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Unhappy return

Gibbs was never able to find that old magic with Skins

Posted: Tuesday January 8, 2008 12:16PM; Updated: Tuesday January 8, 2008 12:16PM
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Joe Gibbs second tenure in Washington was filled with disappointments.
Joe Gibbs second tenure in Washington was filled with disappointments.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
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Now that it's done, four years and one day after it began, Joe Gibbs' second act in Washington never looked like much fun, did it?

Never once in the time he was back on the Redskins sideline do I recall him looking like he was enjoying his return to the NFL coaching game. The losses seemed to pain and almost embarrass him, given his Hall of Fame stature. The wins seemed only to momentarily ease the self-induced pressure he felt to return a storied franchise to glory.

But there wasn't much glory to be had in going 31-36 in those four seasons, even at the high points, when his 2005 and 2007 teams got hot late and squeaked into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed. One playoff win in four years is all that Gibbs mustered in his second go-round in Washington.

His standards were set a lot loftier than that, and the feeling you got watching him was that he never really came to grips with whether his surprising return to the NFL in January 2004 was the right call or not. It is tough to go home again, and Gibbs seemed to be aware at all times that he couldn't deliver the goods as he had in his Redskins heyday, when he won three Super Bowls in a 10-year span.

The suspicion all along in regards to Gibbs' return was that he did it for the money, of course. He got out of the game the first time in the early 1990's, long before the $5 million a season threshold for coaching salaries was crossed, and you can't blame him for wanting to get a piece of that pie.

But the money didn't seem to make up for his prized family time that he missed out on, the case of heartburn that's brought on by losing in the NFL, or the nagging feeling that he was tarnishing his Hall of Fame coaching legacy by fielding Redskins teams that lost more than they won.

It was also easy to tell that Gibbs didn't quite know what to make of today's NFL player, or exactly how to motivate them in this salary-cap age. He had left the coaching ranks just before the dawn of free agency, when team-building was a different animal than it is today.

True, this season he had a mature, veteran club that was more to his liking and played more valiantly like some of his long ago Redskins teams. But on the whole in his four-year comeback, he struggled at times with the penchant for current NFL players to put their own situations above the best interests of the team, and their lack of willingness to dedicate themselves year-round to his program. In his first tenure in Washington, there weren't any players who refused to answer the phone when he called in the offseason, or declined to come and take part in the team's workouts.

At 67, could Gibbs have possibly had the fires of competition burning as hotly as he did when he was 40, and getting his first head coaching shot with the Redskins in 1981? Logic says no. Not when he already had a Hall of Fame bust sitting on a pedestal in Canton, and owned those 140 wins and three Super Bowl rings from his 12-year stint as the Redskins head coach. I believe Gibbs desperately wanted to return Washington to a place of prominence in the NFL, but I also believe it didn't take long for him to realize that was a much tougher job than he first expected.

Just getting the Redskins into the playoffs every other year with a 9-7 or 10-6 wild-card berth probably wasn't what he had in mind when he left the comfort of his NASCAR empire and pulled the headset back on in 2004. My guess is that he found coaching in the NFL these days to be a rollercoaster ride that he had begun to tire of already, with the sacrifices outweighing the rewards. In this case, he opted for his family over more football.

Gibbs oversaw the Redskins coaching staff in a CEO-like role for much of this tenure, and it would have been easy for him to accept a contract extension and pocket more of Daniel Snyder's money. He'll always be an icon in D.C., and he wasn't ever going to part ways with the Redskins in ugly fashion. I admire him a little more today for knowing that it wasn't going to happen for him in Washington -- at least on the scale that his standards required -- and stepping aside.

Second acts are always tough when the first act was the stuff of legend. Gibbs took his shot, and made his celebrated comeback with the Redskins. But now it's over. He didn't have as much success as some expected, but maybe the real surprise is that from the looks of it, he had even less fun.

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