A new day is rising over the giant dome of Mark Moseley’s head. It’s up, and it’s good.
I’m sitting in an auditorium at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., listening to Joe Gibbs, the greatest coach in Redskins history, announce his return to football.
As head coach of the Redskins, Gibbs won three Super Bowls in 12 seasons from 1981 to 1992. Along the way, he racked up one of the highest winning percentages of any long-term coach in the NFL. He won at home and on the road. He won with superstars and scrubs. He won the blowouts and the close ones. And all across the District, he won over kids like me, who grew up believing that Redskins fandom guaranteed a lifetime of Sunday bliss.
So when Gibbs retired after the 1992 season, I wasn’t worried. The sun rises. The Redskins win. That was life as I knew it.
In the first game of the 1993 season, the Redskins, led by new coach Richie Petitbon, beat the Dallas Cowboys, 35-16. There was no sigh of relief on my part. After all, there was nothing to suggest that my illusionary universe was about to unravel.
The next week, the Redskins lost, at home, to the Cardinals, 17-10. Then they lost five more games in a row. That year, the Redskins finished with four wins and 12 losses—only their second losing season since I had learned how to read. Worse yet, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
As the losing seasons piled up, the bitter reality of life as a sports fan sank in. The disappointment. The anger. The regret. As it turned out, it wasn’t manifest destiny or some inchoate deity protecting Redskins fans from the indignities of football mediocrity. It was Joe Gibbs.
And now he’s back, standing on the stage in front of me. Our new head coach. Our new team president. The guy with the high-pitched titter.
“I’m nervous and excited,” says President Gibbs. “To see the people out front, I tried to stop and say thanks to each one of them.”
That could have been me.
A half-hour earlier, I sauntered up to the entrance of Redskins Park and faced a dilemma. Do I stand outside as a fan? Or do I go inside as a reporter? Simple. I went inside as a fan posing as a reporter.
Somehow, my yellow, expired D.C. Metropolitan Police Department press pass, strung around my neck with a shoelace, has landed me in a seat behind former Redskins kicker Moseley.
As President Gibbs continues to lay out his platform for the seasons ahead—humility, respect, family values, special teams—I stare at Moseley’s outsized noggin. The perfectly coiffed dome of slick gray hair rises up between me and President Gibbs like Yosemite’s El Capitán.
How did he get that thing in a helmet, I wonder, let alone win a Super Bowl?
All around the room, former players from the Redskins’ salad days stare with rapt attention at President Gibbs. Like Moseley, these guys are champions. But looking at them, I can’t help but think, These guys won Super Bowls?
Joe Jacoby stands to my right. He looks like a guy who might win the tractor pull at the county fair, but an NFC championship game against the Cowboys? I’m impressed he’s still standing.
Darrell Green sits a few rows ahead of me. In person, he looks as wee as Dan Snyder. That guy chased down Tony Dorsett?
Flanked out wide to my right stands former receiver Gary Clark. He’s dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He looks about at fierce as Ryan Seacrest.
All of which only adds to my euphoria. If President Gibbs won with these guys, surely, he can win with the likes of LaVar Arrington, Fred Smoot, and Laveranues Coles.
More than 70 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood in front of the U.S. Capitol and made a speech that was sober yet uplifting. The American people were suffering through the Great Depression—an epoch of national history comparable to the reign of Norv Turner.
Roosevelt told the country that all they had to fear was fear itself, and he offered them a reason to hope. He offered them the New Deal.
Like Roosevelt, President Gibbs is inheriting a terrible depression. Since he resigned, the team has won only 75 out of 178 games. Embarrassing episodes have flourished. Free agency brought the likes of Deion Sanders and Jeff George. Quarterback Gus Frerotte knocked himself out of a game with a celebratory head butt. Coach Marty Schottenheimer stalked the sidelines with his belt up near his shoulders, his entire torso tucked into his pants.
But now, like Roosevelt, President Gibbs speaks of a new epoch, a new deal.
“It’s a whole new deal for me,” says Gibbs. “I got to prove myself, and all the coaches, we’ve got to prove ourselves, all over again.”
But for me, and the Washington faithful, showing up is all the proof that’s needed.
Throughout the evening, Gibbs preaches patience. “I think I’m optimistic about it,” said Gibbs. “We all got to be realistic about it.”
Realistic, I intend to be.
Since the Redskins have already been eliminated from the playoffs, I concede that they probably won’t win the Super Bowl this year. We’ll have to wait until next season. As far as other accomplishments—achieving peace in the Middle East, finding a cure for SARS, safeguarding American cattle from the threat of mad-cow disease—I’m willing to give President Gibbs more time. At least long enough for him to find some decent tight ends.
The president finishes his statement and opens the floor to questions.
Reporters, throughout the auditorium, stifle their inner fans long enough to toss out some hardboiled questions: Do you think you’ll still be the hardest-working, smartest, most successful coach in football…?
I ponder asking a question. Perhaps something like “Do you intend on using the shotgun formation on third downs, Oh Captain, My Captain?”
But it’s cold outside. So I keep quiet. —Felix Gillette