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Gibbs' legend hastaken a beating

But most associated with Redskinscoach still believe he'll turn it around
Redskins v Browns
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has endured a tough season since coming out of retirement.David Maxwell / Getty Images file

After Coy Gibbs expressed a desire to switch professions from racecar driving to football coaching in late 2003 , the aspiration was an impetus for his father to return to the NFL.

Before making his decision, Joe Gibbs held several deep discussions with his wife, Pat, and sons Coy and J.D. One issue was whether Gibbs, who had diabetes diagnosed shortly after retiring in 1993, could maintain his health during the grueling NFL schedule.

But the drawback cited the most was the risk of besmirching a legacy Gibbs had built by winning three Super Bowls for the Washington Redskins.

Pat was the first person to broach the subject, and Coy concurred that his father should weigh the matter thoroughly before leaving a successful NASCAR racing team for J.D. to run.

Although Gibbs acknowledged that his second stint as head coach of the Redskins didn't guarantee additional glory, the Hall of Fame coach dismissed that as a reason to stay away.

Now, with one game left against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field today, Gibbs, whose son, Coy, 31, is one of his offensive assistants, is ensured of his worst season as an NFL coach. The aura surrounding Gibbs when he returned last January has dissipated during a 5-10 season. Although Gibbs, 64, appears to have stayed in good health, the downside imagined by his family has unfolded -- at least in his first season back in Washington.

Gibbs acknowledged that during a few private moments this season, he briefly questioned his decision to return. "Sometimes you do that if things aren't going well," Gibbs said in an interview last Wednesday. "Obviously, I have normal feelings like everybody else."

But Gibbs, who has stated repeatedly that he has no plans to step down as coach, said he is convinced he made the right choice. "If I felt like I was supposed to be in coaching and I said, 'Well, I'm afraid because I might hurt my reputation,' then for me I'm going to be sitting around for the next 20 years, 10 years or however longer I live, saying, 'I was a gutless wonder,' " said Gibbs, who conspicuously hasn't worn his Super Bowl rings this season.

"Is there a big downside to this? Yeah. Now, there's a lot of criticism, a lot of second-guessing. The only way you change that is winning football games. I'm motivated to try to do that. Can I do that? We'll find out."

Gibbs, who is also team president, has shown an eagerness to address the team's problems this offseason. Last week, Gibbs spent many late-night hours with assistants, forming a list of core players to be retained for the 2005 season and identifying areas on the club that need improvement. Over four days starting Tuesday, Gibbs plans to oversee a more thorough analysis of the team, including his offensive schemes, which have drawn criticism for being outdated, before the coach provides a blueprint to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of football operations.

Gibbs views the 2004 season as merely a speed bump en route to what he hopes will be the franchise's -- and his -- fourth Super Bowl title. The parity-heavy NFL is known for teams catapulting from worst to first from one season to the next. Nonetheless, Gibbs, who signed an NFL-record five-year, $28.5 million contract last January, is aware that the euphoria spurred by his return 11 months ago has turned to sharp criticism amid the mounting losses.

On Monday, on Gibbs's weekly radio show on WTEM-980, the first caller accused the Redskins of a lackluster performance during the 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium the previous afternoon. The person, who identified himself as John, alluded to losses in both games against Washington's arch rival this season while harshly assessing Gibbs's first year back. "I hesitate to talk to you in these terms," the caller said to Gibbs, "but we have not made progress this year."

"I hear your point," Gibbs replied. "I would disagree from a standpoint of [being] outplayed or outhustled."

Such an exchange seemed improbable as recently as training camp, when newspapers, sports radio and television hailed Gibbs as a savior. Now headlines about the Redskins coach are more likely to have variations of "Ordinary Joe."

Signs of disenchantment were detectable by the middle of the season, when spectators at FedEx Field loudly booed Mark Brunell -- and indirectly the head coach who handpicked the 34-year-old quarterback as his first major player personnel move during the offseason and gave him an $8.6 million bonus.

When Gibbs trudged off the field toward the tunnel at FedEx Field after one loss late this season, a belligerent fan screamed: "Hey, Joe, go back to NASCAR!" The remark was loud and pointed enough to elicit notice and anger from a few Redskins assistants.

Although Gibbs admits being stung, albeit momentarily, by such remarks, the coach believes that he is ultimately in control over such hectoring. "Anybody can imagine what it feels like," Gibbs said at Redskins Park last week. "You have all those emotions: you get your feelings hurt and all that. But I have to put it in the right context: If you don't win football games, every single thing about you gets criticized."

Gibbs returned to the NFL with the third-best winning percentage (.683) in league history. Gibbs remains the only coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowl titles with three quarterbacks plus three tailbacks. Such accomplishments led to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1996 with a bronze bust.

Gibbs was considered an offensive mastermind whose teams performed with discipline, precision and smarts. Gibbs's quarterbacks were protected from pass rushers, and the coach was known for making brilliant halftime adjustments, providing the Redskins the edge in close games. (Gibbs entered the season 61-31 in games decided by a touchdown or less.)

But this year's Redskins, who have an NFL-record payroll of more than $120 million, have performed in stark contrast to those past clubs.

The Redskins must score at least 11 points against the Vikings today to avoid recording a franchise low for total points scored since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 (not including the strike-shortened 1982 season). Washington is only 79 penalty yards short of setting the club mark set in 1948. (Washington's 1,032 penalty yards this season marks the first time a Gibbs-coached team has reached 1,000.) Although Steve Spurrier, who coached the team in 2002 and 2003, was lambasted last season for allowing his quarterbacks to be pummeled, Gibbs's Redskins have given up only three fewer sacks. And Washington is 3-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

The publication of a book entitled "Joe Gibbs: the Genius behind the Clipboard" -- by Mike Richman, originally scheduled for this winter -- has recently been delayed until June 30. Although the postponement is coincidental, it is fitting given the Redskins' miserable season.

Gibbs insists he has never considered retiring although he was compelled to rebut an ESPN report that he was contemplating it because of health reasons. Whenever Gibbs had been down from a tough outcome, the coach, who has a strong Christian faith, viewed his struggles through a religious prism; a test he must pass before reaching success.

Joe Gibbs Racing, founded by Gibbs in 1991, ended up almost as successful as Gibbs's first Redskins. Gibbs won NASCAR's prized Daytona 500 in 1993 and Winston Cup titles in 2000 and 2002. But Rennie Simmons, Gibbs's best friend and tight ends coach, sees parallels between this season and the start of Gibbs's NASCAR endeavor.

In 1992, Gibbs second-guessed his decision to pursue racing after his team finished 19th in the points standings. Simmons recalls attending Gibbs's first race at the Daytona 500 that year, when his driver Dale Jarrett's car was totaled.

"When he [Gibbs] first got into NASCAR, he would go in a crowd and people would be yelling, 'Go Cowboys!' " Simmons recalled, noting that Jarrett won the race the following year. "It took a while for him to get that thing [NASCAR] built up."

Coy Gibbs didn't know what to expect in his first year as an offensive quality-control assistant with the Redskins. In 2003, Coy was a driver in the Busch Series for his father's racing company. After the race season ended in November 2003, Coy, a former Stanford linebacker, conveyed a desire to become a football coach. The wish coincided with his father's contemplation of returning to the NFL, but this time without being too distant from his family.

Although naturally protective of his father, Coy has been perhaps the most stoic among the Redskins staff regarding the criticism this season. Coy said that growing up as the son of an NFL coach helped him develop an even keel. Despite his father's success in Washington from 1981 to 1992, Coy also retained vivid memories of the low points.

Coy and his brother J.D., who is three years older, were ballboys at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where the Redskins perennially held training camp. The brothers were on the sideline at RFK Stadium watching their father work. Coy didn't fully comprehend his father's legacy until the final Super Bowl title after the 1991 season. But Coy connects more to his father's first NFL tenure than the NASCAR years.

"It really doesn't faze me," Coy said of the recent criticism toward his father. "Growing up, in junior high or high school in Washington, you lose a few games and you know how it goes. It's probably what makes winning so exciting.

"It would have been nice for him to come right in and turn everything around. But by going through a year like this, like he always says: 'You learn a lot about everybody.' "

When Gibbs retired in 1993, he cited physical exhaustion and family reasons.

Gibbs, today the second-oldest head coach in the NFL, weighs substantially less than in his first tenure. Gibbs believes he became a diabetic because of bad eating habits during his first stint as Redskins coach. So Gibbs scrutinized his diet this season, and worked out regularly at Redskins Park.

"I think he has done better as the season has gone on," said Coy, who has two children, Ty, 2, and Elle, eight months. "The first couple of weeks, I could see him getting tired. But I think he's in a groove right now. He outlasts me. I'm the one falling asleep in the meetings."

Gibbs's work ethic -- 18-hour days that end between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. -- hasn't changed from the first time when he had a reputation as the hardest-working coach in the NFL. Gibbs circumvented a promise to his wife that he wouldn't sleep at the team's training facility as before. The loophole was that Gibbs could stay overnight at Redskins Park when Pat wasn't at their Reston apartment. Since she has often spent time at their Charlotte home, Gibbs reverted to his old habits.

"He's a tough-minded, tough sucker," said Bubba Tyer, the Redskins trainer for more than three decades. "As a friend or even as a trainer, saying, 'Hey coach, maybe you shouldn't work as long,' he looks at me like I'm nuts."

Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, added: "It's amazing how that bogus kind of stuff [retirement rumors] gets started. The guy has more energy than me. He spends more hours here than any of us."

The most pleasure Gibbs derived from this season has been the intense practices, the camaraderie and the early-morning brainstorming sessions with his coaching staff. Not counting the losses, Gibbs has found the downside to the NFL the same: the inability to spend quality time with his family.

Gibbs has six grandchildren, whose ages range from a few months to 6 years. He is looking forward to a scheduled family vacation later this month.

At Redskins Park on Wednesday, Ty Gibbs walked past the three Super Bowl trophies that glitter in a glass case. The toddler, wearing a burgundy sweatshirt and blue jeans, headed downstairs with Tyer. And after spotting his grandfather, Ty raced toward him, using a Clinton Portis-like wriggle through a circle of six reporters. Gibbs grabbed his grandson, hugged him and lifted him over his right shoulder.

Gibbs soon let Ty down -- another late night was ahead to finalize a game plan. For Gibbs, his main focus was winning today's game, then attempting to revive a once-proud franchise.

"When you get down to it, I do think a little bit [about Gibbs's legacy], but I'm starting to agree with him," Coy Gibbs said. "Who cares? You get out there and give it your best shot. Have a good time. There are very few people that can do what he does. That's already been proven."