Empty Feeling: Gibbs? Draft Day appearance didn?t do much for the FedExField crowd.
Empty Feeling: Gibbs? Draft Day appearance didn?t do much for the FedExField crowd. Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

At FedExField on Saturday, a big voice over the house PA interrupted the Draft Day festivities to tell partygoers that a special guest would soon be on-site: “It’s official! Coach Joe Gibbs will be here in one hour!”

Fans sitting in the stadium’s club seats, also known as the Joe Gibbs Level, responded to the announcement with even less enthusiasm than the entire crowd showed earlier when the Redskins used their first pick on Louisiana State’s LaRon Landry.

That would be none. A huge ho-hum.

And when Gibbs actually showed up and started speaking, the folks at the far end of the field continued kicking footballs through the goal posts rather than paying attention to the coach.

Apathy to the acquisition of another safety makes sense. But since when was an audience with Gibbs anything but the biggest deal around these parts?

This year, after all, marks the 20th anniversary of the season that, all by itself, made Gibbs worthy of his own stadium level. His team’s victory in Super Bowl XXII was huge, for sure, but the coach’s deification had already been secured long before the Skins routed Denver.

Just two weeks into that 1987 season, the NFL Players Association called for a walkout to protest the way management handled negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFL owners then followed through on their threat to crush the union by forming teams of “replacement” players and holding scab games. Yet not one player on the Redskins’ Opening Day roster crossed the picket line to play in those games. No other team in the league showed such solidarity throughout the walkout.

Even the most devout pro-labor Skins fan had to cheer Gibbs’ performance in the scab miniseason. While his veterans stayed away, Gibbs took a bunch of castoffs—some he’d previously cut, more he’d never even met before—and in a matter of weeks, coached them up so far that they could pound squads filled with veterans who chose not to honor the union’s job action. The peak came in Dallas in the third and last strike game, when the ScabSkins—playing with a quarterback, Tony Robinson, who was allowed out of jail on work release to suit up—whupped the Cowboys, 13n7, in a Monday Night Football broadcast. Among the picket crossers in uniform for Dallas for that game: Randy White, Too Tall Jones, Danny White, and Tony Dorsett.

Members of the Draft Day audience—which was announced as 17,000 but seemed one-third as large—could pose for photographs with the Vince Lombardi Trophy from that season’s Super Bowl or the two others won by Gibbs’ teams.

But many, if not most, of the attendees weren’t even born in 1992, when the last of the statues was earned. Gibbs hasn’t given fans that young any reason to revere him. To them, he’s just a nice, giggly old guy with a 21-27 record, which translates to a .437 winning percentage. Those aren’t godly numbers. Hell, those aren’t even Norv Turner numbers. (Turner won at a .450 clip—49-59-1—in his nearly seven years here.)

Losing isn’t the only reason Gibbs Redux inspires ho-hummery. Along with the doublespeak he spoke during LaVar Arrington’s squabbles with the team, Gibbs’ appearances at these Draft Day functions have caused many fans to stop taking his word as gospel. At the 2005 soiree, Gibbs helicoptered into FedExField early, before the Redskins had used either of the two first-round picks they had that year. He stepped to the microphone and gushed to the fans about Patrick Ramsey’s prowess, saying that the young quarterback had all his support and that he’d be the guy to “lead us to the Promised Land.”

But within hours of those words, the Redskins braintrust—Gibbs, personnel head Vinny Cerrato, and owner Dan Snyder—drafted another QB of the future, Jason Campbell. And when, months later, Gibbs gave Ramsey less than two quarters before handing the job back to Mark Brunell, it sure seemed clear that the coach knew his “Promised Land” speech was hokum when he delivered it. (Somebody inside the Redskins marketing office at the time believed Gibbs, however: At this year’s draft party, leftover No. 11 Ramsey jerseys were piled high on tables in the stadium concourse and were selling for between $5 and $50.)

And Gibbs’ destructive Brunellaholic tendencies resurfaced over the weekend. When the coach offered to take questions from the partygoers huddled near a stage set up on the field, a fan asked how Campbell, the team’s projected 2007 starting QB, was progressing.

The coach briefly praised Campbell’s work ethic, then launched into an unsolicited endorsement of Brunell.

“[Campbell’s] been at the complex working extremely hard,” Gibbs said. “He’s been throwing, he’s been working on a lot of technique things. He’s getting to watch a lot of film. And Mark’s been there with him. So Mark’s back to where he’s throwing now. He’s making about 25 throws about 25 yards down after shoulder surgery. So I think our quarterbacks are working hard.”

To the many fans who were sure Brunell was well-washed-up in 2004, when the Skins gave up too much money and a draft choice to bring him to Washington, scarier words couldn’t have been spoken.

Gibbs wasn’t done scaring the flock, either. If his faith in Brunell is Exhibit A in the case of why Gibbs II isn’t the reverence-­magnet that Gibbs I was, his fealty to his current boss is Exhibit A1. Few fans understand why Gibbs would allow Snyder any say in on-field personnel matters. But at the latest draft party, Gibbs, after calling the Redskins “the most stable team in the league,” tried explaining how a squad that has the worst pass rush in the NFL spent the only pick it had on the first day of the draft on another hard-hitting safety, and, in the process, made it clear that the guy who signs his paychecks is still a cog in the talent-evaluation machine.

“The way we do it is like this: It’s not one person’s opinion,” Gibbs said, by way of either sharing credit or deflecting blame. “It’s everybody together. The scouts are in the room. The coaching staff is in the room. We all kind of looked at it and evaluated. Our owner is kept up to date, and in a lot of cases, he has his input. And when we put a grade there, it’s a Redskin grade. It’s not just one person.”

But until Bobby Beathard or Charley Casserly come back and/or Snyder and Cerrato leave, fans want it to be just one person. In Gibbs they trust.

For now, at least. The apathetic reaction his arrival announcement received earlier in the day wasn’t the only sign that the coach’s­ de-­deification is well under way. You didn’t even have to attend the draft festivities to find others. The Redskins online store, for example, has launched a clearance sale on some of its licensed T-shirts. The we heart our coach tee, which originally sold for $19.99, now goes for just $10.99.