Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

Patriot games

TWO NFL PLAYOFF GAMES ON JAN. 10 showed how so often good coaching can make up for a team's weaknesses whereas bad coaching can overshadow even the most talented teams. Consider Mike Martz of the St. Louis Rams and New England head man Bill Belichick, who presides over one of the most unremarkable playoff rosters in recent history.

Mr. Martz, considered an offensive genius, coaches a team with arguably more talented and flashy players than any other team. St. Louis boasts one of the league's best and most versatile running backs, two of the NFL's best wide receivers, a quarterback who forced Kurt Warner to the bench, and two impressive offensive tackles who bookend a good line. And Mr. Martz normally uses them well. But there are parts of coaching that the Rams boss seems to have yet to master. Astute St. Louis fans couldn't have been surprised by the coach's mismanagement of the endgame in the Rams playoff matchup with Carolina. At times during the regular season, the Rams coach would burn all three of his time-outs in the first quarter of a half. Down by three with a first down at the Panthers' 15-yard line and 37 seconds left in the game, Mr. Martz let the clock run while he sat on his lone time-out. The Rams coach chose to attempt a tying field goal with three seconds left instead of making at least two attempts for the win before settling for the tie. The Rams did tie the game, but lost in overtime, giving credence to the old football maxim that when you play to tie, you really play to lose.

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In the game following the Rams defeat by Carolina, Patriots coach Bill Belichick gambled on fourth-and-three at Tennessee's 33-yard line. Instead of trying to unknot the tied score with a nearly impossible 50-yard field goal in the blistering cold and wind, Mr. Belichick called on young quarterback Tom Brady to make a play, which he did. The yardage gained put New England in their kicker's range and the ensuing field goal won the game for the Patriots.

In an NFL world of salary caps and parity, coaching is one of the few remaining variables. And the willingness to take risks can be the difference between advancing in the playoffs and watching the next round at home.

Hail to the Redskins

When Joe Gibbs retired from football in 1993 he said his workload, including occasional 20-hour work days, forced him to abandon his order of priorities: faith, family, and work. Even while coaching in Washington during the height of the Iran-Contra affair, the admitted workaholic said he'd never heard of Oliver North. In a teary March 1993 press conference, he admitted he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two nearly grown sons. Now, more than a decade later, Mr. Gibbs said the time was right for his return to the NFL, with his children grown and having children of their own.

In the years since Mr. Gibbs last coached the Redskins, he's spoken openly about his faith in Christ and the ways he's been tested. His wife's medical problems brought him closer to the Lord, he says, as well as an Oklahoma real-estate venture that turned into a financial disaster.

But when workload forced him from football, the coach would find another form of competition in NASCAR, buying his own racing team. Mr. Gibbs found success there too, winning the Winston Cup championship in 2000 with driver Tony Stewart. The second act of Mr. Gibbs's life involved his family, with sons J.D. and Coy joining his staff. Even in NASCAR, the former coach's calm but firm approach corralled volatile Tony Stewart and turned him into a big winner.

But how will Mr. Gibbs handle the rigors of coaching again? "Obviously, it takes a great effort," he said. "But there's no getting around it. In football, you've got to bust it. The coaches and players have to."

Around the horn

Since his admission that he bet on baseball, Pete Rose has maintained that he should be reinstated into baseball and has said he'd like to coach again. But Mr. Rose admits he still gambles and says he sees no reason to stop. After 14 years of denials about gambling, Mr. Rose said he still goes and bets at tracks but maintains it doesn't cause him problems. In his newest autobiography, which contradicts the claims of his previous autobiography, Mr. Rose says gambling at racetracks remains one of his favorite pastimes.


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