Publish date:

What's This?

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs came back to a different NFL, a league in which the defenses are dictating the play

Joe gibbs is sleeping in his office again. If you thought he wouldn't return to that old habit in his second stint as Redskins coach--just because he turns 64 next month and is a diabetic now--then you don't know the man.

"One thing Joe's doing different is eating better," says Gibbs's longtime friend and line coach, Joe Bugel. "He used to eat anything. Now it's salmon, chicken, berries. But come on, getting seven hours of sleep? That's for the off-season. We're back to working the same way: Monday through Thursday till three or four in the morning, then home for dinner with the wives on Friday. We get our two or three hours of sleep during the week, and we're happy."

Gibbs and Bugel were back in a winning locker room for the first time in five weeks on Sunday, following a 13--10 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. Every one of Washington's games (wins by 16--10 and 13--10; losses by 20--14, 21--18, 17--13 and 17--10) has been up for grabs with two minutes left, and Gibbs is going batty trying to figure out how to get his offense up to speed. So the coach still wasn't smiling in Chicago; he was relieved, not happy.

It's too early to tell if Gibbs, who walked away from the game after the 1992 season with the best winning percentage in league history (.683, tops among coaches with at least 125 victories), will turn the team into a Super Bowl contender again. But there are ominous signs that it won't be as easy as the Redskins' faithful expected. Quarterback Mark Brunell, whom Gibbs acquired in an off-season trade with the Jaguars, has been alarmingly inaccurate (a .512 completion percentage). The high-priced offensive line is struggling, and the Skins are averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. If not for a defense that ranks second in the league, Washington might be 0--6.

As he took off his burgundy cap and rubbed his wrinkled face on Sunday, Gibbs had the look of a man who was thinking: What in the world have I gotten myself into? "To be truthful," he said with a sigh, "I don't know if it'll turn out right." But he said he has no regrets about leaving his championship NASCAR team to return to the NFL. "Maybe I'll get a huge dose of humble pie," he said, "but I feel this is where the Lord wants me to be. If I get kicked around this time, it's for a reason."

And what facet of the game has surprised Gibbs the most? "The blitzing," he said. "Nobody sits and reads anymore. The fire zones, all the different blitzes. The defense is forcing the issue, not the offense."

Against the Bears, however, the Redskins flashed their back-to-the-future style of football. Clinton Portis, at 208 pounds a good 20 lighter than the big backs Gibbs used to send up the middle, was magnificent. He rushed a career-high 36 times for 171 yards and, for a day at least, silenced those who think he's too small to do the job John Riggins and others had done when Washington won the Super Bowl under Gibbs in 1982, '87 and '91. Overall the ground game produced 218 yards on 47 carries, enabling the Redskins to control the ball for 34:01.

A couple of times Portis came off the field screaming, "Run the gut!" According to Bugel, that's what Riggins used to say, imploring the coaches to let him pound the ball up the middle. After one three-and-out series Portis went over to Gibbs and said, "Do you see my tongue hanging out?" Gibbs said he didn't. Portis said, "O.K., run me until my tongue is hanging out!" Portis did miss a few snaps, after his neck was wrenched on a face-mask penalty and after getting speared in the upper back. Following an eight-yard burst up the middle with two minutes left, however, Portis made a Popeye-like muscle with his right arm, pointed to it and nodded.

Gibbs says he won't run Portis into the ground, yet the third-year back is on pace to carry the ball 408 times this year. (The most carries by a Gibbs-coached back in a season is 375, by Riggins in 1983.) With the passing game so weak--Brunell's quarterback rating dipped to 69.8 after he completed eight of 22 passes for 95 yards on Sunday--Gibbs might have no choice but to ride Portis as long as he can.




Portis (26) ran for 171 yards against Chicago, but Gibbs (inset) has the thirdyear back on pace for 408 carries this season.