Despite his reputation as an enfant terrible, Snyder has apparently given Gibbs full reign with no intention of interfering. "I've set it up where I've not only got complete trust in him, but he's also got all the authority," Snyder insists. As for suggestions from some that he won't be able to resist meddling, Snyder retorts, "That's silly. My job is to get this coach what he asks for and what he needs. I'm just lucky to have him."
In the wake of Spurrier's resignation on Dec. 30, Snyder was prepared to hire one of three former NFL coaches: Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes or Jim Fassel, each of whom he would interview over the following week. Before doing so, however, Snyder flew to Charlotte to meet with Gibbs, who, to the owner's surprise, didn't tell him to get the heck out of town. Nor did the real power broker in the Gibbs household, Joe's wife of 38 years, Pat. Mindful of her husband's maniacal approach to coaching in the NFL the first time, she had strongly opposed each of the many overtures that teams—including the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars—had made to Joe since he left the game. Thus, despite having become a minority owner of the Falcons in 2002, Gibbs figured he was through with meaningful involvement in football—until last November. That's when his younger son, Coy, 31, confided that he planned to end his bumpy ride as a Busch Series driver and pursue a career as a football coach.
"Pops said, 'What, are you crazy?' " Coy recalls. "He spent the next two hours trying to talk me out of it." Jolted by the reality that some of his grandchildren would likely be relocating—Coy and his wife, Heather, have a 19-month-old son and a month-old daughter, while J.D. and his wife, Melissa, have three boys and are expecting a fourth child—Gibbs began experiencing his own coaching pangs. A deeply religious man who once confirmed he had made the right career decision (jumping from McKay's Bucs after the '79 season to work for San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell) after reading a passage in a Bible that he found near an airport gate, Gibbs believes his return to the Redskins was meant to be.
"I kept waiting for the Lord to shut the door on the idea, but doors kept opening," he says. "I started to get a strong feeling that I couldn't coach anywhere but Washington, and when Steve [Spurrier] walked away, that was one more door. I think Pat understood that if I was going to take a shot, this would probably be the last chance."
"That my mom agreed to this," says J.D., "was the most amazing thing of all."
After all, during Joe's first foray into coaching, Pat had taken the term "football widow" to a new level. Imagine her dismay in 1980 when, after spending a month in the hospital recuperating from surgery to remove a benign tumor (the left half of her face was partially paralyzed), Pat returned home to find a miniature Washington Monument of soiled clothes. "Instead of figuring out how to do the laundry," Coy recalls, "my dad took my brother and me to Kmart and bought us new clothes." With a propensity for spending all night in his office preparing for Sunday's game and a general obliviousness to the world outside football, Gibbs had no idea who Ollie North was during the Iran-Contra scandal, nor had he heard of Madonna in the early '90s.
When he stepped down as Redskins coach in March 1993, just 14 months after his third Super Bowl victory, Gibbs had devolved into something of a medical mess, and no wonder. "We'd be watching film late at night," Breaux says, "and without ever taking his eyes off the projector, he'd grab one of those half-pound chocolate bars with almonds, rip it open and devour the thing." Among other things, Gibbs had been diagnosed with diabetes in 1992. (On a trip to St. Augustine, Fla., in February to meet with Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell about a possible trade to Washington, Gibbs walked off his plane and asked Brunell to drive him to a hospital. He had begun to feel faint after taking the wrong dosage of his diabetes medication.)
Now the NFL's second-oldest coach, behind the Kansas City Chiefs' Dick Vermeil—who walked away from the Philadelphia Eagles but returned to the NFL 15 years later to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title—Gibbs says he intends to cut back on his workload. He plans to turn over the defense to Williams and delegate some of the game-planning to Breaux and Zampese, but when pressed, he concedes, "I figure it's going to be kind of like what I did before. There's only one way I know how to do this."
Sure enough, Gibbs had a shower installed in his office at Redskin Park and reconfigured the room to accommodate a pullout sofa. Already, amid a flurry of trades and free-agent signings, there have been numerous late nights, even all-nighters. To help complete the trade that sent All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos for Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis, Gibbs, Snyder and vice president of player personnel Vinny Cerrato had a series of meetings at the scouting combine with Portis's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, that stretched past 4 a.m. "He and his coaches are all getting their cots delivered to their offices," Cerrato says of Gibbs. "Those guys don't get tired as the night goes on; they get energized."
In truth, the marathon sessions with his assistants, held in a meeting room that they call the Submarine, may be what Gibbs missed most about coaching. Though he allows that working on game plans in separate quarters might increase his staff's efficiency, he says the communal approach is "more fun." Stories and strategic wrinkles—and, occasionally, hard objects—are tossed around with abandon. "We've thrown a few oranges," Gibbs says, laughing. "We get in a few knock-down-drag-outs."