FENDRICH ON FOOTBALL: Change, leadership helped Gibbs rise from 'low point,' reach playoffs Print
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Tuesday, 01 January 2008 11:29
NFL Headline News

 ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -Joe Gibbs was so somber, so silent, during the limousine ride home on the toughest night of his coaching career that his wife, Pat, grew concerned.
``I was sitting there, and I hadn't said a word,'' Gibbs recalled, mimicking his sad slouch. ``She goes, 'Now THAT upsets me.'''
His Washington Redskins just had lost their fourth game in a row to fall to 5-7. Making things worse on that early December day, the Buffalo Bills' winning field goal came after the coach known fondly around these parts as St. Joe drew a 15-yard penalty for calling consecutive timeouts in a bid to ``freeze'' the kicker.
Gibbs was all the more downcast because his team wanted so badly to win that game in honor of Sean Taylor, the Pro Bowl safety killed days earlier.
``That was my low point,'' Gibbs said in a brief interview Monday. ``It's something you live through as a coach. It can happen. You don't want it to happen.''
With that in mind, Gibbs set out to improve the situation. For one thing, the Hall of Fame coach knew he needed to use all of his talents as a leader, willing his players to stick together. For another, the ultimate old-school coach knew he needed to alter something, so he decided to ease up in practice.
Thanks to both of those elements, the Redskins are 4-0 since that nadir. Back in the playoffs for the second time in three years, they face the Seattle Seahawks in a first-round game Saturday.
``The thing about Joe that you have to understand is Joe never wavers,'' said Joe Theismann, the starting quarterback for one of three Super Bowl champions during Gibbs' first Redskins tenure. ``It's a cliche, but it fits Joe so well: 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going.' If there is a description of what the Redskins have been in the last four games, that would be it.''
Given the circumstances on and off the field - the sudden death of a teammate, the mounting defeats, the questions about their coach's play-calling, clock management and knowledge of the rules - it would have been easy for the Redskins to fold.
Gibbs, quite simply, did not allow that.
``We were on our last legs,'' linebacker London Fletcher said. ``Now I think he deserves some Coach of the Year consideration, you know?''
It didn't hurt, certainly, that veterans such as Fletcher who might have turned their backs on Gibbs instead continued to believe.
``He has the resume, so it's easy to say, 'I want to follow this guy's lead,''' guard Pete Kendall said. ``The most remarkable thing about coach is the consistency of his approach. That's probably the thing that served us best here the past month.''
At the end of Sunday's regular-season finale, there was a celebratory scene that even Gibbs acknowledged seemed impossible not long ago.
Before his triumphant walk off the field, filled with thumbs-ups and waves to the crowd, Gibbs was approached by coaches and players for handshakes and hugs. Joe Bugel, architect of the ``Hogs'' offensive lines during Gibbs I and an assistant head coach in Gibbs II, planted a kiss on the boss' cheek.
``Nothing can crack that man. He is steady, as steady as a rock. Bad times is when he's at his best,'' Bugel said. ``The guys love him and respect him because he speaks the truth. There's not a phony bone in his body.''
Being a master motivator is not enough to win in the NFL, though. A not-always-apparent willingness to adapt played a role the past four weeks, too.
Gibbs appears to have opened up the offense, although he says it's actually a case of being more successful at big plays than before. Another change can't be denied: Gibbs reduced the number of repetitions at practices and, more radically, scrapped full-bore Wednesday sessions in favor of walkthroughs.
``My deal used to be, in the past, we were going to pound it until our brains fell out,'' Gibbs said.
Needless to say, his players appreciate the lighter load. They also say it translates into fresher bodies on game days.
No way to know for sure if there's a direct correlation, but the Redskins built leads of 14-0 against the Bears, 22-3 against the Giants, 25-0 against the Vikings, and 27-3 against the Cowboys.
``When the team was really at its hardest point, he found a way to lighten up and keep guys motivated,'' said running back Clinton Portis, who topped 120 yards from scrimmage every game of the winning streak. ``Instead of trying to thrash you and push you forward, he found a strategy that was going to allow you to get your rest and allow you to get the mental game down and focus.''
That change reflects another one, something Gibbs adopted after last season's 5-11 disappointment.
Going back to his first stint, Gibbs always formed a group of 10 or so team leaders known as ``The Committee,'' but he's never consulted them as much as this season. That panel of players lobbied him to ease up in practice.
``They kind of have pretty much helped direct things,'' he said. ``They've been more involved.''
That's typical of the humble Gibbs, who freely assigns credit to his players.
Ask those players about the recent run, and they are just as quick to nod in the coach's direction.
``He just set his jaw and said, 'Dang it - that's not the way the season's going to go.' And he changed it. And we've been rolling since,'' long snapper Ethan Albright said. ``He regrouped and he's a leader and he set himself, and guys just kind of followed. He got re-energized by adversity and just said, 'I'm going to turn this and find a way not to have this feeling again.'''
Was it hard for Gibbs to change his routine?
``Hopefully not,'' he said, snickering that snicker of his.
Then, heading down a hallway at Redskins Park, Gibbs added: ``I would say people probably would say it's hard for me to change.''
 

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