An NFL Films treatment often goes down as smoothly as hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies, and the newest look at Joe Gibbs radiates that happy and familiar warmth. NFL Network’s hour-long look at the Hall of Fame coach’s career will debut Friday at 9 p.m., part of its “A Football Life” series of profiles, and Redskins fans will bathe in the program’s comforting nostalgia: the interviews with Riggo and Dexter and Bobby Beathard and John Kent Cooke, the audio of Frank Herzog, the paeans to 70 Chip and the Counter Trey, the archived testimonials from Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells, those glorious old clips from a delirious RFK.
“Without a doubt, the best head coach of all time,” Gary Clark says at one point, and if you thought that before watching the film, it sure won’t convince you otherwise. This fan base may be preoccupied with the past, but all that is forgiven as you watch that squeaky-voiced square progressing through one of the best decades any NFL team has known.
And yet there are tiny detours from the warm fuzzies, brief moments at the beginning and end of the film when Gibbs grapples not just with his greatness but with some regret. When he wonders whether he balanced his nearly unmatched professional career well enough with being the father and husband he wanted to be. Those were the questions that sparked his shocking first resignation in Washington, and something similar later caused him to leave the team a second time.
“The thing I second-guess the most about my life was the time I missed being with family,” Gibbs says as the movie begins. “I probably didn’t have to do it the way I did it.”
He didn’t? Because the way he did it — the meeting rooms without clocks, the pullout sofa in his office, the coaching conferences interrupted by middle-of-the-night garbage trucks, the single-mindedness that caused him not to recognize Oliver North when he visited a practice during the height of his celebrity — remains so central to everything we think about Gibbs. Could he really have had the same success without that obsessive single-mindedness?
“I think that’s a great question,” Gibbs said Tuesday afternoon, during a wave of interviews to promote the movie. “As I reflect back on it, I really feel like I probably could have done it different. I could have taken some time off on Tuesdays to go have lunch with my kids — which I tried to do with [younger son] Coy some, and I missed it with J.D.
“But I sat down with both my boys a few years back,” Gibbs went on. “They both have four kids apiece. I said, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ I said, ‘I apologize for all the time I missed. Listen, stay close to your kids.’ And one thing I’m trying to do now is with my grandkids, I am trying to stay close with them and be a part of their life, and so I try to encourage both my boys to do that. But I think it’s the one thing that I’ll go to my grave second-guessing, and not really knowing. Hey, could I have done it a different way?”
If the question adds a philosophical undertone to the movie — with Gibbs revisiting it at the end — the guts of the piece celebrates the way he did do it. There are all the usual themes, accompanied by brilliant visuals: the self-deprecation (“very average intelligence,” Gibbs says of himself in one old interview), the knack for motivation (Gibbs talking about the team’s “leather balls” award is snicker-out-loud funny), the ability to plow through adversity (there are great shots from those games he won with replacement players in 1987), and the decade of domination.
Washington, of course, is tied for the league’s 28th-best winning percentage since his first departure. Only one head coach since then has lasted longer than four years. Gibbs won’t say a bad word about the team’s leadership — “hopefully let’s get hot at the end of the year here and work our ways into the playoffs; that’s what I’m hoping,” he said. He seems still to think of the Redskins as they were in the NFL Films treatment: the beloved team prompting pleasure and parades.
“One of the most important things in the D.C. area is the Redskins. It’s written about every day. I think it’s the greatest sports franchise in the world because of that,” he said Tuesday. “The one thing that unifies that city — that is so diverse, with so many different political views — the one thing that brings everybody together is the Redskins.”
Maybe if they again start winning 11 games a year, and sprinkle in the occasional playoff run. Maybe then. This film, though, is yet another reminder of how far away those days seem, and just how special they were.
Gibbs, as you’d expect, wants little to do with celebrating himself; he called the film “kind of embarrassing in a way” in one radio appearance Tuesday. And he said repeatedly that he feels badly so much is made of Washington’s offense during his tenure, and that defensive players and coaches so often get overlooked. When I suggested that he’s one of the few Washington sports figures whose image is nearly unstained, he scoffed.
“It’s not all kind of what you see in something like this,” he said. “You realize when you get to do all the things that I’ve done, you’ve just been fortunate to be around the right people. And you also have made a lot of mistakes in the process.”
The film doesn’t dwell on any of those, although it takes viewers through his decision to leave the NFL, the success that followed in NASCAR, his return to the team and the many health problems his family has dealt with in recent years. There’s also that recurring question of whether Gibbs could have found such success without making such personal sacrifices. The film shows his wife, Pat, making tape recordings at home so Gibbs could listen to things he had missed; it shows him near tears as he talks about missing Coy’s football games.
I asked Gibbs what advice he might offer today’s coaches, many of whom share that work ethic that was so celebrated during Washington’s glory years.
“I would say to ’em, do everything you can — and I say this to people all the time — to try to stay close to your kids,” Gibbs said. “You know, today they could be texting them. They could spend a special time where they come over and you have a dinner with them at night. Just a lot of things I could have done, but I was so focused on what I was doing [at work]. You go charging through life. I look back at it now; I feel like I could have done it a different way.”
Which is how he’s done things with his grandkids. Gibbs is shown rooting them on at the racetrack, and playing catch with them, and spending time on the water with them. And even when he talks about his football life, his family is where he winds up.
“What we’re gonna leave on this earth is the influence on others, and it’s gonna be those grandkids,” he says in the final scene, and it’s as warm a moment as any NFL Films highlight.
More Redskins coverage:
Redskins enter stretch of three games in 12 days dealing with injuries