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NY Times: Some Cards and Letters From the Gibbs Fan Club


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Some Cards and Letters From the Gibbs Fan Club


Published: June 7, 2004

SHBURN, Va., June 6 - They hear Joe Gibbs on the phone and feel young again.

Mark Rypien walks onto a field in Spokane, Wash., to throw a football to high school students.

Joe Theismann visits Redskins Park and it feels like 1982 once more.

In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offices, Doug Williams speaks of Gibbs as if they are still hunched over a playbook together, finding common ground and open receivers.

"Joe Gibbs knows the heartbeat of every player on his football team," Williams said Friday, referring to the once-and-again coach of the Washington Redskins.

Three months before the Redskins open the 2004 regular season against the Buccaneers, Theismann, Williams and Rypien - the quarterbacks who led Gibbs's teams to victories in Super Bowls XVII, XXII and XXVI - watch Gibbs's return to the N.F.L. with nostalgia and curiosity.

Almost 12 years after coaching his last game, in January 1993, Gibbs remains mostly identified with the three quarterbacks he led to the pinnacle of the sport, three men with distinct strengths.

In separate telephone interviews last week, the former Redskins discussed how Gibbs might save a team from its wayward decade, which included a 12-20 record under Steve Spurrier the last two seasons.

Each quarterback grappled with the issues facing the 63-year-old Gibbs, the most critical being the choice at quarterback between the veteran Mark Brunell and the third-year player Patrick Ramsey. (Brunell and Ramsey split most of the practice snaps during a three-day minicamp, which concluded here Sunday.)

In the history of the N.F.L., few coaches have hatched better game plans than Gibbs, a man whose chalkboards displayed a kinetic chain weaving through the quarterback, his skill players and the offensive line.

That he coached with a soft voice in a game of fire and brimstone only heightened the respect his players had for him. Williams said that only once in his four seasons with Gibbs in Washington, from 1986 to 1989, did the coach show anger, kicking a table at halftime during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, spilling a bowl of fruit.

For Theismann, Gibbs provided an initial place to throw the ball, secondary choices that spawned big plays and the option to use his legs. For Rypien and Williams - who were less mobile than Theismann - protection was paramount and Gibbs adjusted. In 1991, with Rypien at quarterback, Gibbs's offensive line allowed only nine sacks during the season on the way to a Super Bowl victory.

"Joe's ability to use Don Coryell's schematics and add on to them enabled us to live in a candyland," Rypien, referring to one of Gibbs's coaching mentors, said. "Each play had a home run at some point in it. But you win Super Bowls because your guys stay healthy. My worst days were when Jim Lachey wasn't in the lineup." Lachey was an All-Pro nine times on the offensive line.

As the most inspired hire of the owner Dan Snyder's tenure, Gibbs will have to squeeze together an offensive line that allowed 43 sacks under Spurrier last season. And after a decade owning a Nascar team, can Gibbs pick up with play-calling exactly where he left off? Will he slide easily into the headset, the way the veteran coaches Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil have in their comebacks?

"He is a terrific play caller, he dictates tempo and he is never passive, but the only question I have is: How will he call plays after being gone for 12 years?" Theismann said. "That is the biggest unanswered question."

Which makes Gibbs's surrounding himself with top-flight assistants even more crucial, Theismann said of men like the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the former Buffalo Bills coach.

"As Joe sits in meetings and draws up plays, Gregg can say, 'If you're going to do this, we're going to do this,' " Theismann said. "With Gregg, Joe has a tremendous mind on the other side of the ball."

No decision will shape the Redskins' season more than the choice between the 33-year-old Brunell, the former Jacksonville quarterback, and the 25-year-old Ramsey, the incumbent who sustained numerous injuries last season but still played in 11 games.

"You have to have good quarterbacks, and I've been fortunate to have been around real good quarterbacks the whole time I've coached," Gibbs said Saturday. "A quarterback's play is something that everyone is looking at and the proof is in how well they get you up and down the field. There's an intangible there and I have a great respect for it."

Ramsey, bothered initially by the Redskins' signing of Brunell during the off-season, said that he only wanted an equal shot to compete and that Gibbs had divided the snaps fairly.

But in his short career, Ramsey has felt the thorns of the business. First, he lacks Brunell's experience, which includes two trips to the American Football Conference championship game with the Jaguars. Second, Ramsey's knowledge of Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense will not help him adapt to Gibbs's playbook.

"It's almost impossible to relate the offenses," Ramsey said. "What I've learned on the field, as far as reading defenses and being in pressure situations, those things have helped me with experience, but there is not a lot of carryover."

That Gibbs won his three Super Bowls when Rypien was 29, Williams 32 and Theismann 33 also points to Brunell as the starter.

So does money. Brunell signed a seven-year, $43 million contract. Ramsey, two years ago, signed a five-year, $5.7 million deal.

"With Gibbs, what's appealing to me is that he's won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks - veteran quarterbacks," Brunell said. "We are in an offense that has had a lot of success."

Each of Gibbs's former quarterbacks viewed the Brunell-Ramsey competition differently, based on his own experience.

Rypien said who became the starter might hinge on which side of the offensive line is strongest (if it is the right, Brunell's blind side, Gibbs may choose Brunell, Rypien said, and vice versa). Theismann said Gibbs told him that contract terms would play no part in his decision.

Only Williams offered a guess.

"No doubt Brunell is going to be his starting quarterback," he said. "And if Brunell still has his legs, Joe will use him in the Joe Theismann style and let him run around."

It can be tricky, looking to the future and the past at the same time, but Gibbs and the Redskins must safely navigate that course this season.

"His biggest problem is that he's competing against the legend of Joe Gibbs, and nobody can live up to their legend," Theismann said. "But the Redskins have suffered from a lack of effort, discipline and professionalism recently, and those are things Joe Gibbs can bring back as they go forward."

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