Off-field issues could be headache for Gibbs

Joe Gibbs will have no problem with the on-field sutff, but the off-field issues of the NFL in 2004 will be a headache.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 11:49 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

More a devotee of cinema verité, primarily the daily videotape cutups from Washington Redskins training camp practices, coach Joe Gibbs might do well on a free night to drive down to his local Blockbuster outlet.

There he can rent, or maybe even purchase, the "Back to the Future" trilogy, and learn a thing or two from the scatterbrained Dr. Emmett Brown (aka Christopher Lloyd) about returning things to the way they were, or making them the way that you think they should be. Since he knows a lot about fast cars, even though none of the drivers in his NASCAR stable has ever dabbled in time travel as far as we can ascertain, Gibbs might actually find the viewing experience a relatively entertaining diversion.

He might also find that Michael J. Fox is a far more convenient foil than, say, Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox.

Despite the largesse of free-spending owner Dan Snyder, who figures to have a league-record payroll of approximately $110 million for 2004, the Gibbs comeback may not be enough to nudge the Redskins back to the playoffs for the first time in this millennium. And even the collective knowledge of the NFL's most experienced staff, an assemblage that includes some of the game's premier assistants, might not be enough to help Gibbs turn back the clock.

Hey, Joe, know anyone with an old DeLorean and maybe a turbocharger, too, rattling around the garage?

"I don't think you're ever going to get anyone to suggest the game has passed Joe by," said one current AFC head coach. "The things he did, the systems he had 12 years ago or whatever it's been, those still have legs, you know? And he was really smart to bring in [coordinator] Gregg Williams to run the defense for him because, if there has been much change, it's on that side of the ball. My feeling is that it's the non-football [stuff] that is going to be the biggest adjustment for him. And that's a bigger part of the game now than people seem to understand."

Much has been made, and justifiably so, of the fact Gibbs never had to deal with a salary cap or free agency during a brilliant 12-year Hall of Fame tenure that included the fourth-best winning percentage (.683) among coaches with 100 career victories, and three Super Bowl triumphs. The tutorial he had with Snyder this spring might have helped enhance his understanding of financial matters in a New Age NFL but, coming from a guy who seems to be ready every year to tear up his roster when it doesn't meet his expectations, that Capology 101 lesson might have been a tad skewed.

As much as coaches like to pretend they want nothing to do with cap matters, the truth is they are at least indirectly involved. Every time a coach approaches a general manager about upgrading, say, the No. 3 defensive tackle spot, and is turned down for financial reasons, it is a lesson learned. Lose enough of those battles and reality quickly sets in.

There is also the player maintenance component, a far more significant issue now than when Gibbs exited the game after the 1992 season, even he has acknowledged. Players are more aware now of what the guy in the next locker stall is earning. Off-field worries are increased. Even well-grounded veteran players now have interests that sometimes divert their attention from the game.

"It's a little tougher now to maintain your energy level," said Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, who returned once to the NFL after a 15-year absence and then a second time after a hiatus of one season. "The non-football things can be a drain."

Gibbs discovered in the offseason, for example, that the public relations demands of the job, the daily dealing with the media and fans, have increased exponentially since he left the league for the first time. He was surprised by the number of requests for individual interviews, overwhelmed by the media's obsession with details, and was forced to put a lot more time constraints on himself.

Not surprisingly, after the first couple weeks of camp, he closed practices to the fans and to the media.

"I'm guessing it's that kind of stuff that drives him crazy," said one of Gibbs' former head coach contemporaries who still has some flimsy ties to the league. "I'm still around the game enough to know that, even though everyone says it hasn't changed much, the truth is that it's changed enough to make a difference."

That former coach noted that Gibbs was always a stickler for continuity on his roster from one year to the next. He predicted that Gibbs will be "appalled" by the roster turnover that might take place in 2005, despite claims by Snyder that the current team is set for about three years. He pointed out that Gibbs was accustomed to having players like cornerback Darrell Green around to help stabilize the locker room. Green played for 20 years. The elder statesmen for the Redskins right now is offensive tackle Jon Jansen and the sixth-year veteran is already sidelined for the season.

In terms of game-planning, schemes, instruction, no one feels Gibbs will struggle. The conventional wisdom is that the Redskins will be much better coached, in every aspect of the game, than they were under predecessor Steve Spurrier.

The counter-trey running play will still be effective, although Clinton Portis is hardly the kind of power back Gibbs has preferred. Mark Brunell might have lost something off his fastball, but the Redskins will still make plays throwing deep off play action. Williams will ensure the defense is up to speed.

But up to speed in 2004 isn't exactly the same as being up to speed a dozen years ago. And as the fictitious Dr. Emmett Brown would tell Gibbs, it's not easy going back.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.

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