Last fall, Joe Gibbs did not know Ron Rivera, other than in passing. Ron Rivera did not know Joe Gibbs, other than by reputation. Both men, though, were talking to Dan Snyder. Gibbs had worked for the Washington Redskins owner — and survived. Rivera was thinking about working for Snyder, and wondered if that was a good idea.
One day, Gibbs’ phone rang. It was Rivera. They talked. By Gibbs’ recollection, he invited Rivera over to his house the very next day. They spoke for several hours. This wasn’t just football coaches talking football. This was more important.
“I felt like I could give Ron a good feeling of what it’s like working for Dan,” Gibbs said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
What it’s like working for Dan. Wouldn’t you love to know? It’s as important a question as there is pertaining to the Washington football team, both at the moment and for the past two decades. And for all the opinions about what it’s like working for Dan — some deeply reported, some merely conjecture — only a precious few know the experience directly. Of that group — Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, Jim Zorn and Mike Shanahan, Jay Gruden and Steve Spurrier — Gibbs alone could tell someone the following and be believed.
“Dan and I are real friends,” Gibbs said. “And he was so good to me in the four years I was there, so good to my family. I felt like I could tell Ron what it was like. I tried to do that because I felt like it was really important for him.”
Gibbs is 79. His second stint as head coach here — four seasons under Snyder in which he twice made the playoffs and went 30-34 overall — ended a dozen years ago. Next week, he will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his stewardship of Joe Gibbs Racing, the experience that has dominated his professional life for a quarter of a century.
And yet Gibbs’ word still carries weight in two significant areas: with Washington’s fan base, which has eroded, and with Snyder, who has overseen that erosion.
“I’m the biggest Washington Redskins fan in the world,” he said.
To that point: Gibbs said it was important for him to talk to Rivera about what it once was like to coach in Washington — and what Gibbs feels like it could be, and should be, again. Forget the empty seats. Forget the diminished TV ratings. That’s not Coach Joe’s view.
“It’s the most powerful city in the world, and that football team means the world to that town,” Gibbs said he told Rivera. “It’s one of the very few things that brings everybody together. There’s no Democrat, Republican. It’s everybody for 3½ hours is going to cheer for that football team. ...
“That fan base is battle-tested. Most of them have been there forever in that stadium. And I said, ‘There’s nothing like it. They’re going to cheer like heck if you get it going. And they’ll let you know if you do bad stuff, too.’”
Maybe those are just memories, memories that can’t be rekindled. But Gibbs was in position to know what the owner was thinking about all of it — the mounting losses, the thinning crowds — as it was unfolding last fall.
Gibbs said he started talking to his former boss after Snyder and Bruce Allen, then the team’s president, fired Gruden following an 0-5 start to the 2019 season. These are not conversations any of Snyder’s other deposed coaches would have. Gibbs, after all this time, is still the only head coach to leave Snyder’s team by choice. He said he is not on Snyder’s payroll, but will consult on football matters when asked.
Last fall, at a crucial moment, he was asked.
“When he and I talk, it’s friends,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been through four years. That develops a real relationship because you go through the highs and the lows and all the things that go on for a coach and an owner. We developed that friendship, so when we talk, it’s mostly a common-sense conversation. He would kind of relate to me some of the people that he was really interested in.”
When Rivera was fired in the midst of his ninth season as coach of the Carolina Panthers, he shot to the top of Snyder’s list. Gibbs can’t put a date on his first conversation with Rivera, but both lived in North Carolina. Gibbs’s message: Come on over for a visit.
“With Ron, what I tried to do is tell him what it’s like with Dan,” Gibbs said. “Dan, for me, when it was free agency, it’s 12:01 [a.m., when the period legally opens], Dan was right by my side on the phone. ...
“Dan is very successful with agents. They want to talk to him. They know he’ll make a deal. He’s not afraid to spend money. And so I kind of tried to just give [Rivera] the real understanding of what it’s like to work with Dan.”
Gibbs can’t be asked to assess any tenure under Snyder other than his own, but let’s be honest: Once Snyder lured Gibbs out of retirement in 2004, the dynamics were fundamentally different than with any other coach. It was Gibbs’ Redskins who won three Super Bowls. It was Gibbs’ Redskins for whom Snyder grew up rooting. Was there hero worshiping, from owner to coach? Hard to say definitively. Was the vibe different than when, say, Zorn or Gruden was in the big chair? Certainly.
But if Rivera was to consider working for Washington, he had to have obvious questions about Snyder answered. Snyder, meantime, was working on Rivera over the phone, talking to him about his new vision for a “coach-centric” organization. Gibbs said he was not involved in shaping that structure for Snyder, though it helped that he had a similar experience in Ashburn, Virginia. When Gibbs returned to Ashburn for the 2004-07 seasons, Vinny Cerrato had been demoted from his role overseeing personnel, and Allen hadn’t yet arrived. The team was Gibbs’ in every way.
“I think Dan made that decision, and he kind of got that across to Ron,” Gibbs said of Snyder’s change in structure. “So that was easy for me to talk to Ron, because I was describing how it was with me. I think that’s kind of what Dan was saying: He’s very focused on trying to help Ron in every way, and this was the layout that he wanted to have going forward.”
That layout does not, to the delight of nearly the entire fan base, include Allen, who Snyder fired the day after a miserable 3-13 season concluded. Gibbs, though, said he didn’t push any button or pull any lever that might have jettisoned the executive after a decade with the team.
“I didn’t have any conversations about that,” Gibbs said. “For me, it was just talking with Dan from a coaching standpoint — and the personnel there. Ron could have gone a number of places. He had a number of teams after him. I think what really impressed him was that he did a real study of the personnel there. I think he really felt like, ‘Listen, this thing, they’ve got some very, very good players.’”
And now, they have a new coach who was, in part, recruited by the most revered coach in franchise history.
“I just wanted everything to get itself back to winning games with the Redskins and helping Dan any way I could,” he said.
Joe Gibbs’ experience in Washington might seem dated. But his reputation as a person still sparkles. Washington’s fan base is more hardened and pessimistic in ways Gibbs didn’t see when he was on the sideline. But he’s what Washington has left in the way of a football oracle, and if Ron Rivera has his endorsement, and Gibbs has truly laid out what to expect from Snyder, well, that’s not a bad place to start.