Joe Gibbs sat stern-faced next to Joe Bugel among the Washington Redskins coaching staff in first class on the chartered plane from the Cleveland airport following last Sunday's 17-13 loss to the Browns. Offensive coordinator Don Breaux and quarterbacks coach Jack Burns shared the next row. Tight ends coach Rennie Simmons sat directly behind.
Conversations were limited during the 38-minute flight to Dulles International Airport. No jokes were uttered to lighten the mood. The agony remained well after Washington's third straight loss, dropping the Redskins' record to 1-3.
Some assistants scrutinized statistics on Washington's stagnant offense. A few coaches shut their eyes in contemplation. Breaux instinctively jotted down notes in preparation for tonight's game against the Baltimore Ravens at FedEx Field.
The silence, which began during the 20-minute bus ride from the stadium to Cleveland airport, lasted until members of Washington's contingent arrived at the Redskins Park parking lot by 7:30 p.m. to retrieve their cars. Despite the early return, the coaches -- who recounted the gloomy trip home -- never considered holding a meeting.
"We all know the best thing to do is not say anything. It's hard to say anything constructive," Simmons said. "So it's just quiet. Your mind and thoughts start going to the next week: 'What are we going to do?' That's all the way until the ride home."
Gibbs, 63, withstood tumultuous periods during his first Redskins tenure between 1981 and 1993, particularly his rookie year when Washington lost its first five games. Despite returning to the NFL this season with the best winning percentage (.683) among NFL coaches with at least 225 victories, Gibbs has lost three straight twice before. Breaux, Bugel, Simmons and, to a lesser extent, Burns have experienced trying times with Gibbs as coaches on his previous staff. Although Gibbs generates the most attention, his longtime assistants hold tremendous sway. And the four assistants, all on offense, said they intend to use past lessons together to once again help Gibbs reverse course.
"One thing about coaching, you don't really know how people are going to react, whether it be success or you're struggling some," said Breaux, Gibbs's running backs coach during his first stint in Washington. "You don't know whether people are going to cover your back. There's a trust between us that has been built over time. We pretty much know what our right hand and left hand is going to do. We've been through times like this together. We don't know but one way: that's to do everything we can to give our players the best possible chance to succeed. That's what we've done in the past. That's what we're attempting to do now."
Gibbs spent his 11-year hiatus from the NFL overseeing a successful NASCAR racing team. After Gibbs returned, among the first people he called were the four former assistants who remained in the league well after his retirement. Gibbs sought insight about the league and how the game had changed, particularly the proliferation of blitzing by defenses. Gibbs also wanted the coaches back with him partly because of their past ties. "We've got some veteran guys who've been through some hard, tough stuff," Gibbs said Wednesday. "We were here before."
Breaux, 63, was living near Gibbs in the Lake Norman area of North Carolina when the former running backs coach was lured from a one-year retirement. Breaux helped Gibbs land his first full-time coaching job in 1967 at Florida State. But Gibbs didn't hire Breaux in 1981 as a return favor. Gibbs, who heeds Breaux's input perhaps more than any other assistant, considers him an offensive genius. Breaux resembles the part -- snowy-white hair, half-glasses resting on the tip of nose, his shoulders hunched. Breaux is such an offensive connoisseur that he has kept every game plan from his first go under Gibbs.
Bugel, 64, Gibbs's right-hand man, was his offensive line coach from 1981 to 1989 before departing to become the Phoenix Cardinals' head coach. Bugel guided the famed Hogs line that Gibbs built his offense around.
Simmons, 62, has been best friends with Gibbs since they were classmates at Santa Fe High in California. The two attended the same junior college before enrolling at San Diego State, where Gibbs played tight end and Simmons center from 1961 to 1963 under Don Coryell. Simmons was Gibbs's tight ends coach from 1981 to 1989, line coach in 1990 and 1991 after Bugel departed, and receivers coach in 1992.
Burns, 55, has spent the least time with Gibbs -- from 1989 to 1991 as wide receivers coach. Despite 14 years NFL experience, Burns is the greenest among Gibbs's returning assistants. But Gibbs holds Burns in such high regard that the assistant plays a critical role in game planning. On game day, Burns sits in the booth above the field and provides strategic input. On the sideline, Bugel, Breaux and Simmons are often within a shadow of Gibbs.
"Obviously, with their shared history and success, they're going to have some thoughts and communication that's almost unspoken," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "One would know what the other is thinking without it actually being said, and know what the other would do in certain situations."
Quarterback Patrick Ramsey agreed: "You can tell they've spent a tremendous amount of time around one another and been through a lot together. That's something we can certainly take comfort in at this point."
The coaching staff's hours didn't change this week despite the team's 1-3 record. That's because of Gibbs's work ethic, which is virtually matched by his assistants. For most of the week, leaving Redskins Park by 1 a.m. is considered early, and a good night's sleep is the equivalent of six hours. "If I get that much sleep," Simmons said, grinning, "then I'm in hog heaven."
For assistants like Breaux, sleep is often interrupted by offensive ideas that cause him to get up and jot a thought down on paper.
On Monday, Gibbs and his assistants arrived at Redskins Park by 7 a.m. The staff reviewed film of the Browns game, held a team meeting, then a one-hour workout in the afternoon. After dinner, around 6:30 p.m., with the players gone, Gibbs met with his eight offensive assistants in what is referred to as the submarine. It's a small room adjoining Gibbs's office, with walls decorated by blackboards. From Monday to Thursday, the staff meets in the room until late to create the game plan.
"They call that room the submarine because they just get in that room and it's like they take it underwater," explained Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' lead trainer for more than 30 years. "Because they don't communicate with anybody else. As a staff person, you don't go in there and interrupt them, either."
During his first stint in Washington, Gibbs was known for holding brainstorming sessions that occasionally lasted until the early morning. The most conspicuous difference now is that the submarine has a clock.
The assistants sit at a table, with Gibbs in the middle, positioned to reach up and write on a blackboard. Breaux, Bugel, Burns and Simmons sit to Gibbs's right. Toward the left are the younger assistants, including Byner, 41, and wide receivers coach Stan Hixon, 47.
Gibbs takes a democratic approach, encouraging ideas from his assistants before making a final decision. When discussions threaten to get nasty, assistants said, Gibbs has a knack of using humor to diffuse the situation. Gibbs sometimes takes a vote, but as Burns said, "In the end, he's the referee."
Late Monday night, the coaches watched a tape of the Kansas City Chiefs' 27-24 victory over Baltimore, broadcast earlier on ABC's "Monday Night Football." The staff collaborated on the various formations to be used against Baltimore, and didn't leave until nearly 2 a.m. Gibbs's formations have become an issue because the play clock has been reduced from 45 to 40 seconds since he initially retired. Gibbs disguises basic plays with motions and shifts by players before the snap. But those missing, extra seconds have created a problem for the Redskins getting the appropriate personnel on the field. As a result, Gibbs has simplified his formations.
The past week's meetings, the coaches said, were filled with intense conversation about strategy. The main topic was the best way to generate touchdowns -- Gibbs's goal is to average 21 points a game -- and play-calling inside the 20-yard line, the red zone. But the back and forth wasn't any more heated than previous weeks. "We have great respect for one another," Breaux said. "We're not going to leave there and take it personal, and hold some grudges."
The exchanges among assistants have not been as vitriolic as during Gibbs's first stint, when assistants sometimes physically confronted each other over disagreements.
"We've been through black eyes and bloody noses, and getting hit over the head with a banana or an orange," Bugel said. "But five seconds later we're all laughing. Now, when we get mad we eat a jar of peanuts, settle down and say: 'What are we going to do?' We're too old for the other stuff right now. Plus, we don't have the arm to throw the oranges."
On Tuesday, the coaches arrived by 8 a.m. and didn't leave until roughly 3 a.m. Wednesday's and Thursday's hours weren't much different. Once the game plan was finalized, Gibbs wrote it on the blackboard about 10 times to have it ingrained in his mind. Most of the staff normally leaves by late afternoon Fridays to spend quality time with family.
Gibbs has stayed at an even keel largely because of past experiences. In 1988, the Redskins finished 7-9, with a three-game losing streak from Games 11 to 13. Gibbs lost three of his first four in 1985 before his team stormed to a 10-6 finish.
No stretch was more challenging than Gibbs's inauspicious start as rookie head coach. "A horrible time to go through," Gibbs recalled, "and this is a horrible time."
After Gibbs implemented a multiple-wideout receiver offense in 1981, the team swooned amid turnovers and miscues. When the Redskins lost five straight, Gibbs feared being the first head coach in NFL history to be dismissed without a victory.
Gibbs had trouble protecting his quarterback with a two-back system, so Gibbs switched to a single running back, John Riggins, and added an H-back, a hybrid between fullback and tight end. The Redskins won eight of their next 11 to finish 8-8.
After intensively studying film this week, Gibbs won't significantly alter his offense. Washington has committed 10 turnovers in four games; the club's turnover ratio -- generally a gauge for success in the NFL -- is fourth-worst in the NFL at minus-6. Gibbs's coaches, who stress fundamentals, have been especially frustrated by gaffes. Gibbs teams were known for their precision, and his assistants garnered reputations for their teaching ability.
"If you change [dramatically] right now, panic sets in," Bugel said, "Then players get a hold of it and say, 'Oh, oh, something's wrong.' "
Simmons added, "If there's stuff on the film that's just not working then we've got to change, and Joe will be the first to change."
After Gibbs returned, he predicted that any struggles by the team would spur critics to say the game has passed him by, and focus on his staff's ages. "He was prophetic," said Breaux, who had both knees replaced last year.
Bugel has dubbed the coaches crew "the Medicare Bunch" but admits at being bothered at any knocks toward Gibbs.
"Some of the things are unfair about football bypassing Joe. Joe's so much smarter now," Bugel said. "But we know how it works. We just have to win, and everybody will jump back on the wagon."