It's not just those three platinum-plated victories at the end of January that put Joe Gibbs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Victories like yesterday's beat-down of the 49ers helped make his reputation, too. Few coaches ever have been as successful as Gibbs at getting players to believe that each week's opponent, no matter how lousy, is The Greatest Opponent That Ever Played The Game. It's as much a part of what Gibbs has done well over the years as coming up with 50-gut or counter trey. And it's a mark of Gibbs's greatness as a coach that he got his team to take the sorry, no-account 49ers seriously this week.
Gibbs, as it turns out, was right about the stupidity of the Redskins being 13-point favorites. A dozen times three would have been closer to the mark. The 49ers are awful. The Redskins might have won in a blowout if they'd spent all week cruising on Lake Minnetonka in a Vikings love boat. That's how bad San Francisco is at the moment. But Gibbs wasn't leaving anything to chance, so he spent the week trying to convince everyone that the 49ers could wreak havoc Sunday. Of course, nobody with an ounce of sense would be the amen chorus to that sermon. But his players took him seriously, which is all that ever matters.
The 52-17 final score reflects the Redskins seriously preparing for and then smacking down an inferior opponent. The 49ers aren't just the worst team in the NFL now (yes, worse than winless Houston), they're probably the worst team the league has seen in five years or more. They're paper-bag-over-the-head bad. Maybe Gibbs, having been away for a dozen years, thought Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott were going to suit up for the 49ers. In their absence, the 49ers went with their kids, who might one day be good but right now are clueless. If you could pick any NFL team to play yesterday, any coach of sound mind would have said, "Can you put me down for the 49ers at home?"
If this was college, the Niners would be everybody's preferred homecoming opponent. You don't get many gimmes in the NFL; the league takes this parity thing seriously. So when you get today's 49ers or Raiders on the schedule, you have to win, which Gibbs knew better than anybody.
A team with serious ambition doesn't lose to an opponent that hasn't won on the road this season, that had been outscored 62-0 in the fourth quarter, that entered the day ranked 31st offensively in a 32-team league, that was starting a rookie quarterback, that had five days earlier traded its only viable veteran quarterback.
And the Redskins did to the 49ers exactly what a team with serious aspirations should do: put them away early, run up the lead, then get the key players out of the game. Gibbs described himself as "always worried," which is a frank assessment. "You fret each week. I think we had a respect for them, and that was good."
It is. Gibbs's teams historically don't slip up and give away games to chumps the way Mike Martz's and Jim Haslett's teams do. But in case Gibbs missed it while he was worrying himself to death during the game, that was Patrick Ramsey who trotted onto the field with 13 minutes to play and a 45-7 lead. You'd better savor the days when your backup quarterback gets a full quarter of work in a regular season NFL game. You only get those against the JV.
By then, Mark Brunell had thrown for all his 252 yards and three touchdowns. Clinton Portis had rushed for all of his 101 yards and three touchdowns, and done those cartwheels in the end zone. The full house of more than 90,000 had already run out of heartfelt ovations to give LaVar Arrington, who played quite well and said afterward: "I'm glad about it. I'm on top of the world. It's unbelievable the whole city would embrace me. The Redskins fans and I are one. Man, that's a beautiful thing."
Thing is, there are precious few of these weeks. Next week at Giants Stadium won't be one of them. Neither will the following week, here at home under the lights against the Eagles. After that? At Tampa. Two weeks later, home against the Chargers, a team whose record doesn't reflect how tough it is. The Rams and Cardinals don't impress anybody, but they're not Class AAA, like the 49ers. Then the Redskins finish with the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles in Philly. You'd like to call in Mariano Rivera to get those three outs.
It's unlikely, as good as the Redskins' defense is, that Eli Manning, Drew Bledsoe and Donovan McNabb will be as easy to confuse as neophyte Alex Smith of the Niners. As fabulously as Brunell has played (147.9 passer rating yesterday), it's unlikely the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles will give him as much time to find open receivers as the Niners did.
But Gibbs, probably better than most, knows those glamour games don't mean squat if you lose to the 49ers at home, if you don't get back on track after two tough losses on the road, if you play up to the opponent one week and down to it the next. Gibbs doesn't wait for any particular emergency to start preaching gloom and doom . . . not that that tactic works as well for every coach. Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen, the great Rams star who had to endure a similar approach from George Allen, said that playing for Allen (and I'm paraphrasing) was like being inside a bass drum and all you hear is the pounding and pounding and pounding. After a while, you stop listening.
It doesn't seem like the Redskins' players have stopped listening. In all probability, NASCAR drivers such as Tony Stewart and all the people who work the pit crews for Joe Gibbs Racing have heard the stuff, that the sky is falling every single week. They've heard the drumbeat, too, and nonetheless paid strict attention more often than not. Any discerning person should pay absolutely no attention to Gibbs's weekly mini-dramas, but anybody who calls Gibbs "Coach" on Sunday must know by now the man takes nothing and nobody for granted.