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Vermeil, Gibbs have traveled similar roads

Veteran NFL coaches succeeding in returns from time away
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Dick Vermeil had already retired prematurely from pro football for a second time following the 1999 season when he got a call one day from Pepper Rodgers, then working for Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. They wanted Vermeil to look at a list of coaches to replace Norv Turner, whom Snyder had fired with three games remaining in the 2000 season.

Vermeil called longtime friend Carl Peterson, then and now the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, and told him that he had recommended Marty Schottenheimer for the Redskins' vacancy.

"I asked Dick if they'd asked him if he was interested in the (Redskins) job," Peterson recalled this week. "Dick said they did, and then he said, 'But I couldn't work for a guy like Dan Snyder.' "

That was good news for Peterson, who had worked for Vermeil as an assistant coach at UCLA in the mid-1970s and also had been with him during Vermeil's first NFL go-round, with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to '82.

Peterson had often called Vermeil after the coach left the Rams following their Super Bowl victory at the end of the '99 season, and the news that Vermeil had even considered talking to the Redskins about a possible return made him believe Vermeil was still thinking about coaching again himself.

Peterson eventually hired Vermeil in 2001 to replace Gunther Cunningham, a move he has never regretted, even if the Chiefs have only gone to the playoffs once in his four full seasons as their head coach. Kansas City (2-2) once again has postseason aspirations despite losses in the past two games, and Peterson has no doubt that Vermeil, 68, is still the right man for the job.

He also believes 64-year-old Joe Gibbs already is emerging as the perfect fit for the Redskins, despite last year's 6-10 record in his first year back. He sees distinct similarities between the oldest coaches in the NFL, well beyond the fact that both initially left the game suffering from burnout and health problems. Vermeil went 15 years between NFL gigs when he came back to the Rams in 1997; Gibbs had been out of the game and focused entirely on his NASCAR operation since he retired following the '92 season.

"Obviously the biggest change for both of them coming back was the salary cap and free agency," Peterson said. "Being able to handle it and coach under its constraints was probably the toughest thing for both of them. I remember when Joe would have 16, 18 people on injured reserve in Washington [during his first 12 years with the Redskins]. They were coaching to win now, but they were also building a team for next year, too, because you could do it that way. With the cap, it doesn't work like that any more."

Vermeil and Gibbs have become friends over the years. It began when Vermeil was working as a broadcaster and occasionally was assigned to Redskins games. He said whenever he came to Washington in the 1980s and early '90s, he would always try to arrive on Friday and spend two days with Gibbs and his staff and immerse himself in football discussions.

When Gibbs stunned the football world by returning to the sideline last year, Vermeil often peppered him with research he had commissioned for himself. Every week, he still sends him information, some of its compiled by Stats Inc., and as Gibbs said, Vermeil is particularly infatuated with statistics involving turnovers and teams' chances of winning when they have forced more than they commit.

"We used to talk a lot when he was doing TV work," Gibbs said this week. "I always appreciated him because he's so honest and frank. I thought he was really a sharp and squared-away guy. We shared a lot in common and when I came back, to be truthful, I think he probably talked to me more than anyone else."

Vermeil essentially offered the same description of Gibbs earlier this week, saying "we probably believe in a lot of the same concepts. The toughest part for me [when he initially came back in '97] was recognizing how much bigger and faster all the players are. They all look so much better to you when you first see them than when you were coaching before because we didn't have any 300-pound guys who can move like they move today."

Vermeil also struggled mightily the first time he returned to St. Louis in '97. His teams were 5-11 in 1997 and 4-12 in '98, and there was talk that he might not last the full '99 season. Then Kurt Warner came out of nowhere to lead the Rams to the '99 Super Bowl championship, and Vermeil's decision to hold shorter practices and meetings that season also was cited as a major reason for the Rams' success.

Gibbs also has said he learned from many of the mistakes he made last year. He also has changed his own approach in certain areas this season, including his own performance on game day involving clock management, replay challenges and substitutions.

"I think the NFL changes about roughly 30 percent a year," Gibbs said. "I was out for 11 years, so you figure it out. I knew when I came here I was pretty much going to be starting from scratch. But the one thing that hasn't changed is human nature. The same thing motivates all of us. You're looking for the right people, with the right character and the right heart."