Coaches take center stage in NFC East

With Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Andy Reid, the NFC East is a coaching hot spot.

Updated: January 9, 2004, 2:10 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Joe Gibbs' hiring by the Washington Redskins caused some pause around the NFL this week.

Joe Gibbs
Gibbs

For one, it's put a sense of urgency into the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid and the Eagles have dominated the NFC East for three years, having a one- to three-game edge over their closest rival. In a division now featuring Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin, the days of dominance are over. There are no more coaching advantages in this division.

No, the hiring of Gibbs won't translate into an instant Super Bowl for the Redskins, but it's a statement about where this league is heading. It's a coaches' league, pure and simple. He follows the trend of hiring Hall of Fame coaches no matter their age or whether they've been out of football for a few years or more than a decade.

Gibbs' hiring is a statement that the NFL, while still a passing game, is going back to more of a smash-mouth style of play. Parcells and Gibbs made life miserable for each other in the NFC East during the 1980s with the same style of play.

"We're going back to the old style of play, baby," new Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. "It's that cold weather, hard-hitting style of football. It's a running style. It's tough football."

Say goodbye to the "Fun and Gun." Finesse just went out the door in the NFC East. Gibbs will bring back those old "Wham" blocks where the second or third tight end will get a running start and try to level the linebacker trying to infiltrate the gaps between the guard, center or tackle.

Quarterbacks in the NFC East will be better protected because coaches such as Coughlin, Parcells and Gibbs will provide more schemes with maximum protection, keeping six and seven offensive players in to block. Fewer receivers will be sent into routes but those receivers should have more time to work to get open against the cornerbacks.

In many ways, Gibbs couldn't have picked a better time to come back. The offensive trend of 2003 and 2004 is vintage Gibbs. It's almost as if he hadn't left. Thanks to the Tampa Bay Cover 2, offenses went back to the run this year more than ever. The 235.7 yards a game rushing were the most since 1988 when Gibbs, Parcells and Buddy Ryan of the Eagles turned Sundays into mini-wars. Rushing was king in 1987 and 1988. The average game featured 242.7 rushing yards in 1988 and 247.8 in 1987.

Teams are still throwing more now, but they are throwing shorter passes. The average completion lost 1.4 yards from 1988 to 2003, dropping from 12.7 to 11.3. It's all about ball control through the air and on the ground.

Gibbs' offense shouldn't have lost a thing during his 12-year absence. He brings the best of Don Coryell and himself. Coryell created Air Coryell when he was in San Diego. Gibbs learned the motion package for the receivers and tight ends, but he added on the use of two- and three-tight end packages to feature the run when necessary. That offense enabled Gibbs to win three Super Bowls with three different starting quarterbacks.

With Gibbs, it wasn't the quarterback who won championships, it was the scheme. Gibbs needed to develop those max protect schemes because Parcells was attacking him with Lawrence Taylor and a powerful 3-4 defensive scheme.

"I said when he retired that Joe was the best coach I'd ever faced," Parcells said. "I have great respect for his ability. I don't think the time that he has spent away from the game will have any effect at all. Joe Gibbs and Tom Coughlin coming back to the league have just made the NFC a lot tougher."

We're going back to the old style of play, baby. It's that cold weather, hard-hitting style of football. It's a running style. It's tough football.
Joe Bugel, Redskins offensive line caoch

The Eagles could be the big losers in this onslaught of coaching upgrades. They've been able to manage the salary cap smartly, let aging players slip away and still dominate the division. Sure, they have the best quarterback in the NFC East in Donovan McNabb. Reid outsmarted his competitors by going for a physically imposing offensive line that kicked it up a notch when they signed nasty right tackle Jon Runyan.

But, other than Runyan, they've shied away from big free-agent spending. Hugh Douglas showed some signs of age, so they didn't pay the big bucks to keep him. They've managed to win with lower priced receivers and running backs. The Eagles held a three-year edge in the NFC East with great coaching and smart money management.

Gibbs, Parcells and Coughlin have neutralized Reid's coaching edge. Now, the Eagles may have to become bigger players in free agency. They might have to consider going after Terrell Owens just to get a receiving edge. Remember, Parcells took virtually the same team Dave Campo was winning five games a season with and turned in a 10-win season.

Coughlin and Gibbs might not produce similar improvements next year but they weren't hired to be at the top of the NFL draft either.

The only problem facing Gibbs is the optimism of owner Dan Snyder, who pulled the coup of the offseason by getting Gibbs to come out of retirement. Should Gibbs pull a Parcells and get 10 wins and trip to the playoffs in his first year back, that still might not be enough for Snyder.

Snyder is thinking Super Bowl. The Redskins aren't close to being a Super Bowl team. And Gibbs is a grind-it-out type of coach who will take a year or two to make his changes. In many ways, Gibbs is somewhere between Parcells and Dick Vermeil. Parcells can coach up underachieving teams and make the playoffs. Vermeil likes to fire the malcontents, survive losing the first year and get ready to win a championship by the third year.

With the addition of Gibbs, the NFL now has 23 head coaches with winning career records. It's a coaches' league. With that many good coaches, Sundays will be even more draining for coaches, particularly those in the NFC East.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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