The first time Joe Gibbs's wife, Pat, found out the Hall of Fame coach was thinking about returning to the NFL, she strongly cautioned him of the consequences.

"You're going to ruin your good name," Pat told her husband.

In retelling the story yesterday afternoon in Ashburn, Gibbs repeated the punchline, "After the first year, we're halfway there."

The coach almost hiccupped as he laughed. He cackled and laughed some more.

On the day his team reported to training camp, he trotted out the old, Gibbsian self-deprecation routine. He tried his best to camouflage the frustration of winning six games and losing 10 last season and he rightly tried to downplay the most bizarro of offseasons.

Team officials speed-dialed Gibbs's number for months, each time relating some strange-but-true tale about his football players.

"I'm on vacation and I get the calls, 'You're not going to believe this,' " Gibbs said. " 'Yes, I will.' "

Between Sean Taylor allegedly beating down some fellow who may have stolen his all-terrain vehicles in Miami and Clinton Portis nearly going to court for failing to pay a former teammate $20,000 in exchange for his jersey number, Gibbs got used to the good, the bad and the just plain weird.

In April, LaVar Arrington went on some Show-Me-More-Love rant -- all because the team had the temerity to not promptly release the fact that he had a second knee surgery. Poor LaVar did not feel like Mr. Redskin anymore.

Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot bolted for other teams less than a year after they were called core players. Laveranues Coles said owner Dan Snyder threatened to send him a plasma television because he was going to be watching the Redskins instead of playing if he didn't get religion quick.

On it went. And that's hardly taking into account the mess Gibbs and the Redskins got themselves into. They misquoted their own press release before the draft, then called a press conference to spank the media for its mistake.

Some of the foibles you could not make up. Washington was docked three offseason practices by the NFL when the league officials witnessed video of forbidden contact scrimmages on a Web site -- the Redskins' team Web site! Yes, unwittingly, they turned themselves in.

After the summer cleared, Mark Brunell was still here and Patrick Ramsey had a gunslinger from Auburn looking over his shoulder; drafting Jason Campbell enlivened rather than quelled the quarterback controversy.

Gibbs was asked if he felt any less pressure after a god-awful comeback season. Could he escape the scrutiny of the petri dish just for a minute? "No," he said, flatly.

He is right. More than in any other season, Joe Gibbs's legacy is at stake. No one will ever be able to take away the three shimmering Vince Lombardi trophies that stood proudly in front of him on the dais yesterday. But if his football team does not embark on some kind of respectable turnaround, the notion of Gibbs as the franchise's great resuscitator will be gone, his image tainted just as Pat worried it would be.

Joe Gibbs cannot go 6-10 again and sell hope in the offseason. He won't let himself.

His receiving corps -- minus starters Coles and Rod Gardner and now featuring Santana Moss -- is faster but smaller. Without Pierce and Smoot will Gibbs's defense be able to bail out an offense that offensive tackle Jon Jansen regretfully labeled "a 1992 offense" on a pre-draft television show? Will Sean Taylor grow up?

Sean Taylor -- bless his heart -- showed up at Redskins Park yesterday and realized he had done some things wrong this summer. He found it is detrimental not to return a Hall of Fame coach's repeated phone calls, that treating Gibbs like a stalker ex-girlfriend with a history of restraining orders is not conducive to a good player-coach relationship.

Taylor also told The Post's Nunyo Demasio on Saturday that bullets whizzed by him the night he was arrested in Miami on felony assault charges. Apparently, he believes family cookouts in June are vastly overrated.

There are all these intangibles, which have nothing to do with how good a coach Gibbs was and very likely still is. He said he went in "wide-eyed" a year ago, that this year is different. He made no promises, but he understands his personnel and the league better.

The more than 90 percent of the players who showed up for optional workouts are clearly Gibbs's guys, players hopefully devoid of petulance or too much individualism. Unlike Taylor or Coles, most of this silent majority never made the headlines or led a local sportscast. They just worked out with the goal of getting better, believing they would not embarrass Joe Gibbs again.

Even the loyal legions are worried the team could go no better than 8-8 this season. There are unsubstantiated rumblings Gibbs would step down after another dreadful year, maybe serve as a figurehead and hand over the top job to Gregg Williams. You would hate to see Gibbs go out like that. It wouldn't be right.

For Pat's sake, you hope he doesn't.

"I get the calls, 'You're not going to believe this,' " Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. " 'Yes, I will.' "