The result: Robinson is only the third NFL coach to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.
"It is amazing what he has done without a quarterback in a league that everyone says requires a quarterback," says Madden. "John took what he had—the running game and special teams—and did them as well as they've been done in a long time. And he did it by knowing people, by seeing their strengths and weaknesses, getting them doing what they do best. Bill Walsh, say, plays football like a game of chess. John plays it like a game of people."
Robinson still harbors a wish to deal with a wider world. "I don't see me coaching forever," he says blandly, "at least not trying to achieve an arbitrary number of wins. I should have three or four more jobs, if I live long enough."
He has been sounded out about entering politics—and has passed. Hubbard thinks Robinson would thrive in the college classroom. But Madden is incredulous at this talk of Robinson's leaving football. The game, in his experience, is a matchless energizer, just short of war.
"And look," Madden says, "we've been doing this stuff for 40 years. We don't know anything else. It's nice to talk about 'broader interests,' but that's a lot of baloney. Once, he told me he wanted to be a filmmaker. That's fine, if it's going to be on football, on what he knows, but listen, he's not going to...." Madden casts about for absolutely the most distasteful image he can summon. "He's not going to sit with a bunch of guys in suits on a board somewhere."
If he does, Madden says, he won't be absorbed for long. "When we were kids, playing wasn't part of our lives. It was all of our lives. When we realized all those years ago that we couldn't play forever, we decided the way we could was to coach. So now I think we're in it for life."
Once up there with the sublime, there is no going back to the ridiculous.