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Strong leadership is key in NFL labor disputes

TAMPA - The last time the National Football League was embroiled in a work stoppage, Joe Gibbs never stopped working his players. The unifying skills of Washington's Hall of Fame coach should serve as a template for today's sideline leaders during a labor dispute that threatens to delay or perhaps even wreck the 2011 season. In 1987, a players' strike prompted owners to cancel the third week of the season. The following three Sundays were filled with hundreds of replacement players, including current Saints head coach Sean Payton. Those regrettable replacement games counted in the standings, and the Redskins won all three with not a single Washington player daring to cross the picket line.
"We had a veteran team that was very close,'' said Doug Williams, the former Bucs quarterback and executive now in his second stint as head coach at Grambling. "Before the strike, Joe Gibbs said he didn't want any of us to cross the line. He figured a strike wouldn't last the whole season, and if someone crossed the line it would cause a lot of friction.'' The Redskins stuck together, and when the replacements mercifully departed the nation's capital, Williams earned Super Bowl MVP honors as Washington won its second championship under Gibbs. The first title came at the end of the 1982 season, also marred by a players' strike. In both cases, Gibbs somehow convinced his players he was on their side, even while he was the public face of the organization. "Joe was management by way of being the head coach, but people also respected him as Joe Gibbs,'' Williams said. "Not all teams have that kind of respect for their head coach.'' There hasn't been much chatter about the potential use of replacement players this fall, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't ruled out that possibility if the impasse continues through the summer. Like Gibbs, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris commands widespread respect in his locker room. That should serve the Bucs well if this dispute extends to the point where players start missing fat game checks. Some teams will handle a long lockout with class and solidarity … others will implode. Head coaches could find themselves caught in the owner-player crossfire, and Morris has built up enough goodwill among the Bucs to avoid being labeled a management puppet. From a distance, Williams monitors the league's first work stoppage in 24 years. "I'm not pro-anybody in this dispute, but I'm pro-retired player,'' Williams said. "Nobody in this situation is even thinking about retired players and we understand that. The most important thing players have to realize is that they are employees, not partners.'' If the lockout persists, Bucs players will assuredly be scrutinizing any comments from Morris, who is smart enough to play things down the middle in public. Like Gibbs, Morris is paid to represent the organization and carry out the objectives of ownership. Only a fool would forget who signs his paycheck — and Morris is no fool. But it's also imperative that players believe head coaches are supportive during times of adversity. That's a lesson Joe Gibbs never forgot. His first two Super Bowl rings as coach offer testament that in the absence of an NFL labor agreement, the teams that stay together, win together. ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833
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