Commentary

Old-age issue for Redskins' Ordinary Joe

The experiment to bring Joe Gibbs back to Washington was a failed one, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: January 8, 2008
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Joe GibbsNelson Chenault/US PresswireJoe Gibbs has a 17-7 career playoff record but won just one playoff game in his last four seasons.
On Jan. 8, 2004, in the wake of the Washington Redskins' stunning move to bring back Joe Gibbs for a second incarnation as head coach, I wrote a column in which the final paragraph read:

Maybe we'll be wrong about this but, for the heck of it, here's a bet: Three years from now, the guy who accepted the Redskins job as a Hall of Fame member will be viewed as just another ordinary Joe.

And now, with Gibbs' having resigned Tuesday morning in a decision that was not altogether surprising and came neatly on an anniversary date of that original column, I'm back to concede I was wrong

It took four years.

By definition, Gibbs' encore performance was actually less than ordinary, by five games. Counting playoff appearances, the Redskins went 31-36 under his stewardship, five games under the break-even point. His winning percentage of .463 was roughly one-third below the .683 standard Gibbs set during his earlier 11-year reign.

NFL's Oldest Coaches

With the retirement of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, here are the league's oldest active head coaches:

Name Team Age
Romeo Crennel Browns 60
Wade Phillips Cowboys 60
Tom Coughlin Giants 60
Mike Holmgren Seahawks 59
Rod Marinelli Lions 58

The first time around, Gibbs won three Super Bowl championships with three different starting quarterbacks. In his second stint, the Redskins employed four starting quarterbacks -- and won one postseason contest (a 17-10 win at Tampa Bay two years ago).

In rallying his team to a NFC wild-card berth this season, an emotional tsunami that began in the days following the death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor and concluded with Saturday's 35-14 loss at Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs, Gibbs demonstrated extraordinary leadership.

Perhaps it took an individual of his leadership skills set, a man imbued with a kind of rock-solid faith and wisdom that transcends the folly of sport, to provide a steadying anchor for his grieving team.

Perhaps it took a person whose own personal mettle was forged in the crucible of highest highs and abysmal lows that the NFL provides, to steer men 40 years younger than he past their despair.

For that, Joe Gibbs should be commended.

Yet when Daniel Snyder lured Gibbs from retirement four years ago, the Redskins owner could not have foreseen any event approaching the death of Taylor, could not have predicted he would need Gibbs The Man far more than he needed Gibbs The Coach.

After all, Snyder didn't snatch Gibbs from his NASCAR garage and sign him to a lucrative, five-year contract to be an emotional pillar. He signed him to win football games and, at the end of the day, to bring him a Super Bowl championship.

But while the Snyder fortune can buy him things like Six Flags amusement parks, radio stations and a film deal with Tom Cruise, money can't buy a Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Redskins' failed forays into free agency certainly have demonstrated that. Snyder is a money-making machine, a brilliant businessman, resourceful and opportunistic. He never has to reach for the brass ring, because he can buy it.

Unfortunately, for him, a Super Bowl ring does not come with a price tag attached to it.

[+] EnlargeGibbs and Portis
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIREJoe Gibbs may have struggled with the generation gap between himself and his players.

The principles on which the New Age NFL operates dictates that a team not only have talented players but also a head coach who compels them to perform, and, ultimately to win for him.

In that sense, Gibbs failed, and here's why: Because the same 67 years' worth of life experience that served him and the Redskins so well at their lowest point this season -- and, in the cases of some, the nadir of their professional careers -- essentially betrayed him when it came to football.

He was, simply, too old to handle his players, to understand their perspectives, to push their buttons in this era of salary-cap football (remember, Gibbs didn't have to worry about the salary cap during his first stint). And the wear and tear of a season is hard on any coach, much less one who qualifies for senior citizen discounts at your neighborhood cafeteria.

Asked dozens of times in the last week if he would ever consider hiring himself as the Dolphins' new head coach, Bill Parcells, who instead accepted the daunting challenge of overseeing the franchise's renovation, made it clear he would not. His stock reply: "It's a young man's game."

Parcells is nine months younger than Gibbs.

On Tuesday, with actions that spoke far louder than any words he could have offered, Gibbs concurred.

Even so, in the column of four years ago, I wrote that it would be unfair to suggest the game has passed Gibbs by. For all its sophistication, football remains a game of basic truths, and of fundamental, physicals acts. Understanding blocking and tackling? Those are forever concepts. The counter-trey running play? Gibbs and his staff demonstrated that the trademark staple of the Washington ground game was every bit as effective in creating holes for Clinton Portis as it was in carving out creases for John Riggins a quarter-century earlier.

Sure, in 2004, his first season back on the job, Gibbs acknowledged a degree of culture shock, admitting that he was way behind the learning curve in comprehending the manner in which defenses now attack the passing game. But after a year in which he struggled, Gibbs caught up, much in the same way he would have expected his highest-profile NASCAR guy, Tony Stewart, to close the gap on the lead pack.

There were some residual glitches even this year -- the embarrassing incident in which Gibbs did not know the rule that precludes teams from calling consecutive timeouts; not knowing that his defense was planning to play only 10 men to start its first game after Taylor's death; some dubious in-game play-calling decisions -- but those were exceptions.

But in catching up to the rest of the pack, Gibbs exerted great energy, and the loss of Taylor was a gut-wrenching experience that further drained him.

Sure, Gibbs had eased off the accelerator a little bit compared to his previous stint (and those nights when he slept in his office on a cot). But the hours were still long.

You can slap a restrictor plate on a stock car to govern its speed. But in the NFL, every bit as results-oriented an endeavor, it's next to impossible to reduce the pace, no matter how hard one tries. There are, alas, no pit stops in the league. And so Gibbs, clearly worn out from the battle, decided to step aside.

At a time when Snyder was dangling a two-year contract extension and wanted Gibbs to hang around for a few more races and, hopefully, a Super Bowl victory lap, the legendary coach instead opted wisely to park himself for good.

Thankfully, for Gibbs, the Hall of Fame is a lifetime fraternity from which a member can't be expelled. Still, the elephant burial ground that is the Washington franchise has, in a sense, claimed another victim. And now Snyder, the consummate big-game hunter when it comes to player acquisitions and coaching hires (Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and then Gibbs) can begin another search.

There will be, and already is, considerable speculation that former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher is a likely target. Cowher has already told one NFL owner seeking a new coach, Arthur Blank of Atlanta, that he has no plans to return to the league in 2008. We'll see. Snyder is a persuasive guy with deep pockets.

The only sure thing is that Snyder's next coach will be younger than his former one.

Unless, that is, Snyder has a scheme to lure Don Shula or Dick Vermeil out of retirement.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.