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TSN: Old coach, new beginning


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Old coach, new beginning

By Paul Attner

Sporting News


It was just one win, of course, and it hardly was the polished masterpiece that Joe Gibbs might have hoped to produce for this, his first game back as Redskins coach. Still, this triumph on the NFL's opening week illustrated both the genius and the stubbornness that contributed so heavily to his previous coaching domination -- and that will make him a success again the second time around.

In this world of the new NFL, Gibbs heard all the questions. At age 63, after a 12-year absence, could he really regain his Hall of Fame touch? Had the game evolved too quickly and gotten too intricate for him to grasp it fast enough? And what would he do with his old playbook to show he could still compete? While all of Washington waited for this day, hoping his astonishing decision to end his retirement would return the magic to this struggling franchise, he fretted because he wasn't sure of the answers, either. Maybe that's why his wife told him Saturday she never had seen him want a win so much. Maybe that's why those around him were stunned by how serious he turned for the last three weeks, how the jokes had tapered off, how he seemed distracted, how the jut of his jaw extended more and more every day.

He wondered, too, wondered if the fundamentals of offensive coaching that had formed the foundation of his coaching would still hold up. He wondered particularly about whether, in this age where teams don't practice consistently in pads, he should back off from a constant dose of physical workouts. And he wondered if he could devise protection schemes that would neutralize all the blitzes and stunts and defensive quickness that have emerged since he walked away from the game after the 1992 season, tired and ill and ready to make NASCAR, not football, the center of the rest of his life.

He wondered from the first day of his first minicamp last April when his defense blitzed all 11 players. And kept blitzing, so much so that it caused the offensive staff to put in a near all-nighter to figure out ways to handle the scheming of coordinator Gregg Williams. "I loved what Gregg was doing," says Gibbs. "I told him, 'Keep doing it. You're going to drive teams crazy just like you have me.' " It was a mark of genius by Gibbs to hire Williams, the former Bills head coach. Williams, who had been the Titans' defensive coordinator before taking the Bills job in 2001, was the best defensive coach available after last season. But he was being recruited heavily by other teams and only a hard-sell visit by Gibbs persuaded him to come to Washington. And Gibbs has been smart enough to give him complete autonomy, the same as he had given Richie Petitbon, his coordinator in his first tenure with the Redskins.

So now we have at least some of the answers to those Gibbs questions. In beating the Bucs, 16-10, before a record crowd of 90,098 within ever-expanding FedEx Field, he mixed in some of the old (the hard, physical, relentlessly stubborn running game) and something new (those newfangled multiple blitzes and disguised coverages that Williams loves). The Bucs were bamboozled by the defensive pressure, surrendering four sacks and two turnovers, and had just enough problems with the Washington rushing attack -- Clinton Portis gained 148 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown scamper -- to lose the game.

This was such a huge triumph for Gibbs and the coaches who were with him during the first go-round, when they won three Super Bowls. Gibbs told the players before the game: "I don't deserve all the attention; you guys do. You are the game; Joe Gibbs and his staff aren't." But the players knew better. "We all wanted it so bad, especially for him," says left tackle Chris Samuels. "We knew what it meant to him."

Gibbs had told them weeks ago that he didn't come back to rebuild. He came back to win. So he closed much of training camp and, away from all the attention, began remolding a franchise that, in his opinion, had gone soft over the last 11 years, particularly in 2003, when Steve Spurrier's final team surrendered 43 sacks and could barely run. Forget how the rest of the league regards pads; he had players in pads every day, pounding away, conditioning them mentally and physically, creating toughness -- and giving them one period during each workout where the offense and defense went at each other full speed for six plays.

"We have a chance if we are physical," says assistant head coach Joe Bugel, who runs the offensive line that he has nicknamed "Dirtbags." "We can wear people down. Our fundamentals still work in this era. This league has become a push, turn and position blocking league. We believe in block removal. We went at it hard every day. And the players never questioned all the hitting because Joe Gibbs wanted it."


They have a chance, too, this season because of Williams. The Redskins brought in six new defensive starters, improving their quickness -- particularly at linebacker -- and allowing Williams to install all of his aggressive calls. "They disguise things so well," says Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson, who faced blitzes on an astonishing 70 percent of his plays in the game. Williams talked openly about going after quarterbacks, and Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden says they prepared for various pressures. But it didn't look like it. "This is a talented (defense) that applies legitimate pressure with speed and physical linebackers," Gruden says. "They are going to be a handful for a lot of people."

Gibbs, too, unleashed on the Bucs what he called "a million things" from his offensive playbook, but so much of it was so familiar from his past: the motions, the shifts in formations, the bunching of receivers, the staple running plays such as 40 and 50 Gut and the counter trey. He found out quickly that Portis, known more for his bursts than his durability, could carry it 29 times and still want more work. But he found, too, that defenses, particularly this Bucs beauty, are much quicker than any he has ever encountered. Once Tampa recovered from Portis' long touchdown run on his first attempt, the Bucs used run blitzes to neutralize the line of scrimmage, holding Washington without a first down in the third quarter and forcing seven straight punts.

During this slump, the Bucs exposed potential problems that could handicap the Redskins offense all season. Quarterback Mark Brunell, brought in from Jacksonville to solidify that position, has limited arm strength, making it difficult to produce downfield completions. Even with the Bucs crowding the line and the Redskins protecting him beautifully (no sacks), Brunell struggled, completing just 13 of 24 passes for 125 yards. Still, he didn't throw an interception, and his only mistake -- a botched handoff at the Washington 9-yard line that cornerback Ronde Barber recovered and ran in for the Bucs' lone touchdown -- was caused in part because center Cory Raymer stepped on his foot, forcing Brunell to stumble. "He held us together after that," says Gibbs. "That was huge."

Barber's score tied the game at 10 with 4:44 left in the third. Early in the fourth, Johnson threw while getting hit and was picked off by linebacker Antonio Pierce to set up a 30-yard field goal by John Hall. Another sack forced a Bucs punt with 5 minutes remaining in the game. The Redskins then went to their coaches. "We just told them we wanted to run the ball," says Samuels, part of a line that hated Spurrier's disdain for the rush. Portis was aiding his mates. He was in Gibbs' face all day, telling the coach what rushing plays he thought would work. Now he implored Gibbs: Let's go with 40 and 50 Gut, straight-ahead power runs made successful in the early 1980s by John Riggins. Gibbs listened to his players; he called nine runs on the next 10 snaps. Portis broke enough tackles to reward the confidence of his coach. Tampa, out of timeouts, saw the clock wind down to 21 seconds before Hall made it 16-10 from 34 yards out.

It was something the coaches needed to learn about their new team. Would the players be tough enough to hold up under pressure in the final minutes? The staff now is convinced all that training camp hitting -- "it was the most physical camp I have ever seen," says Williams -- was the difference in this one. Bugel handed out "Dirtbag" shirts to his linemen on Thursday, and they'll certainly keep them for another week. They contributed heavily to the formula Gibbs must follow to continue winning: protect Brunell, run for 100-plus yards every week, grind out the clock (they had the ball almost six minutes more than the Bucs) and limit turnovers. It might not be pretty, but Spurrier's beautiful approach led to nothing but ugliness for the franchise the last two seasons; just a year ago, the Bucs had six sacks against Washington and won 35-13 at FedEx. And remember, since Gibbs left, the Redskins have been in the playoffs just once.

"It's been a long, long time since January," Gibbs says. "We've gotten through a lot to get to this point as a staff and a team, so that is something to be proud of. I know this is a good team we beat. It is something to build from."

Bugel knows that, too. "We came back to start a new legacy," he says. "That is what this is all about."

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