Joe Gibbs was asked yesterday what being 0-5 his first year in 1981 had in common with 1-4 in 2004.
"I just remember being miserable," the Redskins' coach said. "That's my memory of it. And I'd say this is every bit as miserable."
Gibbs has built up a reservoir of goodwill. He has three Super Bowl championships and more than a decade of success in which to cash in. Nowhere was the homage more evident than his first game back in September, which seems like a year ago now.
On fourth and inches from the 2-yard line against Tampa Bay, on a day his offensive line was controlling the Buccaneers' defense, Gibbs decided to go for a field goal with 28 seconds left in the second quarter. His assistants did a double-take when he called for the field goal unit. In high school and pro stadiums across America fans grow restless and wonder aloud: Why wouldn't the coach go for it?
But not that day, not this coach. No one would question Gibbs. He had to be right. The coach of the Redskins always is.
One month and four straight losses later, this was yesterday's posting on a Redskins fan Web site:
"If Joe Gibbs starts Mark Brunell next Sunday, it will confirm what I have thought since the day we signed the inept quarterback. . . . One fervent Christian favoring another fervent Christian. Time to break the loyalty, Joe. This isn't church, it's football, and Mark Brunell is the biggest mistake you ever made."
The thread was a personal shot at Gibbs, an evangelical Christian who prayed over dinner with Brunell, also a born-again Christian, sometime before he signed the 34-year-old quarterback to a seven-year, $43 million deal. But that rash posting and others -- including the opinion that Clinton Portis would have fared better in Steve Spurrier's offense -- illustrate another problem for Gibbs and Washington's woeful football team:
Gibbs can talk all he wants about "being here before," but 0-5 in 1981 does not equate to 1-4 in 2004.
Gouged season ticket holders are almost as impetuous as owners now. A sports media culture argues trades and firings passionately. The job is not to inform or enlighten anymore, it's almost to incite a hysterical fan base. Forms of communication that did not exist nearly 25 years ago -- Web sites, talk radio caricatures -- now serve as prime outlets for fan frustration.
Training camp used to be covered by "The Washington Post, the Washington Star and a couple of TV stations," said Paul Woody, a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who has covered the Redskins for 25 years. "During training camp this year, there were as many media people as there were fans at training camp when Gibbs first began."
More people to dissect the misery, to take the temperature of the Redskins organization on a daily basis.
Before the loss to Baltimore on Sunday night, a local television reporter asked tailgaters, What's the problem with the Redskins? It all went back to the players' deficiencies. Gibbs, not only the coach but also the team president, was exonerated.
Let's be clear. Joe Gibbs has final say on all personnel matters. He aggressively went after Brunell, a quarterback who is the second-worst passer in the NFC today. He signed off on Portis, who, while explosive, does not exactly seem like a Gibbs, move-the-chains kind of back. He hired a former NFL referee to help him find his way through the maze of instant-replay challenges, a facet of the game that did not exist 12 years ago. Gibbs has challenged five calls this season and lost four. His clock management severely cost the Redskins at the end of the Dallas loss.
Conventional wisdom says Gibbs gets a pass this season, because of his immense popularity and the fact that he has righted a listing Redskins team many times before. But what if the most popular man in Washington a month ago cannot get it done with this crew? What if getting back to .500 becomes the goal? Or worse, improving upon Spurrier's 5-11 record of last season?
Gibbs isn't supposed to slip in the polls, but if a franchise with the highest payroll in pro football cannot improve over the next few months, Gibbs's reputation would undeniably be tarnished just as any executive making all the decisions would be tarnished.
Gibbs was asked if he laughs when people say the game has passed him by.
"I knew when I took this job, you've got to be a realist, that's going to be one of the first things said," said Gibbs, who came back to the NFL after an 11-year layoff. "You're one kind of guy when you win games and another kind when you don't. I expect it; I know it's going to be said. There's only one way to change that, and that's something I can control."
No sane individual will come out and call for his job, because he's Joe Gibbs. But the Redskins' sideline savior is already taking hits from anonymous Web posters and beyond.
"Every other time I've gone through it in life -- this may be a rare deal right here -- but every other time, I look back at it and say, 'This is why we went through it,'" Gibbs said. "We'll see what this one is going to be. Life is full of wild things."
Indeed, in 1981, Gibbs didn't have to worry about people asking when Coach God became Coach Dog. He just weathered a skid, tinkered with his lineup and got back to winning football games. Distractions and detractors were minimal back then.
But at 1-4 in 2004, it may be time for Joe Gibbs to tap that reservoir.