Every successful NFL coach has an effective motivational technique. Bill Parcells built his reputation on intimidation, striking fear into his players and embracing confrontation. Dennis Green wants his team to believe that the outside world -- fans, media, agents -- cannot be trusted, instilling an us-vs.-them mentality. Dick Vermeil, who spent 14 years out of the league before winning a Super Bowl with St. Louis in 2000, aims to connect with his players on a deeply emotional level.
Joe Gibbs is taking a very different tack with the Washington Redskins. He is trying to motivate his players by rallying them around the notion that Washington was once a great franchise and that by emulating former Redskins stars this year's team can have similar success. Barely a day goes by that Gibbs does not remind them of the greatness that once defined the franchise, of the honor they should feel wearing a Redskins uniform, of the uncommon bond between the team and its passionate fans.
Whether Gibbs can find players who will respond to such a retro approach in an era of big salaries and free agency could very well determine the degree of success Gibbs attains in his wildly anticipated comeback, which begins in earnest today when the Redskins open the season at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gibbs, 63, brought back many members of the coaching staff that won three Super Bowls with him and they constantly preach that players need to be true Washington Redskins -- a term that Gibbs says describes players who "would be a great character guy that you never have to worry about, who is very dependable, is football smart, and he's a producer.
"There are some guys who play professional sports and they get every minute out of their ability," Gibbs said. "Those are the guys who are totally committed to what they're doing, are extremely well prepared and you never have to worry about them. Those are the guys you're going to keep and they play until the last second."
Gibbs's approach is not without its risks. The culture and economic system of the NFL, and professional sports in general, have changed dramatically since he left the game in 1993. Players often appear more motivated to make the television highlights than sacrificing themselves for the team, since the opportunity to make big money under free agency comes from switching teams, not staying with one. Although Gibbs commands immediate respect because of his reputation and success in both football and NASCAR, many of today's Redskins, who have a median age of 27, were still in grade school when Washington last played in a Super Bowl in 1992 and are more familiar with the fact that being a Redskin of late has meant being a loser. The team has made the playoffs once since Gibbs left. For these reasons, the concept of being a Redskin could possibly come off as a bit hokey now.
"Realistically, tradition plays a much more major role to a college athlete," said Trevor Moawad, the associate director of mental conditioning at the IMG Academy in Florida and a motivational consultant to scores of elite young athletes. "On a college campus you are surrounded by all of the pictures of former teams and some students may be the second generation of their family to go there and it's a lot easier to buy into the power of tradition in a collegiate environment, and you can sell an athlete on how many players you have sent to the pros because they are all trying to get to that next level. But these guys are already in the NFL; they're already there."
Gibbs's former players argue that a nod to the past is exactly what today's Redskins need, given the franchise's struggles. Since Gibbs departed, and particularly under owner Daniel Snyder, the Redskins have been constructed more like a fantasy football team, with annual acquisitions of high-priced free agents whose play in Washington has lagged. The intangible attributes and the intricacies of team-building that Gibbs says are so critical were dwarfed by a player's past performances.
"The team has had no identity of late," said former quarterback Joe Theismann, who played 12 years in Washington and now is an NFL broadcaster. "It had very poor leadership from the coaching staff and some of that special feeling has been missing."
The Redskins were mocked for the directionless two-year regime of coach Steve Spurrier and a disconnect formed between what the organization had stood for when coaches Vince Lombardi and George Allen resurrected Washington's football hopes in the early 1970s through Gibbs's run from 1981 through 1992 and what has characterized the club in its present incarnations.
"To me, [being a Redskin] was a branding that meant you represented a force that was bigger than you and was here before you," said former tight end Rick "Doc" Walker, now a sports broadcaster. "It meant so much to so many people and all you had to do is spill your guts in an effort to win, it didn't matter if a guy was a former Heisman Trophy winner or had a 26-inch long jump.
"But lately, people were essentially coming here because of Dan Snyder's wallet. You don't hear guys talking about the past or being a Redskin, but they are running through the airport to get over here. For what? You've got to ask yourself, for the past 10 years what did they rush over here for? They rushed for the cash."
This is a cycle Gibbs hopes to end by identifying his type of players in free agency and developing them from within the Redskins organization. In the background is Gibbs's devout Christianity. Although those who have played under him say he never chooses players strictly based on their faith, he clearly is comfortable with players who practice their religion.
Gibbs's ability to connect with quarterback Mark Brunell, his first major acquisition after returning to Washington, was made easier by their shared born-again faith.
Moawad, who has worked with 27 first-round NFL draft picks over the past six years and has studied motivation extensively (his father published seminal texts on motivational techniques), believes Gibbs's success in the NFL and later with NASCAR came from his ability to meld personalities, interact with people and cultivate a winning atmosphere.
Moawad recently asked two of his clients on the Dallas Cowboys -- Drew Henson and Roy Williams -- what makes Parcells so successful, and they told him it went beyond fear tactics. Like Gibbs, Parcells knows how to connect to an individual athlete's attitude and assess what makes him tick.
"From what I've seen, hearing players talk about this guy and his career," Moawad said of Gibbs, "his emotional intelligence transfers itself very well throughout the years. He understands how to relate to people and that's what I think is the biggest difference between now and 15 years ago; there are a lot of things coaches could do or say in the past and it was just accepted, and now I think in players' minds -- because of the development of the agents and the media and the MTV culture -- it's okay for you to say, 'Hey, I'm not going to be treated like that.' And Joe Gibbs's style, I don't think, is going to be affected by that culture change, because he hasn't made a career out of belittling people; he's made a career out of getting the most out of players."
Pat Williams, senior president of the NBA's Orlando Magic and author of 30 books on motivational and leadership concepts, also is confident in Gibbs. Williams has known Gibbs and Vermeil for more than 20 years and follows their careers closely.
"Joe has their respect and they're going to buy in and I think he'll be an even better coach this time around because of his team-building experiences in NASCAR," Williams said. "Joe wants there to be that sense that when someone leaves this team and has to take off that Redskins jersey for the last time, it's the saddest day of his life. He wants to build that sense of pride and sense of dignity and sense of privilege, like when you strap on a Yankees uniform you are automatically a better player. That's what Joe wants here with a Redskins jersey and they've lost some of that and Joe's been called on to reestablish the tradition and the sense of power that used to radiate through being a Redskin."
Gibbs tends to get animated merely saying the words Washington Redskins. His eyes grow wide and focused, while the veins in his neck bulge just a bit. The tone of his voice implies complete seriousness and his right index finger tends to jut out for emphasis. Many former players have been brought in to speak to the current team.
Since taking the coaching job in January, Gibbs has hammered away at developing the work ethic that he believes led to previous Redskins success. He had a players' lounge at Redskins Park decorated with photos and artifacts of past championship teams and the three Super Bowl trophies displayed there are impossible to miss.
Gibbs addressed the entire team before each offseason workout, often relaying essential nuances about what he demands from players. Once he carried a list of all the players in the room who had spent 12 years in the NFL and told the others to observe the work and study habits of those players to ascertain the secrets to their longevity. What do they have in common? What attitude do they bring to work with them?
"And there are other guys who are pains and give you a hard time and the first chance you have you say, 'Hey, I don't want to deal with the pain and suffering anymore,' you know what I mean? So I try to talk about that a lot because, hey, you're cutting your own throat," Gibbs said.
Tight end Kevin Ware was released just days after being arrested for public intoxication in Houston. The Redskins have avoided signing talented but troublesome players in favor of more stable players such as Brunell, who has a strong reputation throughout the league.
When Gibbs discerned that former Redskins wide receiver James Thrash was available on the trade market in March, he interviewed people throughout the organization looking for information on his personality and approach to his job. Longtime Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer instantly perked up when Thrash's name was mentioned and said the most powerful sentence he possibly could: "That guy's a Redskin, that's what he is."
Thrash's eagerness to learn, supportive, team-first attitude, desire to play hurt and willingness to push himself to the limit in practices earned Tyer's praises, and he was promptly acquired from Philadelphia.
"Joe has always used that term," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux, one of Gibbs's longtime coaching confidants. "Even Bubba Tyer uses that term, and he told us he thought a couple of guys here were Redskins when we first got here [in January] and we knew what he was talking about without expounding on it, because we'd been through it together. So, yeah, we're looking for a lot of Redskins, obviously, because once you have dependability and know what you have, then you can set your game plans and schemes accordingly."
It seems like the message is getting through. Several players used words nearly identical to Gibbs's when asked about what it means to be a Washington Redskin.
"A true Redskin is a dedicated player," cornerback Fred Smoot said, "a guy who is there all the time, everyday, a professional. We're talking about a true athlete; you've got some athletes and then you've got a pure professional who you don't have to worry about them. Hell, they can run the whole defense themselves because they know so much about what's going on. Being a Redskin is being accountable for everything you're doing, being a leader, speaking up for what you believe in and being yourself.
"We're restoring it, man, because it's a privilege to be a Redskin."
The final step in Gibbs's master plan is to keep his players. Gibbs wants to breed cohesion and consistency -- in the team's style of play, identity and personnel -- and hopes to replicate the stability of his past teams despite the realities of a very different NFL.
"Maybe there is a little more [turnover] because of the salary cap and stuff, yes," Gibbs said, "but you've got choices to make there and . . . we're looking for real Redskins, and if somebody is a real Redskin for us we're going to go down swinging before we let him out of here. We will lose somebody, yeah, but there is going to be a core group of guys who are going to be here for a long time and if I didn't think you could do that -- and all of our layouts and cash flows and everything else based on the salary cap tells us we can do that -- that's what I'm going to be fighting for. So I'm not looking for a revolving door; we're looking for players we can build with."
Getting players with the right attitude and work ethic, breeding chemistry among them and making them believe in team concepts much larger than themselves is the heart of Gibbs's message, which he believes will resonate regardless of the wealth, fame and status of his players.
"I'll say it over and over again," Gibbs said. "The thing I am always impressed with -- no matter whether it's business or different kinds of sports -- is human nature doesn't change. People are motivated by most of the same things, and I haven't seen that change over 30 or 40 years. The same things motivate people."
Redskins Note: The Redskins are urging fans to arrive early for today's 1 p.m. kickoff.