- Sal Paolantonio, SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The return of Joe Gibbs did not start on Friday afternoon when he stepped onto the practice field for the first time in 13 years -- or with his announcement that the quarterback competition between Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey would be "very competitive," or with his first post-practice session with the Washington press corps.
No, it started on Thursday night, when the team gathered to meet the new "old" boss here at the Redskins practice facility. It was after dinner and the room was filled with laughter and conversation as old friends gathered after a long offseason, when the organization tried to purge the disappointment of a 5-11 season and the stain of the Steve Spurrier era, which lasted all of two seasons.
Then, Gibbs appeared in the doorway.
"And there was total silence," said veteran offensive lineman Chris Samuels. "Coach Gibbs walked into the room, and nobody said a word."
Said one coach who has never been with Gibbs before, "I couldn't believe it. It was like the president of the United States walked into the room. Everybody just sat up in their chair. He just commanded instant respect."
And he didn't have to flash it, either. Gibbs didn't wear one of his three Super Bowl rings. He didn't raise his voice, or lay down the law.
"He didn't have to," said running back Clinton Portis. "We understand who he is."
Gibbs told his players that the new regime will be governed by two rules: Don't embarrass the team. Use common sense.
"That's when we knew that it was going to be all business -- right from the start," said Samuels. "That's exactly what we've needed around here."
Many players said Gibbs no-nonsense style was in stark contrast to the often-loose approach of the previous regime, and that Gibbs simply possessed something Spurrier did not have: NFL gravitas.
And there are already signs of that taking hold.
"If this is the first day of mini-camp," said wide receiver Laveranues Coles, "training camp is going to be rough."
Gibbs and his offensive staff wasted little time incorporating a full script of plays. "It was a lot," said Brunell, the veteran quarterback brought in to challenge for the starting job with incumbent starter Ramsey. "We knew what we were getting, but we were loaded up."
And stirred up. Practices were loud and boisterous, full of the kind of trash-talking energy not often readily apparent the last two years. Part of that is obvious -- these players want to impress Gibbs, who, at 63, has just about seen it all.
"We had some good, long, hard meetings," said Gibbs. "To be quite truthful, we're putting a lot in for them. It's kind of demanding mentally. But I felt like our guys had a good attitude. I'll put it that way."
He said his philosophy hasn't changed about players, but that the game has changed and -- after a 13-year absence from the pro game -- it's critical to understand that.
"I think in today's football, you have to have super-smart football guys," Gibbs said. "If you stop and think about what kind of intelligence that is -- it's not reading and writing and arithmetic -- it's being able to take something visually being shown in a playbook or described in an overhead. And then you hear the assignment. So you see it, you hear it and then you go on the field and then try and perform that against moving objects. That's a different kind of intelligence. It's different than a lot of things you do in life.
"In today's football, you have a myriad of blitzes and people coming after you and assignments. It really takes a football-smart guy. When you put pressure on top of all that, it really becomes a pressure cooker and you really have to have real smart guys. I think these three days will be real important for us from that standpoint. That'll probably be the first thing we pick up -- how quick guys are and how quick they absorb it."
There is evidence that Gibbs' quiet, no-nonsense style has paid immediate dividends.
For example, the so-called quarterback controversy between Brunell and Ramsey never reached full boil. Initially, when the 33-year-old Brunell was acquired from Jacksonville, Ramsey said he wanted out -- went public with it, too, which is very unusual for a guy who has been the consummate team player in his first two seasons.
But then Gibbs got to him -- assured Ramsey that the competition is wide open, explained to him Brunell's presence can only help, and convinced him that being around a guy who has won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks is exactly where Ramsey wants to be. Crisis quelled.
Another crisis has been shelved -- at least temporarily. Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington decided to back off his stinging criticism of the organization, particularly of owner Daniel Snyder over a contract dispute that could have potentially spoiled the season for the Redskins' biggest star.
The dispute is difficult to decipher without being privy to the exact contract Arrington signed. But basically, Arrington claims that a $6.5 million bonus that he and his agent Carl Poston thought was included in a $68 million contract extension is missing. The deal was signed on Dec. 26, and apparently in haste to meet a salary cap deadline.
Arrington says he's owed the money. The Redskins disagree and say Arrington and his agent signed and initialed the contract numerous times, and that a deal is a deal. The dispute will go before an arbitrator. In the meantime, Arrington -- after being in Gibbs' presence for two days -- has toned down his previously incendiary comments.
"The more I think about it, and the more I just look around, I really don't want to be anywhere else," Arrington told reporters after Saturday's practice. "I really love the fans. For $6.5 million, it's not worth [spoiling] my relationship with the fans. I don't want that to be the legacy that I leave behind. I really want to reconcile whatever differences there are."
Even the way Gibbs gave middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter his walking papers was in stark contrast to how other teams have handled the recent departure of high-paid, popular veterans.
Gibbs told Trotter's agent that he was free to seek a trade -- a week before minicamp began. So, unlike Trotter's messy divorce from Philadelphia, where his departure came as a complete surprise, there was no chance for a series of ugly stories in the Washington press.
"This guy treats you like a man," said Portis, who was acquired in a trade with Denver. "And that's all you can ask for, really."
Brunell and Portis are two of the nine new players Gibbs has brought to Washington. Snyder has provided the cash -- more than $60 million in guaranteed signing bonuses -- to upgrade a team that really, when you look closely, is not that far away from competing for the division title.
After starting 3-1 last year, the Redskins lost seven of their next eight games. But in five of those seven losses, the margin of defeat was seven points or less.
"This team has talent," said one player. "It had talent last year, too. But we didn't know how to win. We had no plan to win, week in, week out. You can just sense that's the biggest difference. We've got a plan now."
And that will start with the running game. Gibbs' brought back his old offensive line coach, Joe Bugel, who built the Hogs of the Super Bowl years. And Portis will have a starring role in the running game, which last year was neglected and negligent.
"First of all, for us, we saw him as someone where you're not guessing," Gibbs said of Portis. "He's super productive. I think if you take his junior year in college and then take his two years in pro ball, he's really phenomenal. There are not too many people who have done that. When we felt like there was an opportunity to do this, we immediately packed up when we were in Indy, went and got film, locked ourselves away and we spent the better part of a day looking at all the film and watching him. We had Don Breaux and Earnest [Byner] with me, looking at the running backs. We felt like he was very productive and played very tough. Earnest Byner was a tough guy. Most of our running backs in the past have been extremely tough. And I felt like he was -- and that shows up in things like pass protection. Things you normally don't want to do as a running back. "
Plus, Gibbs said, Portis can catch the football -- extremely important in a Gibbs offense.
"He sucks it in," Gibbs said. "I think the Broncos left him in a lot on third down. Normally, when the running back is toting the ball that much, you're looking to also give him a break in there. And that normally comes up on third down. But I'd say this: I wouldn't have any reservations about leaving him in on third downs. I think he's the kind of guy who can make big plays down the field."
And the calling card of the old Redskins teams under Gibbs -- protecting the quarterback -- is back as job one. Ramsey, still recovering from the battering he took last year, was sacked 30 times and hit countless others. And that includes missing the last month of the season due to injuries.
Of course, the landscape in the NFC East has never been more treacherous. The Eagles -- after acquiring Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse -- are still the favorites to win the division. The Cowboys' miraculous turnaround is now a reality everybody will have to deal with. And the Giants also have a new sheriff in town, Tom Coughlin, whose reputation for get-toughness is also well documented.
"You look around our division, now, and the only way we could be in this thing is with Gibbs," said one player. "The last two years were like a nightmare. I feel like I just woke from a bad dream and now we have a chance to be competitive. It's a whole new atmosphere around here."
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.
Joe Gibbs commanded instant respect at his first minicamp and that's exactly what the Redskins need.