his gifted and mobile offensive line, then as now coached by Joe Bugel. In the counter trey, Bostic, the center, right guard Mark May and right tackle George Starke would block to the left, giving the appearance of a run to the left. Left guard Russ Grimm and left tackle Joe Jacoby would then pull out from their positions and head around the right corner and down the field looking for linebackers and defensive backs to flatten.
The running back would take a step to the left to draw the defense to that side, then take a handoff from the quarterback and head right behind Grimm and Jacoby, with defenders often scattered like so many bowling pins along the way.
Another Gibbs standard was 50-gut, with John Riggins running to his left and looking for a hole between Bostic and Grimm or Grimm and Jacoby. In the 1982 NFC title game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins used the play nine straight times as they ran out the clock in the fourth quarter in a 31-17 victory.
The 50-gut play through the middle of the line was tailor-made for Riggins, a power runner. Now with running back Clinton Portis, a smaller man who seems more comfortable operating on the perimeter, it may not be used as often, though there's no question it's still in Gibbs's playbook.
Gibbs was an innovator in his use of play action -- throwing a pass off a fake run -- multiple receiver formations and the H-back, a hybrid fullback/tight end position he uses as a potent blocker on runs or as an extra man in pass protection. Gibbs quarterbacks occasionally even throw passes to the H-back to keep teams off balance. Rookie Chris Cooley won the starting H-back job this preseason.
Gibbs also was never afraid to employ a trick play, a reverse, a halfback option, if only because he knew his players enjoyed working on them in practice to ease some of the tedium.
"I think it's going to be more of the same this time around," Jacoby said. "It's funny, I went out to watch the offense during one of his mini-camps in the spring. I'm standing out there and I'm listening to the same cadence, the same audibles, a lot of the same plays. It was like I'd never left. The way I look at it, it wasn't broke then, so why change?"
Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden, whose first year in the league in 1992 as a wide receivers coach in Green Bay was Gibbs's final season during his previous coaching run, said yesterday his team has watched film of the old Redskins during Gibbs's first go-around to prepare for Sunday's game. Doug Williams, the Redskins quarterback in Super Bowl XXII, is a personnel executive with the Bucs, and Gruden and his coaching staff have picked Williams's brain on Gibbs's style and play-calling.
"We had a chance to watch Doug Williams and the Smurfs get after it pretty good," Gruden said of the former Redskins quarterback and his wide receiving corps. "We had a chance to see what the greatness of that attack looked like. They may change completely on Sunday, who knows? It's not like Coach Gibbs is a novice. It'll be a great battle."
Former Colts and Ravens head coach Ted Marchibroda said Gibbs teams traditionally used a strong running game to loosen up passing routes for the receivers.
"Joe did a great job focusing on the running game," Marchibroda said. "He gave the ball to Riggins and let the Hogs do the dirty work. Then he'd set you up that way and get a big play on you through the air. It wasn't anything fancy. They just played mistake-free football. They'd set you up with play action and crossing receivers. He'd give his quarterback maximum protection, and he always seemed to know when the offense was ready to hit one of those big plays downfield.
"He won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, and that should tell you something about the kind of coach he was. It wasn't trick plays, it wasn't anything fancy. It was well-designed, well-disguised and well-executed plays, and there was always great pass protection to let them get it done."
Joe Theismann was the first of the quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl under Gibbs, and he was far more mobile than his successors, Williams and Mark Rypien.
"After I left [in 1986], Joe evolved into using those bunch sets, the three-wide receiver stuff," Theismann said. "He just had an arsenal of versatile formations, and I think now, the three-wide and one-back with Clinton Portis will be his best weapons."
Then and now, the game-planning often went long into the night on Mondays and Tuesdays. Rypien once said that when the offense got in on Wednesday, the coaches, and especially Gibbs, often looked like a new father showing his first-born. Players worked on the plan during practice, and Gibbs relied on his quarterback to let him know what felt comfortable, and uncomfortable, on the field.
The plan was tweaked all week, and on Sundays, Gibbs would occasionally rewrite some of it in a quiet place in the locker room, perhaps even taking a brief nap and visualizing the game as his players warmed up.
Theismann, among others, said he thought Gibbs did his very best work in the 10 minutes he had with his offense at halftime.
"I thought Joe was phenomenal at halftime," Theismann said. "We would go into every game with an extensive number of plays. He had the first half to figure out what people were doing to us. At the half, he would say to us, 'This looks good, this looks good and that looks good, but this isn't working, so let's ditch it.'
"If you break a game down, and say there are 65 offensive plays, within those 65 there will be five or six that you can qualify as big plays, or scoring opportunities in the end zone. Joe would isolate three or four plays, and if the situation came up where we knew we would get the right look from the defense, he'd call that play. Now, we had to execute it, but if we did, it usually worked.
"We knew every week that in the second half, we were going to score a lot of points. It was our preparation during the week more than a surprise. We were as prepared to do our jobs as anyone has ever been."
Gibbs's former players said he also solicited feedback from players -- and listened.
"Whether it was the running back, the wide receiver or even an offensive lineman, if you told him you thought you could beat somebody, [he] wouldn't just dismiss it," Bostic said. "He'd listen to you, and he'd take the suggestion and do something about it."