The news shook Washington like no sports story in memory.
The Senators’ move to Texas in 1971 and Vince Lombardi’s arrival to coach the Redskins two years earlier had been rumored for weeks. Even Sean Taylor’s horrible death at 24 in 2007 came 24 hours after he had been shot by intruders he surprised in his South Florida mansion.
But coach Joe Gibbs’ retirement from the Redskins 20 years ago tomorrow was a thunderbolt. After all, Gibbs was only 52 and had just guided Washington to its eighth playoff berth in his 12 seasons. And the season before that, Gibbs had won his third Super Bowl in a decade.
Most of the stars from that triumphal season – Mark Rypien, Art Monk, Darrell Green, Joe Jacoby, Charles Mann, Earnest Byner, Brad Edwards, Wilber Marshall and Jim Lachey, to name nine – were still on the roster so the Redskins figured to remain a contender in 1993.
“Joe got us to buy into the team thing,” Mann said. “People played their roles and kept their mouths shut.”
However, the driven Gibbs was exhausted from working well past midnight Mondays through Wednesdays during the season before catching a few hours of sleep on a sofa bed in his Redskin Park office. And Gibbs had just been diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that he didn’t think would mesh with such a punishing schedule.
“He put everything he had into it,” right guard Mark Schlereth said after hearing the news. “You’d see him in the morning and he’d look like he was going to pass out. He deserves the rest.”
Gibbs also knew that his team was heading in the wrong direction. After going 14-2 during the 1991 Super Bowl season, Washington had finished 9-7 in 1992, losing its finale to the visiting Los Angeles Raiders but backing into the playoffs when Green Bay lost, too.
Schlereth and tight end Ron Middleton were the only offensive starters who would be on the youthful side of 30 in 1993. On defense, cornerback Green, end Mann, outside linebacker Marshall and tackle Eric Williams had each celebrated the big 3-0.
With the salary cap coming in 1994, a well-paid, aging team like the Redskins would be in a very bad spot.
But Gibbs’ retirement turned a slide into a crash. After stunning defending champion Dallas 35-16 in the 1993 opener despite losing Marshall, receiver Gary Clark and defensive end Fred Stokes to free agency, Washington lost twice to longtime NFC East patsy Phoenix among its other ignominious defeats. Fifteen weeks after whipping the Cowboys, the Redskins were crushed by them at Texas Stadium. Longtime defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon, who had seemed the perfect choice to succeed Gibbs despite his lack of experience as a head coach, was fired after a 4-12 season, Washington’s worst in 30 years.
Without Gibbs to plead their cases, such standouts as Monk, Mann, Rypien and Byner were cut in the winter of 1994 to save cap space and as Washington began a youth movement under new coach Norv Turner, the former offensive coordinator of the hated Cowboys.
The Redskins, 140-65 with those eight playoffs appearances and three Lombardi Trophies in a dozen seasons under Gibbs, are 139-186 with four playoff berths in the 20 years and not even a spot in the NFC Championship Game since he retired.
“Coach Gibbs had a gift, something that cannot be taught, for managing, developing and using players at their strengths,” Monk said. “His drafting was not necessarily for the best player/athlete, but, or the person who showed character and perseverance.”
The past two decades of mediocrity have come under eight coaches, including, shockingly, Gibbs himself. After 11 years away from football, he returned in 2004 but managed just a 31-36 record — with two postseason appearances — in four seasons before retiring for good in January 2008.
“The Redskins became a different organization with different ownership,” Mann said of Dan Snyder buying the franchise from the late Jack Kent Cooke’s estate in 1999. “It was almost like a start-up franchise.”
All of which only serves to show how superb Gibbs’ first tenure was — he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame less than three years after he retired — and how much Washington sports changed 20 years ago tomorrow with his stunning decision to walk away from the Redskins.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7 The FAN the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.