The return of NFL coaches adds up to age-old question

September 29, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE NFL doesn't deal in understatement. It deals in capital letters.

That wasn't the return of Joe Gibbs playing on TV on Monday night. That was The Return of Joe Gibbs, one of pro football's biggest stories.

But either way, in capital or lowercase letters, it was a disappointment.

Gibbs, 63, looked out of touch as he directed the Redskins against the Dallas Cowboys.

His clock management and instant replay decisions were shaky. His offense sputtered.

The Redskins lost, 21-18, recalling their lost years under Steve Spurrier more than Gibbs' glory days, which the once and current coach was expected to revive.

The Cowboys were hardly glorious themselves. Their coach, Bill Parcells, 63, looked just as old. Their offense also sputtered.

Advertised as high-quality prime-time theater, the game came off more like Grumpy Old Men II.

The Cowboys are 2-1, the Redskins 1-2, and it's hard to envision either playing deep into January.

Parcells took the Cowboys to their first playoff berth since 1999 last season, but his second Dallas team is downright weird.

With 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde at quarterback and former stars Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Eddie George in the mix, the offense is a 1998 fantasy footballer's dream.

You can almost hear it creaking.

Parcells is just doing what he always does, surrounding himself with acolytes. But he's throwing the ball instead of running it, and there's the scent of a coach straying from what he believes.

Gibbs is also returning to yesteryear, rehiring some assistants from his famously hard-working staff. But unlike Parcells, he can't bring back former players because he was out of football for 11 years and his former players are too old.

Is the same true of Gibbs himself?

It's probably unfair to ask such a question just three games into Gibbs' comeback, but he has done little to dissuade the perception.

Monday night, he burned a key timeout on an ill-advised replay challenge, then was unable to stop the clock when his team was in position for a game-tying field goal at the end.

Another timeout was lost because of miscommunication.

"Obviously, we could have used at least one [timeout] at the end," Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said.

The instant-replay challenge wasn't part of the pro game when Gibbs coached before. Nor was there a salary cap or players celebrating touchdowns on their cell phones.

The coach is obviously feeling his way with the new rules. Second-guessed for not challenging a call in an earlier game, he challenged two Monday night, and thought about a third. But his aggressiveness ended up costing him.

It's almost funny how fans expected the Redskins to start winning again just because Gibbs was back.

Coaching is indeed a difference-maker in the NFL now more than ever, but the "skill sets" of successful coaches are different from when Gibbs coached before.

The Patriots' Bill Belichick is 52, professorial, seldom raises his voice. He has won two of the past three Super Bowls.

The Ravens' Brian Billick is 50, plugged in, easy on his players. He has also won a Super Bowl.

There is no consensus, no single model, but it's not hard to differentiate a new school from the old school.

Vince Lombardi wouldn't begin to know how to operate in today's NFL, but Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, 41, and Atlanta coach Jim Mora Jr., 42, evidently do.

Del Rio, in his second season as a head coach, and Mora, in his first, both are 3-0 this season.

They weren't high-profile, uppercase hires, as Gibbs was. But this is their NFL, not Gibbs'.

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, 67, was one coach who had seemingly bridged the gap, taking 15 years off before winning a Super Bowl with the Rams and then leading the Chiefs to a 13-3 record a year ago.

But Vermeil's team will be 0-3 when it comes to Baltimore to play the Ravens on Monday night.

The Chiefs desperately need to win, unlike the Ravens, who see the game more as a chance to make a statement on national television. The Chiefs' dire condition could make the night tougher than the Ravens expect; a team that needs a game more than its opponent can be hard to beat.

On the other hand, the Chiefs could easily drop to 0-4, their season virtually over and Vermeil's future suddenly in jeopardy.

Sixty-something coaches are having a tough time this season.

After Kansas City, the Ravens play Gibbs and the Redskins in the state title game at FedEx Field on Oct. 10.

Gibbs might have the Redskins in better shape by then. They're on the road Sunday, but against injury-ravaged Cleveland.

Given Gibbs' history, it would be foolish to discount him because of a poor start.

But if he doesn't turn things around soon, his return will surprisingly dwindle from capital letters to lowercase, just another story that failed to match its hype.

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