Originally created 01/24/04

Alex Gibbs: Getting back in the game



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Alex Gibbs had to get away. He couldn't keep working the 100-hour weeks. He couldn't stay mad at the world.

So, he packed up and moved to the desert, in hopes that becoming a part-time coach would help him get control of his life.

"I was in a state of exhaustion, a state of depression, there's no question about it," Gibbs said Friday. "I knew I had to do something."

After three years of semiretirement, the guru of offensive line coaching felt like his demons were under control. It was time to get back in the game.

Gibbs agreed to join Jim Mora's new staff with the Atlanta Falcons, providing an experienced first lieutenant to the 42-year-old, neophyte head coach.

"He's one of the greatest offensive line coaches in the history of the game," Mora gushed.

Indeed, Gibbs is credited with molding an undersized line into a group that helped the Denver Broncos win two straight Super Bowl championships - including a victory over the Falcons in 1999.

One of his favorite tactics was the cut block, designed to eliminate the backside pursuit but viewed by many defensive linemen as downright dirty.

Not that Gibbs listened to what anyone else had to say. He was too focused on his own job, fanatical in his desire to outwork the other guy. He was cranky with his players - a word of praise was something to be treasured - and wouldn't even bother talking with the media.

After 37 years as a coach - the last 17 in the NFL - Gibbs finally reached his breaking point after the 2000 season.

"I was so mad at me and everybody else," he recalled. "I didn't give a damn about anything. I was that disoriented."

Gibbs was given medication to cope with his condition, but decided that more drastic steps were needed. It was time for a break.

He moved from Denver to Phoenix, not trusting himself to be within driving distance of the Broncos training complex. He worked out a deal with coach Mike Shanahan to serve as a part-time consultant, which meant coming to the games on Sunday, grading film on Monday and helping install the game plan on Tuesday. The rest of the week was spent in his new home, trying to think about anything but football.

"I had burned myself to a frazzle. I couldn't keep going," Gibbs said. "People outside of coaching can't understand. You're working 117-hour weeks, six or seven months a year, with no days off, nothing."

He was following in the disturbing footsteps of Dick Vermeil and other coaches who burned themselves out. Not that Gibbs is blaming anyone. He readily admits that he did it to himself, pushing himself more and more with each passing season.

But Gibbs also would like to see the coaching profession put some controls on itself. He knows there are others like him, guys who don't know when it's time to go home.

"We drive each other competitively, right into a funk," Gibbs said. "No other profession does that. Nobody is working that many hours under that kind of pressure.

"We need to solve it internally. I don't know how. But we've got to get people talking about it. Maybe we can come up with something."

Gibbs is returning to familiar territory, having worked on Vince Dooley's staff at the University of Georgia for two years in the early 1980s.

Actually, it's not all that familiar. The suburbs around Atlanta have changed dramatically over the past two decades, with farmland replaced by sprawling subdivisions and enormous shopping malls.

"It's a little different than I remember," Gibbs said with a smile. "I was shocked."

He picked the Falcons for his comeback, taking control of an inconsistent line while giving Mora a seasoned voice in the role of assistant head coach. Gibbs hasn't had time to learn much about his new team, but he does know that having Michael Vick at quarterback is a good place to start.

"It's a young, vivacious team on the verge of making a statement," Gibbs said. "I wanted to be a part of it."

Gibbs, who turns 63 next month, began pondering his return about a year ago. He was running out of things to do and craved the challenge of developing a new group of linemen.

"I could tell that I was not accomplishing enough things," he said. "You can only paint the house so many times. You can only redo the garden so many times."

Gibbs insists that he won't work the number of hours he did before. His job with the Falcons comes with a few caveats, such as delegating more duties to those around him.

It won't be easy.

"I know what I've got to do," Gibbs said. "But there's always anxiety when you're starting something that's a little new."