Alex Gibbs, the Godfather of zone blocking

Alex Gibbs, the Godfather of zone blocking, brings his vast experience and unique approach to his scheme to a Seattle Seahawks offense that is in need of both.

Todd Weiner was discussing Alex Gibbs when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence.
“I’ve said a lot of positive things,” offered Weiner, who played for Gibbs when both were in Atlanta and the Falcons were leading the NFL in rushing for three consecutive seasons.

Weiner then laughed before adding, “But he’s a tough guy to play for.”

The Seahawks’ offensive linemen – and entire offense, for that matter – have discovered this since Gibbs was hired in January to coach the line on Pete Carroll’s new Seahawks staff. As with everything connected to Gibbs during his long and successful career as an assistant coach in the NFL, even what could be perceived as a negative turns out to be a positive.

“Alex is one of those guys that, after everything is said and done, you really appreciate how hard he was on you because he kind of gets you to that next level,” said Weiner, a former second-round draft choice by the Seahawks (1998) who then finished his career with the Falcons.

Sounds like the college professor that you detested while in his class, but later realized was the most influential teacher you ever had.

“He’s like that. You’ve nailed it,” Weiner said. “Alex is like one of those mad scientist guys where you don’t understand, you don’t know why they do things the way they do. You don’t necessarily want to hang out with them, but he gets the best out of you.”

While dispensing sage advice that is rooted in stark reality – to play for Gibbs, you play his way.

“He always told us, he’s not our friend, he’s not our father, he’s our coach,” Weiner said. “And he expects us to do the job, and he’s going to challenge us or get in our face or do anything necessary to get us to do the job. At the time, you really don’t like it. But looking back, you really appreciate it.”

And that is why Gibbs has come to Seattle at an age (69) when most other coaches have called it a career. Gibbs was sought out by Carroll because, as Carroll puts it, “That gives us the running game emphasis that we want.” The addition also has been praised by offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and Art Valero, who is assisting Gibbs in remaking the Seahawks’ line.

“The Seahawks’ website called Alex ‘The Godfather of zone blocking,’ and it’s true,” Bates said. “He does clinics at colleges. He goes to the Falcons; he goes to the Houston Texans, and the next thing you know they’ve got five zone coaches that are amazing.

“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege and I’m really excited to be working side by side with him.”

Valero also subscribed to that professor analogy, and then expanded on it.

“The thing about Alex is: A, he’s a great teacher; and, B, he is constantly – with coaches and players – trying to get you to do what you don’t want to do,” said Valero, who was first introduced to the Gibbs’ way of doing things during a minority internship with the Chiefs in the summer of 1994.

Valero then referenced “Hard Knox,” the biography of former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, who also entered the league as an offensive line coach.

“Chuck made a statement in there that what coaching is is trying to get somebody to do what they don’t want to do, and do it well,” he said. “That’s Alex Gibbs.”

Just don’t ask Gibbs what he thinks about all this. He doesn’t talk to the media – although he was coaxed into doing a rapid-fire, yet extremely insightful, Q&A with reporters after the club selected left tackle Russell Okung in the first round of April’s draft. The silent treatment is something Gibbs started while coaching with the Denver Broncos, and it spread to his players. In Denver, if a player was quoted in the newspaper or heard on a radio station, he was fined by his line mates.

But then Gibbs doesn’t have to talk about himself. He’s got an impressive resume and a legion of disciples to do it for him.

After coaching in college for 15 years – at Duke, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio State, Auburn and Georgia – Gibbs entered the NFL in 1984 with the Broncos. He also has had stints with the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Broncos again, Falcons and Texans.

During this span, these Gibbs-influenced offenses produced 1,000-yard rushers 14 times, including 12 in one 14-season stretch – from the Broncos’ Sammy Winder in ’84, to the Chargers’ Marion Butts in 1991, to a run of four consecutive by the Broncos’ Terrell Davis from 1995-98, to the Broncos’ Clinton Portis in 2002-03, to three consecutive seasons by the Falcons’ Warrick Dunn from 2004-06, to the Texans’ Steve Slaton in 2008.

Those are backs who run the gambit in style and size, but all ran their best while in Gibbs’ blocking scheme.

Gibbs has had similar success with the linemen he coached. In one 11-season span – from 1993 with the Chiefs through 2003 with the Broncos – six linemen were voted to 11 Pro Bowls: Broncos center Tom Nalen (five), Broncos left tackle Gary Zimmerman (twice), Broncos tackle Tony Jones and guard Mark Schlereth, as well as the Chiefs’ duo of John Alt and Will Shields.

As former Seahawks defensive tackle Sam Adams put it when Gibbs was in his second stint with the Broncos, “Their offensive line coach is the main reason they are successful. He picks good athletes, and he coaches them well. They play any running back they want and they still run the ball. They have had lineman after lineman come in there and he just coaches them up.”

Zimmerman, one of those linemen, paid tribute to Gibbs during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction last summer.

“He taught an old player like myself how to grab a few more years in the league by playing smart,” Zimmerman said. “Alex was hard on us, expecting perfection, and that made us better. He taught us to read coverages and understand how defenses work.

“It was a lot easier to play when you had a good idea what your opponent might do. He, too, gave some awesome motivation speeches, but it would not be appropriate to repeat them here.”

In addition to that deserved “Godfather” tag, Gibbs also has been labeled a guru and savant when it comes to understanding and teaching the finer points of zone blocking.

“Alex Gibbs is one of the legendary O-line coaches in the NFL,” Schlereth, now an analyst for EPSN, once said. “He is one of the masters of cutting guys on the backside and getting defensive linemen down. Cutting is not an option, it is mandatory.”

So is playing smart, which starts with doing – not questioning – what you’re told.

“There’s no better person to be tutoring under,” Valero said. “He’s high energy – high energy. And not just that, his energy is nonstop. He’s constantly on the move. And from that standpoint it’s awesome, because it keeps players inspired and stimulated.”

But Gibbs is even more than that.

“In this league, there are offensive line coaches who just teach scheme and then there are offensive line coaches who just teach technique,” Valero said. “The right ones are the ones who teach both. And Alex is one of those.”

One who has perfected his own blocking scheme. One who is not afraid to share what he knows with others.

Like Rick Trickett, who incorporated Gibbs’ philosophy and fundamentals when he got to West Virginia in 2001.

“Some people say they copied a little from here, a little from there,” Trickett, now assistant head coach/offensive line coach at Florida State, once told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I just did every damn thing he did there (in Denver).”

But that’s also part of Gibbs’ approach. He allows others into his inner circle, to a point.

“It’s a system you’ve got to have the right guys for and you’ve got to have the right teacher for,” Weiner said. “Alex is definitely the Godfather of zone blocking. I played under some of his protégés – Tom Cable at Oakland and Jags (Jeff Jagodzinski) at Boston College.

“Everything they got is from Alex. But Alex doesn’t give up everything he’s got. The protégés are good, but the master doesn’t give up all his secrets.”