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Players Eager to Line Up Behind Chargers’ Gibbs : Coach’s Respect Helps Motivate Offensive Built With Spare Parts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The emotion in Harry Swayne’s voice and the look in his eyes indicate the amount of respect he has for Alex Gibbs, his offensive line coach.

Swayne, the Chargers’ starting left tackle, says he never has met a coach quite like Gibbs.

“I wouldn’t compare him to any I’ve had, any I’ve known or any I’ve heard of,” Swayne said.

There are times, Swayne says, that Gibbs does not seem like a coach at all.

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“This is the first time a coach has ever come into a locker room game day and just be one of you,” he said. “You can tell that we’re all in this together. He says, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to react.’

“He’s just one of the boys. You ain’t out there by yourself. And that’s a very comforting feeling to have. It makes for a very advantageous working environment.”

Gibbs would refer to Swayne as “one of my guys.” One of several reclamation projects on the offensive line, he is treated exactly like the rest.

“I’m very firm on all of them, and yet I want them to express themselves and I want them to become independent,” he said. “But I’m hard on them not to be singular. If you treat them with respect and yet hard, they’ll react. I don’t ask them to do anything I don’t ask myself to do.”

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Gibbs asks a lot of himself and his players, but usually they respond. If they don’t, they aren’t around very long.

Nearly all of Gibbs’ guys have been asked to switch positions in the past two years. Rookie left guard Eric Moten is the only starter who has been left out of Gibbs’ shuffle.

Swayne once was a defensive lineman and a right tackle with Tampa Bay before coming to San Diego this year as a Plan B free agent.

Center Courtney Hall now is back at his original position after playing left guard last year. Right guard David Richards was a right tackle until two years ago.

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Right tackle Broderick Thompson played left guard until last year. But Gibbs convinced Thompson, 31, the move would lengthen his career.

“I was a little hesitant making a position change at my age, but (Gibbs) expressed a lot of confidence in me,” Thompson said. “He felt good about me playing there. He took a chance and it has paid off for me.”

Gibbs’ position switches and personnel decisions do not come from crazy hunches. They come from 20 years of experience in coaching, 13 collegiately and seven professionally.

Gibbs, 50, says he has become accustomed to revamping offensive lines.

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“It’s what I’ve done all my life,” he said. “It’s what I am. It’s what I do.”

But he doesn’t do it alone. Gibbs is intense and demanding, but he is not a dictator. He understands that he needs plenty of input from his players.

“You get a plan and you always stay one step ahead of it,” Gibbs said. “The players help you with it. I really lean on the guys. The more they grow, the better I am. They solve a lot of it before I even get there.”

After spending two years with the Raiders, Gibbs is in his second season with the Chargers. Before his tenure with the Raiders, he spent four seasons in Denver. The last two years with the Broncos, Gibbs and his collection of misfits, with the help of John Elway’s right arm, went to to the Super Bowl.

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Gibbs says the Chargers are a bit more talented than his group in Denver, but his approach had not changed.

“You build just like you do any corporation,” he said. “You just have to take your time and be patient and yet demanding.”

And how is construction coming along on the Chargers’ offensive line?

“This has the makings of being an awful good crew for a lot of years,” Gibbs said.

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Much of Gibbs’ doctrine is based on molding raw, talented players into his system. Thompson, 31, is the oldest starter. Moten and Hall, both 23, are the youngest. Richards is 25 and Swayne is 26.

Left tackle Leo Goeas and left guard Mike Zandofsky, both 25, were injured for much of the exhibition season but figure to play a lot this year.

Moten and Swayne are in the starting lineup in part because of Zandofsky’s and Goeas’ injuries.

“It’d be easy to say an Eric Moten isn’t quite ready to play,” Gibbs said. “My life could be easier, but Eric Moten’s going to be a fine player sometime and he needs to play.

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“I have to live with the mistakes the (young players) make and coach through them and hope they don’t keep making them. You have to be able to look through there and decide not just where you are, but where you are going.”

Swayne, 6-feet-5 and 290 pounds, said he didn’t know where he was going until he met Gibbs. In four seasons at Tampa Bay, he made only two starts, both at defensive end. But Sunday in Pittsburgh, Swayne will start.

“I came here because I wanted to use Alex to get better,” Swayne said. “I knew that I had a good coach and I wanted to take advantage of it. From there, I just wanted to see how good I could be. The potential was always there on paper, but it was never brought out because of the scheme or the coach.

“Because of Alex and his philosophy is why I’m here now and why I’ve come this far. He knew exactly what the problem was. Sometimes you just need that one person to expose something to you and get you over that hump.”

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Swayne says Gibbs’ methods are not revolutionary. He says they are not much different than most offensive line coaches.

“He doesn’t have any different techniques than anybody else,” Swayne said. “And it’s not that he knows so much more than anybody else, but he knows what fits for certain players. And that’s the hard part for most coaches to read. But he can figure that out real quick because he’s been around the block a little bit.”

Gibbs has been exposed to his share of coaches through the years, and he says they have all played a part in shaping his career.

“You take a bit from everywhere you work, and you blend all of those characteristics into what you are,” he said.

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But Gibbs may have taken a bit more from Ohio State than anywhere else. During his three years in Columbus, he was an offensive coordinator and line coach under Woody Hayes.

“Teaching wise, a lot of the concept of how to teach players comes from Woody,” Gibbs said. “He was a great, great teacher of football. He got us all very tuned in to getting players to learn.

“Players have to know what to do. Woody knew how to get a combination of IQs and a combination of interests to combine as one.”

But more importantly, Gibbs said Hayes also knew how to get players working together on a common goal.

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“There is a football socialness that is a must, and that’s what Woody was best at,” Gibbs said. “You don’t have to like the guy next to you. You don’t have to go out and drink a beer with him. But you have to respect him and he has to respect you for what you are.”

And that, Gibbs says, is what enables his system to work.

“I am a teacher and a director of a group of guys that have to believe that it’s OK to be different,” he said. “When we snap them up and walk out there, there ain’t no buddies. We are together. We fight together, win together and everything we accomplish, we accomplish together.

“The guy who can’t get into that has no chance. They have to be on the same page.”

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Swayne and Thompson say they are quite aware of that.

“Coach Gibbs believes in the heat of battle that there has to be compassion for the person next to you and the whole line,” Thompson said. “I think we all know that we are striving for one thing, and that’s to win.”

Said Swayne: “We have a close-knit group and we complement each other. That’s how it’s going to be, otherwise it’s not going to be, for any of us.”


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