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Forward Thinker

Joe Gibbs is back as Redskins' coach, but he's keeping his eye on future

April 21, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

For the Washington Redskins, everything old is new again.

But for Coach Joe Gibbs, many things old are taboo.

"We've all got to prove ourselves," said Gibbs, lured back to football this off-season to steer a rudderless franchise on course. "I'm not thinking about the past. I'm not wearing a Super Bowl ring. I'm focused on doing something today."

Every coach might say the same, although Gibbs has proved he's one of the most capable leaders in NFL history. He has three Lombardi trophies to his name, and in 1996 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Redskins, who made the playoffs only once during Gibbs' 11-year absence, are on their fifth coach since Dan Snyder bought the franchise in 1999. Gibbs was a surprise hire, brought in to replace Steve Spurrier, who resigned in January after the second season of his five-year deal. The team was 12-20 under Spurrier, 5-11 last season.

Nine days after Spurrier walked away from the job, the Redskins made the startling announcement Gibbs was returning with a five-year deal that will pay him more than Spurrier's $5 million a season. Sometimes, even Gibbs can't believe he chose to come back.

"Five months ago, I would have said you're going to be crazy," he said. "My life was all settled, all programmed until they carried me off the back porch of my house."

So why did he return, giving up day-to-day control of his successful stock car racing team and selling his 5% ownership stake in the Atlanta Falcons?

"It wasn't any one thing," he said. "It was a process. It started with my son [Coy] saying he wanted back into coaching. He didn't want to be in racing. That meant our grandbabies were going to be separated [from us]. We were living 10 minutes from each other.

"The racing team had been together for a long time and was in real good shape. They didn't need me as much. And the sponsors like me being in football. [My wife] Pat's decision was a big deal for me. I've learned I better pay attention to what Pat says. The last part of the puzzle was the Redskins' job coming open. I kept praying for doors to close and they kept coming open, is the best way to put it."

There have been plenty of changes since Gibbs left the NFL, not so much on the field but in the way the salary cap makes it a struggle to keep a core of vital players together. For instance, it's next to impossible for a team to keep an offensive line together for nearly a decade, as Gibbs' Redskins did with the Hogs.

Already under Gibbs, the team has sent one of the league's best cornerbacks, Champ Bailey, to Denver for Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis, and has signed former Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell and Seattle cornerback Shawn Springs. The Redskins also have the fifth selection in this weekend's draft. As much as any team in the league, the Redskins are in a win-now mode.

"I'll tell you this," Gibbs said. "If we lose games this year, it won't be because of Dan Snyder. It will be because of me, the coaching staff and the players. When it came to getting the coaches, [Snyder] did every single thing he could to help me. That's a hard process today, with all the rules they have in place. In free agency and the draft, some of the things we needed in the complex, he has done everything he could do."

Still, people will be closely watching the developing relationship between Gibbs and the hands-on Snyder, whose patience wore thin with Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Spurrier.

Gibbs scored his Super Bowl victories under the late Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke.

"Mr. Cooke was a great owner," Gibbs said. "He would say, 'This is what I think you need to do. But you need to do it your way.'

"I had a chance to be around Dan before. He went to the races with me one time and I had a chance to see how he treated his family.... I had a little bit of a feel for him and was real comfortable with him."

There are some things, though, with which Gibbs will never get comfortable -- such as the sight of former New York Giant coach Bill Parcells standing on the Dallas Cowboys' sideline.

Asked whether he could imagine himself coaching the archenemy Cowboys, Gibbs said, "I don't think that would have worked. I would have been killed. I could never do that. I see blue, I get sick."

Recently, Gibbs received a playful e-mail from Parcells reading, "Does this mean we can't talk for the next five years?"

Maybe so, because Gibbs, back in the coaching swing, hasn't responded. Just like old times.

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