American Football: Gibbs' return allows the Redskins to believe again

Legendary coach's comeback gives Washington's failing side hope of restoring the glory days
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The Independent Online

J R R Tolkien's epic may be dominating the movie screens. But the "Return of the King" emblazoned in Presidential election result size type over The Washington Post pages one day last week, wasn't referring to Hobbits, Orcs or Middle Earth.

There was more of the same in the conservative Washington Times. "He's Back" screamed the paper's headline in even bigger type, in rare agreement with its arch cross-town rival. The individual in question is not a President. Nor is he a Supreme Court Justice or Senate leader. He is a mild-mannered, bespectacled gentleman of 63 who is about to take charge of the local football team. In success-starved Washington, it has been the sporting equivalent of the second coming.

For $5m (£2.7m) a year, Joe Gibbs has agreed to a second stint as chief coach of the National Football League's Washington Redskins, whom he led to three Super Bowls between 1982 and 1991. And a city with a permanent identity crisis, divided against itself and living in semi-colonial constitutional limbo, is rediscovering its soul.

Under Gibbs, the Redskins gave Washington unity and prestige as nothing else in the last half century. The natives didn't have a Congressman of their own, their humblest municipal business might be at the mercy of right-wing blowhards on Capitol Hill. But under Gibbs, they had a team which dominated America's most popular national sport.

Blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, Senators and street gangs - everyone here makes common cause over the Redskins. Across the country, three-bit candidates for political office could dump on the infamous "Washington insider", but never on the outfit which ruled the NFL.

No one, but no one, messed with the Skins. For foreign ambassadors, an invitation from the team's owner, Jack Kent Cooke, to watch a home game in his private box at RFK stadium was as coveted as a one-on-one with the President in the Oval Office.

Then, in 1992, Gibbs abruptly quit, to carve a new and glittering career with his own Nascar speed car racing team. The Redskins moved to a soulless new stadium in suburban Maryland and, under their latest owner, the businessman Dan Snyder, have got through four coaches in five years.

Steve Spurrier, the last of them, arrived as a hotshot college coach from Florida promising a joyous style of play called "Fun n' Gun". Just after Christmas he resigned and slunk out of town, abject and as unlamented as the departing Richard Nixon on 9 August, 1974.

Over the years many a protest has been launched at the Redskins' name by the political correctness brigades here (though never the native Americans who are the presumed insulted party). These days, however, the latter could be forgiven for suing under the Trade Descriptions Act; that a bunch of third-raters has been masquerading as one of the mightiest franchises in US sport.

And not just football but all Washington sport has nose-dived since Joe left town. In the 2003 regular season the Redskins may have won only five of 16 games. That was a positive triumph, however, compared to the Washington Capitals, owners of the worst record in the National Hockey League, or the Washington Wizards, currently the second worse team in the National Basketball Association.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the return of Gibbs is the biggest event in the capital's recent history - bigger than when they captured Saddam Hussein, bigger than when Mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack in the old Vista hotel, bigger even than when Michael Jordan came to town with the Wizards, briefly offering Washington the celebrity it craves.

But can the saviour cut it? There are no second acts in American lives, F Scott Fitzgerald famously observed. The great author obviously was not around to watch the comebacks of Richard Nixon or Muhammad Ali. But this time, even the seemingly infallible Gibbs could be pushing his luck.

The game has changed mightily since he bowed out in 1992: free agency, which makes it harder to hold a nucleus of players together, and the emergence of the standard issue 350lb line-backer. It's a bit like the Tories recalling Maggie to the colours to take on Tony Blair.

But at least an entire city stands for once united behind him. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush may be mightily polarising figures. But Gibbs, as Gene Wang of the Post has put it, "is the one guy that no one in Washington can criticise" - at least not until the Skins' resurrection starts with a couple of losing games.