Brad Edwards had heard the stories. He knew that if you needed to find Joe Gibbs or his coaches at 2 a.m. for some reason, all you would need to do was head to Washington's facility. They would be there, hard at work, preparing for the upcoming game.
Edwards, one of Washington's defensive backs from 1990-93, often wondered, fairly, "What could they be meeting about?" Most of their conversations, it turned out, were focused on one question, "What if?" For a coach like Gibbs, the unknown factors carried as much weight as the real ones, if not more so.
"They would come in and have these overly simplistic adjustments, almost like they're drawing in the sand," Edwards said. "And it would be the exact thing that needed to happen."
It's a taste of what it was like to play under Gibbs, and the three Super Bowls he won using that coaching style sweep the legs out from under any argument against it. The attention to detail, his philosophies and the care put into the team all came with the Gibbs package, and it earned his players' respect. Thirty years later, his approach is still one-of-a-kind to them.
"There is not a coach in the NFL that does what he did," former running back Brian Mitchell told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson on the 30-year anniversary of Washington's 1991 Super Bowl victory.
It's a universally recognized fact that Gibbs was an offensive guru. In the 1991 season, Washington ranked in the Top 10 in total offense (4th), passing offense (5th) and rushing offense (7th). It had 16 touchdowns of 25 or more yards, and it outscored its first three home opponents by a combined score of 102-0.
It's only a sample of an even longer list of accomplishments that required countless 2 a.m. meetings to get just right. He and the offensive coaches spent hours combing through plays to make adjustments that may have seemed simple at times but ended up being critical to Gibbs' overall game plan.
Those changes mattered because Gibbs was always thinking four steps ahead. There were times in practice when Gibbs would call out exactly how opposing defenses would respond to their offense and explain how the team would alter its plan to attack to counter it.
It was an advanced level of strategy that astounded his players.
"I always talk about how coaches need to adjust," Mitchell said. "This man had a plan for the adjustment. These coaches today…they don't adjust for years, weeks, months. He practiced the adjustment in practice."
Gibbs expected a lot from his players with the standard being for everyone to do the right thing all the time. He was a strategist, said former wide receiver Gary Clark, but he also had enough trust in his players to give them the reins and even allow them to tweak his plans. That, as Clark said, made things "football ready," and it allowed them to become great football players.
"The nice thing about that, too, is that [opponents] can't measure that," Clark said. "They can't measure that on film because they don't know what you're thinking. They know what Joe's thinking maybe, but they don't know what you're thinking."
Offense was Gibbs' speciality, so he didn't spend too much time on the defensive side of the field, but he didn't need to for his message of emphasizing the details to carry over to that side of the ball. When he was there, though, it was to give his players a reminder of how important that message was. Just ask Edwards.
Washington's defensive players knew the rules in practice; they had to go full speed until the wrapping up the offensive players just so they could get a little contact. It was something Edwards had done right "a thousand" times before…until late in the 1991 season when he decided to run by the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Gerald Riggs after a 40-yard run.
As Edwards was heading back to the huddle, he saw Gibbs walking down the field.That's odd, Edwards thought to himself. What's he doing? It became more and more clear to Edwards that Gibbs was heading in his direction. When he finally gets to Edwards, Gibbs said, "Listen Brad, we do this for a reason. I want you to wrap up the running backs and the receivers. So this will help you in a game."
"The guy walks off and I'm like, 'This guy doesn't miss anything,'" Edwards said. "It's like he's got eyes in the back of his head."
And while it's certainly a high standard, it's one his players were willing to strive for because they knew it meant that much to Gibbs. He didn't go home, Clark said; he had a cot in his office that he slept on during the week and went home on Saturdays and Sundays. It was a level of dedication that Clark "had mad respect" for.
"He's the only coach that you truly wanted to win for," Clark said.
Gibbs made sure that his players went through every scenario in practice, and when the games actually came, it was fun. And judging by the numbers that Washington put up in that 1991 season, there was a lot of fun to be had. The team started 11-0, which still stands as a franchise record (that's even more impressive considering eight of its 16 opponents finished with at least 10 wins). Among the numerous offensive achievements, Washington was the only team in the NFC that season to have two receivers with at least 70 catches (Clark and Art Monk).
All those late nights spent at the facility poring over the smallest of details were worth it, and it's one of the reasons why Washington went 154-94 in two stints under Gibbs, who finished his career with two Coach of the Year honors. It's also the reason why Gibbs was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1996. And of course, it's one of the many reasons why he's regarded as one of the best coaches in NFL history.
In the eyes of his players, there are none better.
"When I say he's the best coach I've ever seen in my life, I'm not saying it [just] because," Mitchell said. "I'm saying it because he's the best coach I've ever seen."