Gibbs' return brings back the old buzz

Redskins: Joe Gibbs, who left coaching because of the toll it took on him, found he missed the frenetic pace of the NFL.

August 09, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - During the NFL offseason, Coy Gibbs decided to end a career as a driver in NASCAR's Busch Series and get into coaching. His father, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, promptly tried to talk him out of it.

"I think he just felt it was a hard life," said the younger Gibbs, 31.

So imagine the son's surprise when the father, owner of a successful NASCAR team, confided some weeks later that he was contemplating coaching football again.

The father's ruminations posed an obvious question. Why would the senior Gibbs, a 63-year-old diabetic who left football in 1993 with exhaustion and migraine symptoms, return to this "hard" life - to a profession that he said still leaves him "apprehensive"?

The answer, said Redskins assistant coach Rennie Simmons, is that the very things that would keep most people away - the anxiety, the raw nerves - are what drove Gibbs back. For Gibbs, the uncertainty makes it fun.

It all starts again tonight when Gibbs coaches a game for the first time in nearly a dozen years as his Redskins play the Denver Broncos in Canton, Ohio. He becomes just the second man - Paul Brown was the first in 1975 - to coach in the Hall of Fame Game after being inducted.

For a preseason contest, it features some interesting story lines: Gibbs' return and a meeting of the teams involved in the big offseason trade that sent running back Clinton Portis to the Redskins and cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver. It's also Round 1 of the Washington quarterback competition between newcomer Mark Brunell and incumbent Patrick Ramsey.

Since rejoining the Redskins, Gibbs has often suggested his return amounts to an experiment.

Gibbs told the players in his first speech at minicamp "how excited he was to come back and be a part of this, and how this was a whole new chapter," Coy Gibbs said. "He said to forget about the past. He said we're starting over and that he's got to prove himself and they've got to prove themselves, too."

Starting over doesn't seem to bother the senior Gibbs.

"Put it this way," said Simmons, who has known the Hall of Fame coach since high school. "He got into racing [after leaving football,] and he really didn't know that much about it. He knew it'd be like a spectator taking over the Redskins. But I think he needs that challenge and competition."

Fans might snicker at the notion of Gibbs, who coached the Redskins to three Super Bowl championships, suggesting he has something to prove; many assume he will quickly turn around a team that was 5-11 last season under Steve Spurrier. But the Redskins face many questions, particularly on a defensive line that struggled to stop the run and pressure the opposing quarterback in 2003. The team ranked 25th in total defense last year.

The coach's effect on the team is already evident in ways large and small.

Walls have been freshly painted and fields re-sodded. Equipment that had been lying around has been put away. When players return from the practice fields, they are met by a new sign reminding them to remove athletic tape from shoes and tap the dirt off their cleats before entering the locker room.

"There are little things like that because that's our home, we want to keep it clean and not have it be a pigsty in there," said Joe Bugel, an assistant head coach. "It's the little things that he believes in and tells the team. He doesn't assume anything. That's why I love the guy."

Gibbs is Washington's fifth coach since the 2000 season. Among the many challenges of Gibbs and his staff is to implement their own techniques and game strategies. His offense is expected to emphasize the running and pass-catching skills of Portis, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards in just two seasons with Denver.

Asked whether incumbent players need to unlearn bad habits from previous coaches, Bugel nods his head.

"No disrespect to anyone that was here, [but] these kids were starving to be coached," Bugel said.

For example, he said offensive lineman Chris Samuels was "a head ducker. I think that's how he got injured. He was using the top of his helmet." Samuels, consistently a Pro Bowl player, has battled various injuries the past couple of years.

Gibbs, who loves instructing, has said there is lots to teach but little time before the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sept. 12.

Trying to maximize that time, Gibbs is holding the public part of training camp to less than two weeks. Redskins fans, whom Gibbs often praises for their loyalty, won't be allowed in after Wednesday.

In his first coaching stint, Gibbs was known for keeping such long hours that he sometimes slept in his office.

This time around, remaining healthy poses even more of a challenge. He was diagnosed with diabetes after his initial retirement and needs to monitor his condition and what he eats.

"I think really in the back of his mind he's a little bit more conscious of his physical situation," Simmons said. "He's got to take care of himself. Diabetes is in his family - his uncle died of diabetes."

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