Joe Gibbs stepped down as coach of the Washington Redskins for a second time Tuesday. This ‘Skins fan says, thank God.
The long, agonizing, tragic, utterly soul-crushing season is finally over. Gibbs’s departure will be the final nail in its coffin. The team will now have to start from scratch next year.
If I sound a little bitter, I am. The Washington Redskins broke my heart for the first time on November 11.
On that day, I was sitting in my nose-bleeder seat at Fed-Ex Field cheering on my team against their NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. I was surrounded on all sides by Philly fans, who have a well-earned reputation for being the most thuggish in pro-football.
The ‘Skins had silenced their drunken trash-talking by whupping the Eagles, 15-13, by the end of the third quarter. Then everything fell apart. The Eagles scored an amazing 20 points in the fourth quarter. The Skins tried to catch up but couldn’t and ended up losing it, 25-33.
The shock of the loss was compounded by having to listen to the Philly fans open their greasy cheesesteak holes yet again.
THE GAME WAS the season in microcosm. The ‘Skins were not awful. Rather they were just good enough to break your heart. They’d give you enough to feel hopeful, optimistic — and then snatch it away from you in the fourth quarter.
Ordinarily, this season’s 9-7 record and trip to the playoffs would be considered a success. But the presence of Gibbs, already a hall of fame coach, dramatically upped the expectations in Washington.
This is Coach Joe Gibbs, Washingtonians told themselves. Wasn’t he one of the winningest coaches of all time? Didn’t he win the Super Bowl with three different quarterbacks, a feat unmatched in pro-football? Wouldn’t he bring those days back?
Well, that was the 1980s. The reality was the game had changed and Gibbs struggled to keep up. In the four seasons since his return, Gibbs’ record is an underwhelming 31-36.
He also lost a step. He called two consecutive timeouts in a game against the Buffalo Bills, causing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the ‘Skins the game.
Sonny Jurgensen, the Washington quarterback turned broadcaster, was aghast at Gibbs. It was the kind of rookie mistake a seasoned pro should never make.
To be fair, the team had been mediocre for years before Gibbs returned. They have had only 5 winning seasons in the last 16 years and made the playoffs only three times. All of them were on wild cards.
Their best years in that stretch were 1999 and 2005 when they made it to 10-6. Prior to Gibbs’s return, the team management went through coaches and quarterbacks like they were speed dating.
This season promised to be different. And it was. It raised heartbreak to a whole new level.
IT BEGAN promisingly enough. The ‘Skins reached 5-3 by November 4 with a victory over the Jets. They then fell into a four-game losing streak, starting with that awful Philly game.
Things went from merely depressing to genuinely tragic when Safety Sean Taylor, just 24 years old, was shot and killed on November 27 when he confronted would-be burglars in his Florida home. An Onion headline perfectly captured the bizarre randomness of his death: “Report — NFL Had Previously Warned Sean Taylor About Spending Quiet Evenings at Home.”
The Skins sought to win their next one against the Bills in Taylor’s memory. Instead they lost it thanks to Gibbs’s penalty-causing timeout calls.
Then it got worse still. In a December 7 game against the Chicago bears starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Campbell’s replacement as starter was a 36-year-old benchwarmer named Todd Collins. His previous start in pro football was on December 14, 1997. No, that’s not a typo. To put this in perspective, the last time Campbell had started in a game nobody had ever heard of the name Monica Lewinsky and the greatest terrorist threat the U.S. faced was the Unabomber.
Collins was so old that when he got sacked, you half-expected him to cough up dust rather than blood.
AMAZINGLY, IMPROBABLY, the ‘Skins started to win again. They won four in a row, closing out the season with a 27-6 whupping of the Dallas Cowboys.
Miraculous? Wide receiver Santana Moss thought so. He excitedly pointed out to teammates that the margin of victory over the Cowboys was 21 points.
It was proof, Moss said, that slain teammate Sean Taylor, whose jersey number was 21, was watching over them.
His fellow ‘Skins agreed. That was the explanation for the late-season winning streak that got them into the playoffs — Taylor’s angel was literally watching over them.
The Washington Post reported that players “talked about the strange circumstances that occurred — a gale force wind in New York that blew a punt 20 extra yards, missed opponents field goals in which the wind blew the kicks wildly to one side, passes that seemed to hang in the air an extra second until Redskins could catch them — and said they believed Taylor was at work for them.”
“We don’t think it was by accident we won by 21,” said Coach Joe Gibbs.
Linebacker London Fletcher agreed.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” he said.
I too got caught up in the excitement. Maybe my cynicism was wrong, I thought. Yes, yes, I said. This time things had truly changed!
Coach Gibbs had brought us to the promised land. Why if the ‘Skins only beat the Seahawks in the wildcard, then they play Dallas again and, and, and…
In their very next game, the Seattle Seahawks beat the ‘Skins, 35-14 — another 21 point margin. That eliminated them from the playoffs.
So I think we can safely rule out the Sean-Taylor-as-guardian-angel theory.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the world of Coach Gibbs. He is one of the greats. But his time is past. As long as he was around, ‘Skins could delude themselves into thinking theirs was a championship team.
Well, hey, Washington, the ’80s are over.
With Gibbs gone, we no longer know what to expect. The team can wipe the slate clean and, well, who knows?
Just wait till next year.
Sean Higgins is a Redskins fan living in the Washington, D.C. area.