Eleven games into Joe Gibbs's return to the Washington Redskins' sideline, many around the NFL say they are surprised and perplexed by the team's poor performance and question whether the problem lies with the Redskins' system, players or coach.
More than a dozen past and present coaches and team executives, as well as several of Gibbs's former players, said this week that they believe that Gibbs can again be successful in the NFL. They added that while Gibbs still is adjusting to the changes in the NFL during his 11-year absence, the bigger long-term problem facing the Redskins is their front-office structure.
"To me, their big issue is player acquisition," said a longtime AFC personnel executive who is assigned to follow the Redskins, among other teams. "I've never been able to figure out who's in charge there."
The official added: "They have talent issues more than whether the game has passed Joe by. I don't think it has. It's not X's and O's. He didn't take over a very good team. It's obvious he picked the wrong quarterback [Mark Brunell] and stayed with him way too long, and that hurt [Patrick Ramsey's] development. I don't know at his age if [Gibbs] has the patience to build a team, but that's what has to happen there. And from the standpoint of continuity, it doesn't seem like they've settled on what they really want to do with the talent they have."
Gibbs, 64, reiterated yesterday that he is committed to turning around the team's fortunes, but he said he is open to a different way of doing his job.
"If I ever reached a feeling that I was holding things back, then I would fix it. My commitment is I think we're just getting started and we've got to find a way. I'm not afraid to change anything, that's the other thing. I'm not afraid of anything, I don't care," Gibbs said. "All I want to do is win. I'll change anything about me, what I'm doing, the coaching staff . . . I don't care. If I think as we go through it, if there's a way to help, I'll do it."
Under the Redskins' current system, major player decisions are made by Gibbs, who also holds the title of team president, in conjunction with team owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of football operations. But unlike many teams, the Redskins do not have a formal general manager with overall responsibility for player personnel development.
During most of Gibbs's first tenure in Washington, he worked with general managers Bobby Beathard and Charley Casserly, who acquired many of the players that led the team to its three Super Bowl titles.
Gibbs dismissed the notion that the decision-making process is flawed, but said he is open to the idea of hiring a general manager.
"I kind of look at it as I have no problem with that. I've worked with GMs before who were really good. I don't know if it's as much the title and everything as it is the working relationship," Gibbs said. "Our working relationship here is very similar to what we had here before with Bobby responsible for the talent and I was responsible for saying, 'Okay, these are the guys that will stay.' There is no change in that really.
"I think what we do here with Vinny and all the coaches and everything heavily involved is we all kind of make all the personnel decisions together. Certainly I think when it came to the draft this year we went right along the list and this is what we all said, good or bad, this is the person we're going to take and if you look at the draft, I think we did some good stuff there.
"Free agency, I think that worked out extremely well and if you take a look at the numbers and what we did and who has played . . . I think we did some good stuff, but that remains to be seen."
Team spokesman Karl Swanson said that Snyder would not comment for this story, but added, "Joe is the president. He sets the direction of the team. If he's satisfied with the way things are working, then that's the way they'll stay."
One AFC defensive coordinator said a general manager could help Gibbs and the Redskins.
"And in this league, anytime you think you individually are the main reason they'll succeed, you're wrong," said the official, who like others, spoke on condition of anonymity. "Back when they were successful, Joe had Bobby Beathard getting the players, then Casserly. Joe needs help. Every head coach needs help, and I'm not sure the way they're set up that he's getting all the help he needs."
Gibbs's biggest personnel decision has been the addition of Brunell. He traded a third-round draft choice for Brunell, signing him to a long-term, $43 million contract, and started him for nine games despite poor performances. Gibbs's acquisition of tailback Clinton Portis, traded for cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick, also has not panned out. The offense hasn't scored more than 18 points in a game and ranks third to last in the league in most categories. One longtime defensive coordinator said that giving Gibbs the final say on personnel could hurt the team over the long term. "Let's say you're Cerrato and Joe says he likes a certain player," he said. "Is [Cerrato] going to be able to say, 'No, Joe, you're wrong on that guy.' How does anyone, even the owner, say, 'No, you're wrong' to Joe Gibbs?"
Several longtime personnel officials said they were surprised to see that Portis, with an eight-year, $50.5 million contract, had only six carries and 17 yards Sunday against the Steelers.
"To me, the biggest disappointment is not the offense, it's Clinton Portis," said Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel director who is now an NFL player consultant. "I looked at the tape of their game against Philadelphia two weeks ago, and he looked like he didn't want to catch the ball. It looks to me like he doesn't have the want-to. I know he's got 900 yards, but I don't know what's wrong with him. He's so inconsistent."
"Something must be going on with this kid," former Redskins tackle Joe Jacoby said. "Knowing Joe and the way he operates, [Portis] must have done something to tick Joe off. He's got to be in his doghouse, in my opinion."
An AFC defensive coordinator whose team played the Redskins earlier in the season said Portis often has looked like a different back than the player who was so successful in his first two seasons in Denver, where the Broncos have an experienced offensive line that, in the last six years, has enabled four different running backs to rush for 1,000 yards.
"Running backs have a certain style and, in Denver, he was set a little deeper in the backfield, and that allowed him to pick his holes a little better," the coordinator said. "He's a lot like Marcus Allen or a Tony Dorsett, guys who would glide in there, hit a hole and have a tremendous burst. Right now, it looks like their running game puts him a little closer to the line, and the holes are pre-determined. They want him to stay true to it. You don't see him making that big move."
The problems, the coordinator said, may lie more with the system than with the players. "I've always felt it's players first and system second in this league," he said. "In other words, you fit your system to the kind of player you have. It's pretty obvious to me that they've been more system first, player second. I respect the heck out of Joe as a football coach, and I think if he stays, they're going to get better. But it's not like he inherited a playoff team."
John Riggins, the Hall of Fame running back, has been one of his former coach's more vocal critics. He believes Gibbs has been a victim of expectations, but wonders if the lack of success has caused players to question whether their coach can get the job done.
"This is the guy who would give the fans the most hope," Riggins said. "But when he was hired, you wondered if it was the best thing for him or the team because he would always be judged on his record [in the past]. To me, on offense, the whole thing starts with the quarterback. That position has to give you a spark, but it never did. He lingered with Brunell, and that had a devastating effect on Ramsey, kind of a trickle-down thing. Now the whole position has eroded, and at this point, Coach Gibbs is the guy who's supposed to have the answers. When he doesn't, that may also be eroding some of the confidence."
Some wonder if Gibbs and several of his top assistants, such as offensive coordinator Don Breaux and assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel, also 64, are prepared to stay the length of Gibbs's five-year contract. Breaux and Bugel came out of retirement to join Gibbs in Washington. ESPN reported last weekend that Gibbs, who has diabetes, was mulling retirement because of health-related issues, a story Gibbs has denied.
"If you look at the defensive side of the ball, all the guys they've got over there are young and energetic," said one longtime defensive coordinator. "When you get to be 65, I don't care what kind of shape you're in, it's tough to put in those kind of hours. I saw last week where they were out there [at Redskins Park] a couple of days until 5 a.m. That has to burn you out and take a toll on you. When you're in your thirties and forties, you can do anything. But in your sixties and it's all day and all night, you have to run out of gas."
Gibbs takes the criticism in stride.
"When you lose football games, you're going to hear a lot of things said about you and the team," he said. "That's a fact of life of what I do. . . . You can't afford to get focused on that. You can't get upset about it; that's what everybody has a right to do and what they should do. The only thing that makes things right up here is winning football games. . . . In my life, you have to learn not to get upset. You have to keep your poise."