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VA Piolt: Gibbs' return to Redskins brings hope that better days are ahead


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Gibbs' return to Redskins brings hope that better days are ahead

After building a successful NASCAR race team, Joe Gibbs was left looking for a new challenge. He found it in a familiar place: Washington, D.C. L. TODD SPENCER / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT



Bubba Tyer was plowing through Sunday brunch at Kenny B’s French Quarter Cafe in Hilton Head, when his server brought him a plate of beignets and a telephone.

On the line was Don Breaux, a former assistant coach with the Washington Redskins. Tyer was the long-time trainer for the Redskins before he retired in 2003 and moved to Hilton Head. Breaux, a Louisiana native, kidded Tyer about eating Cajun food for breakfast then turned serious.

He asked Tyer about Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and about a franchise that has made the postseason once in a dozen years and was again looking for a new head coach.

They talked for 45 minutes. At one point, Breaux said, “Confidentially, I have a friend who’s interested in the job.”

Five days later, on Jan. 7, the man Tyer admits he never considered to be a candidate for the job — his friend Joe Gibbs — was introduced as Steve Spurrier’s replacement. Stunned, Tyer scurried from South Carolina to Redskin Park to attend the news conference, one question turning in his mind: Why?

Gibbs left the NFL after a playoff loss to San Francisco ended his 1992 season. In 12 years, he had guided the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three. His 140 victories were 14th-most in NFL history, but he had reached 140 at least four seasons faster than the 13 coaches ahead of him.

His winning percentage (.683) remains the highest of any NFL coach with a minimum of 125 victories. Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing, founded by Gibbs in 1991, was nearly as successful as Joe Gibbs’ Redskins. The team won NASCAR’s prized Daytona 500 in 1993 and Winston Cup titles in 2000 and 2002.

But as Gibbs described in his book “Racing to Win,” he had become his team’s figurehead. His main function was, in his words, to “stay out of the way . . . pace and worry.”

Until late in 2003, J.D. and Coy Gibbs figured their father could accept that. Since leaving coaching, he’d been diagnosed with diabetes. He was 63 years old. His original goal to involve the entire family in Joe Gibbs Racing had been successful.

Maybe too successful.

J.D. became president of the company in 1997. Coy raced trucks for three years then tried his hand at NASCAR’s Triple-A level, the Busch Series.

“He might have gotten a little bored and started looking for a challenge,” Coy said. “He’s always looking for a challenge. He’s crazy and cut-throat competitive.”

The question of this NFL season: Can Crazy Joe win again? His detractors say the game has changed. Players are different. There’s a salary cap and free-agency issues he has never dealt with. The team has endured four different coaches, was 5-11 last season and has qualified for postseason once since Gibbs departed.

“No one has taken the chance Joe has taken,” said ESPN analyst Joe Theismann, Gibbs’ quarterback on two Super Bowl teams. “No one has enjoyed the success Joe has somewhere, gone away for over a dozen years then come back to the same place.”

Skeptics couch his return in all-or-nothing terms. Gibbs either wins like before or ruins one of the great coaching resumes in NFL history.

His boosters contend that the qualities that made him a success the first time around are eternal: organization, staff-building, work ethic and an ability to respect and relate to players and receive their best effort in return.

The old Gibbs’ methods were in evidence immediately. Respected defensive coordinator Gregg Williams joined the staff after Gibbs flew to his home in Buffalo one night and stayed until almost dawn.

The morning after Gibbs’ official return, he met with Tyer, who figures it took Gibbs “seven minutes” to lure him out of retirement.

Soon, Gibbs presented Snyder with improvement projects for Redskin Park: new video equipment, better-conditioned fields, larger weight room, new players lounge, new cafeteria and dining room.

“There’s a sense of pride,” Tyer said. “This is the best this place has ever been. Every meeting room is perfect. It’s been a treat, honor and pleasure that he even asked me to come back and help out.”

Gibbs’ assistants include past lieutenants like offensive line coach Joe Bugel, quarterbacks coach Jack Burns, and tight ends coach Rennie Simmons.

And there’s Breaux. He later confessed to Tyer that Gibbs was sitting next to him the morning he phoned Kenny B’s, straining to hear everything Tyer was saying.

“He’s put together one of the best staffs we’ve ever had,” Tyer said. “The players sense it and they’re thriving.”

One staff member, though, has no prior NFL experience. That is unless you count standing on the sidelines at RFK Stadium as a child watching your dad at work.

The numbers didn’t lie: 34 Busch Series races, two top-10 finishes. As a driver, Coy Gibbs was hardly on the fast track to success.

When the race season ended in November, Coy was done. A starting linebacker on Stanford’s 1992 Pac-10 co-champion, he soon told his dad he was making a career change: He was going to coach football.

Joe was dead-set against it. Didn’t Coy remember the sacrifices Joe had made for the job, how he had neglected his family trying to get ahead?

Joe reminded him of the night late in his first tenure when he stumbled home after midnight, dragged himself upstairs to kiss little Coy goodnight, threw back the bedcovers and stood in embarrassed disbelief at a 220-pound 18-year-old who needed a shave.

Is that how he wanted it to be with little ones Ty and Elle?

Coy was unshaken. Finally, Joe suggested that he spend two weeks praying about his decision. When Coy returned to say that nothing had changed, Joe floored him.

“Hey, great, I’m thinking of getting back in, too,” he said.

Coy: “Are you crazy?”

“I tried to talk him out of it,” Coy said. “No way that was happening.”

Then Coy crossed the line, questioning his father’s motives.

“Don’t do this for me,” he told his father.

“I am not doing this for you,” Joe growled back.

“Then count me in!” Coy replied gleefully.

Coy, who is quality-control administrator for the Redskins’ offense, laughs when asked whether he’ll miss the publicly perceived “Gibbs Family Days” NASCAR was supposed to provide.

“Well, we lived in the same state for once,” he said, “but it’s not like we’d all come over for family picnics and the kids would play out in the front yard. I’d see him at the track and that was fun.”

The Gibbs who left the Redskins in early '93 was a sad, bloated and sleep-deprived soul. He couldn’t enjoy the wins and couldn’t forget the losses.

“Work like a horse, eat like a horse, look like a horse; that was my motto,” he once said.

The new Gibbs is so giddy he breaks into laughter for no apparent reason. He is leaner and lighter than ever and watches his diet relentlessly.

But the work hours haven’t changed much. Outsiders fear that the deeper he gets into the season, the more he may revert to past bad habits.

“I’m concerned about it, like any kid would,” Coy said. “But you’ve got to know my dad. He ain’t stopping for anything, anybody. He’s going 100 percent. Coming back in, we know that, hey, it might be a struggle down the road. Right now, he’s taking great care of himself.

“What would concern me is if he came back into this business and did things differently. It would mean that he’d changed something. His philosophy works, and he shouldn’t change it.”

The old Gibbs had a simple way to determine when to sleep. A trash truck would pull into the lot at Redskin Park to empty two huge bins at 3 every morning. Gibbs would hear the din and close his playbook and his eyes.

About four hours later, Theismann would enter the building and awaken him. For the six years they were together, Theismann was the only alarm clock Gibbs needed.

He also had something that impressed Earnest Byner immediately after being traded from Cleveland to the Redskins in 1989: the love and loyalty of his players.

“He liked veterans, to keep them as long as he could, guys that were smart, guys that were tough,” said Byner, now the team’s backfield coach. “When I saw how those guys respected him, worked with him, were loyal to him, it spoke volumes.”

The only problem with veterans is that eventually they’ve heard every spiel in a coach’s routine. The “tune-out” factor can be high. Theismann said Gibbs was too smart to let that happen.

“He makes practice fun,” he said. “Everybody’s working. No one’s standing around. Everyone’s paying attention. Everyone’s focusing. I’ve been out here the last couple of years and you never once saw anything as organized as a Gibbs practice.”

For Byner, it’s the way Gibbs challenges everyone, coaches and players, that keeps things fresh, even in a joyless environment known as “The Submarine.”

That’s what Gibbs and his offensive coaches call the room where they devise game plans. About the only description of The Sub anyone will share is that there is no clock.

There’s a tape machine but, more importantly, there is Gibbs’ imagination. The coaches watch the tape of what an opponent routinely does. Gibbs then challenges them to devise plays to counter schemes they don’t do.

“He’ll say, 'Let’s (pretend to) move him over here. Think about this guy being there. What are the possibilities if we then do this?’ ” Byner said. “It’s an ability to break things down and then create new things to break down so that you’re prepared for anything.

“And he does it for extended periods of time. When other guys are waning, he’s still as meticulous about what he’s doing as when he started.”

Bugel doesn’t remember the year, but “The Explosion” occurred at halftime of a game in Philadelphia in which the Redskins had been outplayed and outclassed.

“Joe came in and his face was red, and this big vein was sticking out of his neck,” Bugel said. Gibbs turned over a table of Gatorade “and was throwing oranges at everybody and he was screaming so loud that I put some lip gloss on. 'This is it,’ I thought, 'I’m going to have to give him mouth-to-mouth.’ ”

He didn’t, of course, and Gibbs’ rare tirade sparked a second-half comeback victory.

“He’s not a holler-and-scream guy,” Bugel said. “When he does it, you know he’s really mad.”

Bugel said he’s amazed at some of the misconceptions about his friend.

Because Gibbs studied under pass masters Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, people believe that he lives to throw. Never mind that he sent battering rams like John Riggins, George Rogers and Byner into the line more often than he passed.

“Philosophically, Joe and Don Coryell went their separate ways years ago,” said consultant Ernie Zampese, coordinator of some of the NFL’s most explosive offenses during his 24 seasons in the league. “Running the football is Joe’s No. 1 priority.”

People use the words “Gibbs” and “genius” as though they were interchangeable and Gibbs was responsible for everything. In addition to the toughness to work 18-hour days for weeks on end, a major key in Gibbs’ success is luring the best assistants.

When Bugel left to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 1990, Gibbs hired Jim Hanifan. They were recently named two of the greatest line coaches in NFL history.

“And Joe lets people coach, be who they are,” Bugel said. “ He’s probably the most loyal guy I’ve ever been around.”

On the July night tackle Jon Jansen was lost for the season with an injury in the Hall of Fame game, Gibbs spoke to him about healing and the future. He told Jansen that he would be a Redskin as long as Gibbs was coach and that they would share much happier game nights.

Contrast that with how Steve Spurrier dealt with defensive tackle Brandon Noble’s severe knee injury a year earlier. He never spoke to Noble the night it happened. The next morning, Spurrier told Noble he was sorry about the injury and to “get better,” then walked off.

Perhaps the most important lesson Bugel said Gibbs taught him is never to publicly embarrass a player.

“If it’s a bad game, he’s the first person to tell the team, 'I, personally, could have done a better job of calling plays,’ ” Bugel said. “He never looked over at others. ”

It calls to mind the time during one of Norv Turner’s early seasons in Washington, when he told a group of writers: “If only they’d play the way we coach.”

Gibbs, who reads the Bible daily, has been welcomed back to Washington football as if he were the prodigal son.

On the day Gibbs returned, former players lined both sides of the auditorium at Redskin Park. Players from earlier eras occupied the rear of the room. Behind them, dozens of television photographers from throughout the region jockeyed for position.

The auditorium became packed beyond capacity. Team officials needed to pipe the press conference into the lobby so late-arriving media and friends could listen.

Crowds at training camp were massive, far beyond what the Redskins had ever drawn. Almost daily, Gibbs apologized publicly for not being able to meet all fan requests for autographs. Despite blistering heat on Fan Appreciation Day, he stayed on the field longer than any player, signing and posing for pictures until a concerned Tyer brought him inside.

“This is fun, and we ain’t even played a game,” Tyer said. “Wait until we start playing. We’re not going to win every time, but we’re going to make people proud of the way we represent the Redskins.”

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Originally posted by bubba9497


“Joe came in and his face was red, and this big vein was sticking out of his neck,” Bugel said. Gibbs turned over a table of Gatorade “and was throwing oranges at everybody and he was screaming so loud that I put some lip gloss on. 'This is it,’ I thought, 'I’m going to have to give him mouth-to-mouth.’ ”



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