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The Godfather of zone blocking

Posted Jan 22, 2010

Alex Gibbs and his zone-blocking scheme have had success with seven other NFL teams. Now, he will try to work his magic as Pete Carroll’s line coach with the Seahawks

Alex Gibbs has been called the godfather, guru and even savant of the zone-blocking scheme.

 Pete Carroll, the Seahawks’ not-even-two-week-old head coach, just calls Gibbs the offensive line coach on the staff he continues to compile. But the 68-year-old Gibbs also is a key to the Seahawks running the ball better and more consistently than they have while ranking 26th, 19th and 20th in the league in average rushing yards per game the past three seasons.

“We have to run the football to be successful in our division first, and then in the NFL,” Carroll said last week at his introductory news conference. “You have to. So as we set our sights forward, you’ll follow how this will come together and how this will set our course.

“It will affect everything that follows. It’ll affect defense. It’ll affect our passing game. It’ll help our quarterback. It’ll give us the kind of mindset in the approach that we all love.”

Two of the first steps toward achieving those lofty goals were the hiring of Jeremy Bates to be the offensive coordinator, a position he held on Carroll’s staff at the University of Southern California last season after coaching wide receivers and quarterbacks on Mike Shanahan’s staff with the Denver Broncos the previous two seasons; and the addition of Gibbs, who had two stints with the Broncos (1984-87 and 1995-2003) during his 24-season run in the NFL.

“I love the familiarity we have on the offensive side of the ball to make Jeremy really ready to rock and roll and hit it full speed. And Alex is a big player in all of that,” Carroll said Wednesday in announcing those additions to his staff. “That gives us the running game emphasis that we want.”

And the Seahawks need after averaging 97.9 rushing yards per game last season – lowest in 10 years and fifth-lowest in franchise history – in their first fling at running the zone-blocking scheme.

Gibbs spent the past two seasons with the Houston Texans, who averaged a franchise-record 4.3 yards per carry in 2008.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what Alex did for us,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak told the Houston Chronicle. “He helped a young coordinator (Kyle Shanahan) grow. He brought toughness to our team. And he helped some young coaches, too.

“He did a great job for us, and he’ll do a great job for them.”

While doing things the Gibbs’ way might be effective, it isn’t always easy – as the Seahawks’ offensive players, and especially the linemen, are about to discover.

“He’s very intense. He’s very frank. He doesn’t spare your feelings,” Texans left tackle Duane Brown told the team’s website. “It rubs some people the wrong way, but I think it’s the best way to get the job done.

“He tells you how it is, tells you how he feels, but he knows what he’s talking about. He’s been doing this for a long time with a lot of great people, and he knows his stuff, so you’ve got to listen to everything he says and try to apply it to everything – life or football.”

Gibbs has been doing this a long time, and he’s helped make some people great along the way. 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, Atlanta Falcons and Texans.

During this span, these Gibbs-influenced offenses have produced 1,000-yard rushers 14 times, including 12 in one 14-season stretch – from the Broncos’ Sammy Winder in 1984, 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.

Gibbs 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 Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, as well as the Chiefs’ duo of John Alt and Will Shields.

Zimmerman paid tribute to Gibbs during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech 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.”

Then there are those tags Gibbs has collected along the way: Godfather, guru, savant.

As Schlereth once put it, “Alex Gibbs is one of the legendary O-line coaches in the NFL. 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 copying the scheme that Gibbs has helped make infamous, it seems.

Former Stanford offensive line coach Chris Dalman admits “borrowing” it from Gibbs, and it produced the first 1,000-yard rusher in 17 years for the Cardinal in 2008, not to mention to the powerful exploits of Heisman runner-up Tony Gerhart last season.

When Rick Trickett got to West Virginia in 2001, he brought Gibbs’ philosophy and fundamentals with him.

“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).”

Now, Gibbs inherits the job of teaching his zone-blocking scheme to a Seahawks offense that never totally grasped it last season – for whatever reason, and a number of reasons.

“I think Gibbs is the kind of guy that likes to build things,” Texans’ right tackle Eric Winston told ESPN.com. “I think he has built a young, solid offensive line here in Houston and has effectively taught his scheme to the coaches as well as the players and, for him, it was time to move on.

“I think he is a great coach and he will make a difference in Seattle, I’m sure.”

Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks