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Sunday, September 18, 2005
Updated: October 4, 11:22 AM ET
Gibbs fighting against time

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Joe Gibbs' Hall of Fame legacy was secure. As the head coach of the Washington Redskins during 1981-92, he posted a record of 140-65 and won three Super Bowls.

When he decided to try a radically different venue -- NASCAR -- people thought he had lost his formidable edge. This seemed to be confirmed in 1992 when Dale Jarrett started 35th in Joe Gibbs Racing's first race and finished 36th; eventually, he finished 19th in the season-ending standings.

A year later, however, Jarrett won the team's first Winston Cup race, the legendary Daytona 500. In 2000, Bobby Labonte took the coveted NASCAR title and, two years later, teammate Tony Stewart won again. Stewart also leads the 10 finalists in the race for this year's crown.

When Gibbs, in a stunning move, decided to try a radically different venue -- the NFL, after an absence of 12 seasons -- people wondered if he'd lost it again. When the Redskins went 6-10 last season, they seemed to have their answer.

"I think there's a parallel there," Gibbs' son J.D., the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said last week from North Carolina. "He'll tell you himself, professional sports can be a humbling business.

"Last year, yeah, it was hard for him. But after talking to family and praying on it he knows that, good or bad, it's where he's supposed to be. You just do the best you can."

Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs is convinced he can be successful again in the NFL.
Gibbs' return -- despite a five-year, $28.5 million contract that made him the highest-paid coach in the NFL -- has been anything but idyllic. Gibbs became the fifth Redskins head coach in five years, following Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier. Like his three predecessors, Gibbs could not produce a winning record. The 6-10 mark was Gibbs' worst record in 13 NFL seasons.

Fans in Washington wondered whether the hiring of Gibbs was just another high-priced mistake by owner Daniel Snyder. There has been only one playoff berth since his (some have argued hostile) takeover of the franchise in 1999, and the record is a pedestrian 46-53, including last Sunday's 9-7 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Monday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys will be a supreme challenge for Gibbs' Redskins. They haven't won at Dallas in a decade and the Cowboys have won 14 of the last 15 games overall.

"There are certain things that the fans aren't going to agree with, but I think they can all agree that Joe Gibbs is the best guy to run our franchise," Snyder told the Washington Times back in March, in his first newspaper interview in two years. "They can all agree that I'm an owner who is willing to spend whatever it takes to build a winning team."

But is there any evidence that these Redskins can be a winning team? Or are they doomed, as some experts believe, to re-live 2004? If the Redskins, who many regard as the worst team in the suddenly competitive NFC East, manage to reverse last season's record to 10-6 and make the playoffs, it will confirm that Gibbs has successfully assimilated to today's more complicated NFL. If they don't, it will suggest that the game has passed him by.

Gibbs, who had a heart procedure done back in April, is now 64.

"People always ask me: 'Did you have fun?' " Gibbs said. "I say: 'I did six times. 10 times, I didn't.' But I think for me, this is where I'm supposed to be."

Lack of execution?

Joe Theismann rejects the notion that Gibbs can't compete in today's NFL.

"I don't agree, not at all," said Theismann, who played for Gibbs for five seasons and led the Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XVII. "It's not the scheme -- any offense will be hampered if the guy throwing the football is inadequate. Last year, it came down to execution and, for a lot of reasons, it didn't happen."

Cynics will point to an offense that consisted of three field goals against Chicago and insist that the Redskins are just as offensively challenged as they were a year ago. Last season, they were ranked No. 30 among the league's 32 teams in terms of yards gained, and averaged only 15 points per game, second-to-last and nine points fewer than Gibbs' potent teams of the past.

The problems began at quarterback.

Patrick Ramsey, the last pick of the 2002 first round under Spurrier's regime, was the de facto starter, but Gibbs was nervous, so he brought in Mark Brunell and signed him to a questionable seven-year, $43 million contract.

After Brunell went 3-6 and produced a passer rating of 63.9, third-worst among regular QBs, just ahead of the 49ers' Ken Dorsey and the Dolphins' A.J. Feeley, Gibbs gave Ramsey the starting job. He was a modest 3-4, throwing 10 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, and registering a rating of 74.8 for the season.

Ramsey started against the Bears in Week 1, but suffered a sprained neck in the second quarter when he was sacked by linebacker Lance Briggs. Although he was cleared for second-half play, Ramsey never returned. He had completed 6 of 11 passes for 105 yards, but threw an interception in the first series, fumbled in the second and lost a fumble in the third.

Brunell was hardly extraordinary, completing 8 of 14 for 70 yards, but he didn't turn the ball over -- although a pass interference call nullified a Bears 55-yard interception return. Brunell drove the Redskins into position to kick three field goals and was Gibbs' surprise choice to start against the Cowboys.

Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs admits he has struggled to adapt to today's game.
One game into the season, some observers thought they smelled a whiff of panic. The move came as a surprise, especially considering Gibbs' historic patience and loyalty to his quarterbacks. Ramsey, reportedly, requested a trade.

"I felt like it was a decision I had to make," Gibbs said. "I just felt like at this point, the best decision for the Redskins was to start Mark. Really, what I am looking foward to is for somebody to really establish themselves as the quarterback and take off with the football team.

Theismann, an ESPN analyst, said he wasn't surprised.

"Look at the mistakes Patrick made in preseason," he said. "Patrick has not improved much, if any, from a year ago. I've got to be perfectly honest: I think Joe was scared to death of Patrick Ramsey. Mark was nursing a hamstring injury last year. I think Joe is more confident in him this year.

"Certainly this version will be a whole lot different than a year ago -- he's healthier, has a better command of the system and he's surrounded by a far better supporting cast."

Indeed, the Redskins are healthier along the offensive line and seem to have more firepower. They signed wide receiver David Patten, a free agent from New England, to a five-year contract worth $13 million. They traded Laveranues Coles back to the Jets for Santana Moss.

While the Redskins had only five pass plays of 40 yards or more, the worst in the league, Moss had seven such plays with the Jets a year ago. Tight end Chris Cooley, a third-round pick last year, seems ready to build on his already significant contributions.

Running back Clinton Portis, acquired in a trade with Denver, gained 1,315 yards last year and was the star of Week 1, with 164 yards against the Bears. And yet, the lingering questions about his playing weight underline the confusion critics say is typical of this Gibbs regime.

Portis played at 205 pounds last year, but took a pounding running Gibbs' favorite counter trey play. During the offseason, Portis said, he gained 20 pounds to better prepare him.

"I knew what it was going to take," he explained. "I knew I needed to pick up weight for the type offense we're running."

At the same time, the Redskins offensive coaches retooled the running game to include less heavy lifting inside and more sweeps and sprints to the outside. So while Portis was bulking up to be more like John Riggins, the Redskins changed their offense to make it more Portis-friendly.

It was as if the two parties had never even discussed it.

Half empty or half full?

If you see the Redskins' glass as half full, you'll take comfort from that opening, narrow victory. Going back to last year, Gibbs' Redskins have now won four of their last six games. If you see it half empty, well, there are all kinds of things to dwell on.

Gibbs has told friends that his return to the league was more difficult than he imagined, that the amount of blitzing took him completely by surprise. Consequently, the Redskins were a very conservative offensive team last year. They ran a lot of two-man pass routes and rarely threw the ball vertically, which was what precipitated Coles' request for a trade.

In an attempt to rectify the situation, Gibbs made quarterback coach Jack Burns the play-caller, the first time that Gibbs has relinquished that control in his career. He hired Bill Musgrave, who had been fired by the Jaguars because, in part, the offense was too conservative, to replace Burns -- and doubled his salary.

Gibbs has always run a handful of basic plays out of multiple motion looks, but that pre-snap motion was complicated and took time. When Gibbs was starting out, the league employed a 45-second clock. Today's 40-second clock constantly cost the Redskins a year ago; they led the league in delay-of-game penalties.

This year, the Redskins are running more simplified formations. They have added more sophisticated protection schemes and installed the shotgun to avoid the steady barrage of blitzes.

The defense, even without leading tackler Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot, who departed as free agents, remains the team's saving grace. Ranked No. 3 a year ago in yards allowed, the starting unit allowed only one touchdown in four preseason games, and held the Bears to just seven points.

The future at quarterback, too, seems bright. Gibbs drafted Jason Campbell from Auburn with this year's No. 25 overall pick -- parting with a third-round pick in 2005 and first-round and fourth-round picks in 2006 to move up. But until he's ready -- if things go badly, he could get some starts toward the end of the season -- it could be a rough ride.

So far, against most odds, Snyder has been true to his word. He hasn't made Gibbs' life miserable by micro-managing his daily affairs.

"I've never told anyone who to draft," Snyder told the Washington Times in March. "There's a false impression out there that I'm watching film, that I'm grading players. That's silly. I've never watched film and graded players. I don't want to be a coach. I just want to be an owner.

"I've learned an awful lot. I wasn't as patient then as I am now. I've developed more patience, an understanding of the continuity of the game and continuity on the business side as well. I give Joe my two cents about the contract and whether it makes sense financially."

Said Gibbs, "Dan Snyder could not be better. He wants to win. I haven't gotten the job done. He's gotten the job done. We do everything together, and everyone is on the same page together.

"We went through some tough stuff, and he was like a rock. One thing about football: you'll get tested -- and we certainly got tested."

"I'm very hands-on with the salary cap," Snyder said. "I'll do the deal with the agent. But Joe does the recruiting and chooses the roster. It's his team."

But for how long?

Gibbs is signed to coach for four more years, but if the team keeps losing, few people see Gibbs coaching to the end of his contract.

"I take it back to racing," said J.D. Gibbs. "What he's good at doing is putting a team together. The quarterbacks are the drivers, the linemen are the crew guys -- it's the same group mentality. Every game is like a race. There's a scorecard at the end and you know exactly how you did.

"We struggled a lot on the racing side, and they've struggled some in Washington. My dad will tell you that it all comes down to surrounding yourself with the right people. It might not be real obvious right now, but I think it's happening again.

"I think he'll be OK."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.