In the midst of the first practice of Redskins training camp on Saturday, Mark Brunell turned to fellow quarterback Patrick Ramsey and started laughing as they watched coaches Joe Gibbs, Joe Bugel, Don Breaux and Rennie Simmons, average age 63.
"Those guys have forgotten more football than most coaches will ever know," Brunell told Ramsey.
The quartet of NFL oldsters coaxed, yelled, clapped, simulated defensive formations, backpedaled, demonstrated techniques and generally acted like teenagers at play. "Spry" wouldn't do them justice. If the four men haven't lost 100 pounds among them since January, then they haven't lost an ounce. The trim Bugel has gone from "Boss Hog" to a strip of bacon. "I don't know if the players are in shape," said Gibbs, "but Buges is."
Ironically, Gibbs and his supposedly geriatric offensive staff actually look more fit and energized than they did 11 years ago when the head coach, overweight and sleep deprived, quit due to chronic exhaustion. His crew was frazzled, too.
Now, they're back. Though they can't play much defense anymore. Gibbs will chuck a receiver at the line of scrimmage, maybe. Breaux will take a few quick steps to give a defensive "read" to the offense. That's about all they've got left.
"If they can't beat us," said Gibbs, "we're in trouble."
For the time being, Gibbs is undefeated in his NFL comeback and anybody with any appreciation for life's rare, unexpected sweet gifts should just enjoy the whole foolish over-the-top spectacle. "This is so much fun," said sports medicine director Bubba Tyer, who "retired" last year after 33 Redskins seasons but is back. "We had a great meeting last night. Just listening to Joe made it feel like old times. This is going to be good."
Maybe. Or maybe it'll be a bust. But it's downright wonderful right now. The scene at Redskins Park for these preseason practices is like a tent revival. "You haven't seen this many fans out here since the last time the Redskins won the Super Bowl," said defensive back Fred Smoot, nodding at a few thousand people covering a hillside. "Things are going to be different now. The fans will know it. The record will show it."
In Hollywood, that's certainly how the script would work out. In the feel-good flick "Space Cowboys," Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland pretended they could turn back the clock to their "Right Stuff" youth and reinvent themselves as curmudgeonly senior-citizen astronauts on their way to the moon. In the movies, it all looked so plausible. What's age but attitude?
But what happens in the real world? Especially in the NFL, which is about as reality-tested as anything our culture provides. We're about to find out. Hold on to your heartstrings. And keep a hankie handy if the happy ending doesn't materialize.
For now, Redskins fans, including some who showed up as early as 5:45 a.m. for a 9 a.m. practice, hardly seem to care about the future chapters of this saga. They are too delighted simply gazing on the amazingly unexpected sight of Gibbs's return.
Always one to play possum, Gibbs pretends he's in his dotage. When asked whether his first day back in the NFL reminded him of his first Redskins training camp back in 1981, the Hall of Fame coach quipped: "I can't remember '81. I'm too old."
Plenty of Redskins will remember August of '04. LaVar Arrington came off the field after the 1-hour 45-minute morning practice, with another similar one scheduled for the afternoon, saying over and over, "Man, I need to lie down."
"We never take breaks. We're always working," said 310-pound tackle Chris Samuels, comparing Gibbs's relatively short, extremely intense practices to his previous four Redskins seasons under (gulp) four other head coaches. "The coaches are intense. They love us and we love them. . . . The coaches demand perfection and we're excited about it. The guys are hungry. . . . The fans have been waiting for something and we're going to give it to them."
Many players seemed intensely aware of the contrast between Gibbs and his staff of legends compared to former coach Steve Spurrier and his cast of ex-college assistants with little or no NFL experience. To their credit (or perhaps Gibbs's edict), no Redskin said a disparaging word about Spurrier. But there were some amused "no comments," coupled with rolled eyes.
"It's a little more organized. There's a little more coaching," said running back Ladell Betts. "There are more details."
Details? That would help. Last year's Redskins had 124 penalties, nearly 50 percent more than Gibbs's last team, which had 84.
Some younger Redskins grasp a bit of what Gibbs expects. But be warned, it's just a glimpse of what's to come. If history holds, before the season opener on Sept. 12, at least one player who is deemed far too talented or too expensive to be cut will suddenly discover himself an ex-Redskin. This is the coach who worshipped smart, if less-talented "true Redskins" such as Donnie Warren and Neal Olkewicz while turning sixth-round quarterbacks into Super Bowl winners.
In the team's meeting Friday night, Gibbs "was real serious. We're here for business. It ain't fun unless you're winning," said Smoot. "He's intense. You could tell he missed the game."
Gibbs certainly didn't miss all the mistakes the Redskins made in their first practice in pads. "We had good effort. But we're rough . . . very rough. . . . This is going to be a long haul," he said. "We're off and running. [But] we have a short time span here with the first exhibition [in nine days]."
Translation: everybody better start cracking.
The reason fans lined up two hours before a 9 a.m. preseason practice is that they remember what NFL glory feels like, even if many current Redskins don't. Perhaps they sense that excellence is a habit. A habit the Redskins have lost. Gibbs and his old coaches, as well as some of his new ones, have those ingrained traits. Can these modern Redskins acquire them?
"I'm nervous, apprehensive," said Gibbs. "We have to do everything well. Defense wins championships. Special teams are your heart. And offense finishes the job. But if you have one weakness, in this league, everybody will find it."
Just one last time, let the obsessive, workaholic paranoia begin anew. It's been gone far too long.