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In Every Way Possible, Gibbs Was a Winner

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Jan. 28, 1996; Page D01

TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Players came, players went, even quarterbacks and running backs. And no matter who was in uniform, the Redskins of Joe Gibbs kept winning. His success wasn't tied to any person or unit. It was nothing like Bill Walsh and Joe Montana or Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain. The Redskins of Joe Gibbs won a championship with a quarterback once banished to Canada, with a quarterback plucked from the USFL and with a quarterback drafted in the sixth round. The Redskins of Joe Gibbs won with Smurfs and with a Diesel, by playing bombs away or keeping seven blockers in to protect the quarterback. No slogans, no gimmicks, no themes, just imagination plus good sense and hard, hard work.

"He had a formula," former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen said. "He believed it, he stuck with it, he believed it and he won with it." You know how many coaches in the history of the NFL have a better winning percentage than Joe Gibbs's .683? Vince Lombardi, George Seifert and John Madden, that's it.

And on those rare Sundays when the Redskins did lose, there were no public tantrums, not even once. Gibbs never blamed a player, never showed up an assistant by throwing a clipboard and going nuts on the sideline. If something went wrong, he was the boss and the boss took the blame. "You see coaches pointing fingers," Jurgensen said, "but Joe Gibbs never did. Never."

Probably because he was too busy trying to think up ways to win the next game. Coaches everywhere are still running his plays: counter-gap, counter-trey, 50-gut. Gibbs was once pegged as a passing game guy, a Don Coryell disciple. But look at his contributions to the running game. You throw with Dan Fouts, you run with John Riggins. He could make it seem so simple, simpler than anybody else. Some of us would make fun of Gibbs, sleeping at the office three nights a week, listening to cassette tapes of family dinners and birthday parties he had missed. Maybe that's the only way he could be as sharp as he wanted to be. Unquestionably, it was a steep price to pay and a big part of the reason Gibbs said enough after 12 seasons.

The "bunch of phone calls" he still gets from NFL teams probably won't matter. Gibbs is having too much fun, fulfilling his competitive desires with auto racing and making up lost family time with his wife and sons.

It's fitting that two of the men he tutored as an assistant, Charlie Joiner and Dan Dierdorf, are going to the Hall of Fame with Gibbs in the five-man class elected Saturday along with Lou Creekmur and Mel Renfro. Dierdorf played tackle and center for 13 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, where Gibbs was an assistant coach for five years; Joiner played wide receiver 18 seasons for Houston, Cincinnati and San Diego, where Gibbs was offensive coordinator for two seasons under Coryell. "Those guys helped me keep a job," Gibbs said with that trademark little cackle. "Charlie was one of those guys who would come early, come in with the coaches, and stay late. He loved the technical parts. He was a totally dedicated guy, a great producer. . . . Dan was one of the most awesome drive-blockers I've ever seen."

On the other hand, it's almost scandalous that several Steelers players still find the Hall of Fame's doors closed to them. As much as the members of the class of '96 belong, so do Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, passed over once again by the voters. If they're not going to be in the Hall, then what's the point of having one? Swann & Stallworth could be the best receiving tandem in the history of the game. Is there any Super Bowl catch that comes to mind quicker than the leaping, balletic one Swann made against the Cowboys? They dominated the routine games, they owned the big ones, even the Super Bowls.

You know the rub don't you? Some of the voters apparently feel there are too many members of those Steelers teams already in the Hall of Fame: Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Chuck Noll. Of course it's the stupidest thing you've ever heard, penalizing a great player because he had great teammates. Nearly as stupid as John Mackey taking forever to get in. Swann told me on Thursday, "Numbers should have nothing to do with it. You should not penalize the Packers, the Steelers, the 49ers, the Cowboys, because those organizations were better than the other teams at drafting or finding the best players and helping to create better situations for that talent."

Swann was interrupted by a well-wisher who was shocked to find he wasn't already enshrined. It happened all day, every day last week. Over lunch, Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff said, "How can Lynn Swann not be in? If you put everybody from the '60s Packers and '70s Steelers in, who would argue?"

That's right. What fool would dare argue Swann and Stallworth don't belong? Jurgensen, himself a Hall of Famer, said, "You can't have a situation where voters are saying, We've got a lot of Steelers, we've got enough of them.' I think the Steelers were a dominant team because of defense; Terry would be the first to tell you that. But Swann and Stallworth, Terry would just lay it out there and they'd steal passes. They'd go up and get passes they shouldn't have gotten."

You can sense annoyance in Swann's voice when the topic is broached, but he won't dwell on it for long. "I really don't think about it," he said. "It's out of my hands. If it's more than just how you play the game, what can I do? The body of work, and the degree and level of success should be sufficient. After it's done, it's done."

Swann, ever the elegant gentleman, smiles and leaves it at that. He knows there are people out there who will help him fight this battle, and he's right. But the words Huff spoke come back time again. Who would argue if Swann and Stallworth and even another Steeler, center Mike Webster, had joined the '96 class? The people who vote for baseball and football enshrinement can't stop us from seeing those Super Bowl clips of Swann's leaping reception. No vote, however misguided, can undo the body of work, the degree and level of excellence, even superiority exhibited by men in and not yet in the Hall of Fame.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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