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Originally published Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Washington's Joe Gibbs: The comeback king

Forget generation gap. Joe Gibbs is keeping Washington together — and leading the team into the playoffs in his second term as coach.

Seattle Times staff reporter

ASHBURN, Va. — The legend looked old just one month ago.

Joe Gibbs didn't know he couldn't call consecutive timeouts against Buffalo, and didn't have a clue his defense planned to begin that game with 10 men on the field as a tribute to slain safety Sean Taylor.

The Washington Redskins fell to 5-7 after losing to the Bills, beaten by a field goal that went from a 51-yard attempt to a 36-yard gimme after the penalty for those back-to-back timeouts. The coach whose first run with Washington got him bronzed in Canton was looking more and more like a bust this second time around.

So now that Washington stands at 9-7 and enters the playoffs as the NFC's hottest team, the criticism has given way to kudos. The coach criticized for not knowing the rules just one month ago is being praised for the way he took a team struck by tragedy and found a way to spin that sadness into gold.

"If we sunk, [he] was going to take a lot of the pressure and a lot of the criticism," said guard Pete Kendall. "The fact that we didn't, he deserves a lot of credit for that."

Gibbs is considered a classic once again. Timeless.

Of course, that's always been his strength as a coach. The unchanging stability that he has brought to Washington in good times and in bad, with a salary cap and without. He's the keel for one of the NFL's flagships. The coach of a billion-dollar franchise who has shown a million-dollar touch these past four weeks with Washington reeling from a teammate's death and facing long odds of reaching the playoffs.

Want to know how Washington reeled off four consecutive victories to reach the postseason? Start by looking at the feelings Gibbs showed for those players in his fourth year back in the NFL even as people outside the organization wondered aloud if he was out of touch with today's NFL.

"He kept this team together," running back Clinton Portis said. "He kept this team focused."

Anachronism

The image is incongruous, the venerable grandfather framed for the cameras against a digitized backdrop.

Joe Gibbs holds his news conferences in front of a video screen that rotates ads a couple times a minute, from bud.tv to FedEx Field to trumpeting the team's Web site. It's quite a contrast, the oldest coach in the NFL talking about his team with the commercialism of today's NFL looming over both shoulders.

He coaches a franchise valued at more than $1 billion, a team owned by free-spending Daniel Snyder in a city where Gibbs' reputation looms so large that calling him a legend gives him short billing. "Return of the King" read The Washington Post when Gibbs returned to the franchise in January 2004.

"This isn't a coach," wrote the Post's Tony Kornheiser the day Gibbs was hired. "This is God."

Only this almighty presence in our nation's capital goes and jokes at how lucky he is not to be screwing on lug nuts for a living. He has a humility that is totally and completely disarming.

"I've kind of always felt that you're never more than one, two games away from a knuckle sandwich," Gibbs said Monday. "That's the thing that's always kept me apprehensive, nervous."

Coaching an NFL team requires a healthy ego. You've got to engender some obedience and a whole lot of sacrifice, and no one gets 53 muscle-bound men to buy into a system without being pretty darn sure of themselves.

Gibbs has got that confidence. He's got so much of it he doesn't worry about a blemish or two on a legacy that he doesn't seem inordinately concerned about preserving. Of course, that is what makes his legacy all the more impressive.

"I don't get a sense that Coach feels a need to prove himself to anybody," Kendall said. "His résumé speaks for itself. ... I don't know what the right term is, but I do appreciate that Joe's only agenda is to win football games. There's no other agenda for him.

"He's made a ton of money. He's made his everlasting mark on the game. He's been enshrined in Canton. He's here to help us win football games. That's it."

The Seahawks played at Washington the fourth game of 2005, and in a conference call with Seattle reporters that week, Gibbs talked about the discussion with his wife during deliberations over his return to the sideline.

"She looked at me and said, 'You're going to ruin your good name,' " Gibbs said.

Well, that made Washington's 6-10 record in 2004 a step in that direction.

"We're halfway there," Gibbs told his wife after that season.

Washington is 30-34 in Gibbs' second term as coach, and the team has made the playoffs twice. Not a dynasty, but progress. A lot of progress for a franchise that went through four head coaches and made the playoffs just once in the 12 years he was away from the sideline.

A priceless touch

The play clock grew shorter in the time Gibbs was away; the paychecks grew larger.

The salary cap arrived the year after Gibbs' departure, and NFL free agency began in earnest. The playoffs expanded, yet so did the degree of difficulty of sustaining success.

Gibbs returned to a familiar franchise in 2004, but this was not the league he left.

"I thought there would be an adjustment period," said former NFL executive Charlie Casserly. "He's a smart guy, he's well organized and I thought he would get acclimated."

Casserly was a scout with Washington during Gibbs' first run as head coach, then the assistant general manager and finally general manager. He knew Gibbs well enough to understand that while the economics of the NFL had changed, the essentials of what made Gibbs a coaching success the first time around had not.

"Leadership," Casserly said. "Within that his ability to stay consistent during good times and bad. I think he does a great job of analyzing the problem and putting it into perspective for the players."

That's why Gibbs' teams made the playoffs eight times during his first tenure and the reason he co-founded a NASCAR team in 1991 and watched one of his drivers win the Daytona 500 two years later.

And it's not like the game of football was reinvented in the 12 years Gibbs was gone from the NFL. Same oblongated sphere. Same principles of blocking and chemistry and teamwork. That outdated concept of a run-first offense? Well, Portis has rushed for more than 100 yards in two of the past three games.

But it's the coach's ear for his players' needs that just might be the most important part of the resurgence. Gibbs is a coach who likes to run practices like a blacksmith, using a little bit of heat and a whole lot of force to give his team an edge.

"In the past, I used to be pound it until our brains fell out on the field," Gibbs said Monday.

That changed the first week of December, when Washington was coming off a one-point loss to Buffalo. The coach who loved contact in his practices didn't have his players do anything more strenuous than a walk-through on Wednesday before the team played Chicago on Thursday.

"When the team was really at its hardest point, he found a way to lighten up," Portis said. "Keep guys motivated instead of trying to thrash you and push you forward."

A pat on the back instead of a kick in the butt, and it was that week — when people wondered aloud whether Gibbs was out of touch — that he showed just how good a feel he had for the men in his locker room.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Two-term coach
Joe Gibbs' first 12 seasons as Washington coach earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gibbs left after the 1992 season. Before he returned in 2004, the team went 74-101-1 in the regular season and made the playoffs once in 11 seasons. A look at his two coaching stints with Washington:
1981-92 '04-pres.
Seasons 12 4
Regular season 124-60 30-34
Winning pct. .674 .469
Playoff berths 8 2
Playoff record 16-5 1-1
Super Bowl titles 3 0

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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