Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Nov 2006

The Untouchable Mr. Gibbs

Joe Gibbs knows more about football than I do. That's obvious. When Joe uses his mouthwash each morning, he spits more minty-scented football knowledge into the sink than I can jam into a week's worth of NFL Rundowns, Too Deep Zone features, and blogs. He knows more about football than me or any other sports columnist.

But that doesn't place him above criticism. Football coaches are only above criticism for about two hours after they win the Super Bowl. Then the second-guessing is supposed to start again. "Why doesn't he put the champagne bottle down and start breaking down film for next year?" we ask immediately.

So why isn't Gibbs fair game for criticism?

The Redskins are 3-6, and they are a bad 3-6. Gibbs is in the third year of his second tenure with the team, but the Redskins have no direction whatsoever. They are plugging Jason Campbell into the lineup and going into rebuild mode before the leaves are even totally off the trees. There's nothing wrong with rebuild mode, except that a) this team won a playoff game last year, and b) the Redskins don't believe in rebuilding.

You would think that the local press would be hounding Gibbs at every turn by now, but Gibbs is nearly untouchable. For those of you who don't regularly read D.C. area newspapers, Washington sportswriters are usually pom-pom waving homers, the exact opposite of Philadelphia sportswriters. Every March, they form pyramids and sing the praises of the latest free agent class. "Antwaan, Antwaan, he's our man, if he can't do it, Brandon can!" This season, they've been more skeptical and critical of the Redskins, perhaps because they've been fooled about six times (and shame on them for being fooled a seventh), perhaps because an awful preseason forced them to burn through their optimism. The Beltway observers have found no shortage of culprits for the team's woes:

- Dan Snyder and his faithful valet Vinny Cerrato are to blame for the team's profligate spending habits that flood the lineup with overpriced, underperforming free agents.

- Offensive coordinator Al Saunders is to blame for bringing a 700-page playbook from Kansas City that no one understands (and it's illegal to mention Saunders' name in a Washington newspaper without specifically citing the number of pages in the playbook).

- Mark Brunell is to blame for being old.

- Sean Taylor is to blame for being a penalty-prone nitwit.

- Adam Archuleta, Brandon Lloyd, and T.J. Duckett are to blame for having recognizable names that attracted Snyder in free agency the way a 60-watt bulb attracts an incredibly rich moth.

Did we miss anyone? Oh yeah, the head coach. Isn't the head that wears the crown supposed to be heaviest? Not in Gibbs' case. Local and national columnists alike seem to be blinded by those three magic power rings on his fingers. Gibbs is usually characterized as some kind of Little Dutch Boy plugging the Redskins holes, or a Voice of Reason in an otherwise unreasonable front office.

But some Beltway columnists are catching on. "His name is Joe Gibbs. If he were Joe Dibbs, his job might be hanging by a thread. However, enormous patience will be shown to a Hall of Fame coach of whom it's said, 'If Joe Gibbs can't fix the Redskins, then nobody can.'" wrote Thomas Boswell this week in the Washington Post (note cheerleader-like phrasing). "Coach Joe was supposed to be the solution for the Redskins, but lately -- because of his stubborn refusal to bench Brunell -- he's become part of the problem," wrote Dan Daly in the Washington Times. It's not quite the "Fire the Son of a B****" rhetoric you get in some cities, but it is a recognition that Gibbs has gotten a free pass that no other coach seems to get: not Bill Cowher, not Mike Shanhan, not even Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells.

The difference-maker for Gibbs has been the Brunell-Campbell situation: quarterback changes are clearly the head coach's call. On other fronts, Gibbs still deflects blame. But for how long? Isn't he supposed to instill the kind of discipline that keeps players like Taylor in check? Isn't he supposed to develop young talent to overcome injuries and cover for free agent mistakes like Archuleta? Doesn't he, of all people, have the clout to put his foot down with Snyder if he doesn't want the team's salary cap spent on guys who are more famous than good?

If the local writers are starting to sour on Gibbs, maybe it's time for the rest of us to open our eyes, too. In the off-season, even early in this season, I was reluctant to criticize Gibbs, attacking instead Saunders (whom I think is brilliant) or Snyder (who is a total putz). I was one of those guys Boswell was writing about, a writer with "enormous patience."

It's now clear that you can't spread blame around the front office, the assistant coaches, and the players without dropping a big dollop on the head coach. Joe Gibbs knows more about football than I do, but he's either content to cash his checks and knuckle under to Snyder or he has both eyes on his NASCAR ventures. There's no need to call for his dismissal, because he'll retire soon enough. Actually, in one sense, it seems like he already has.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 16 Nov 2006