He resigned as coach and team president of the Washington Redskins on Tuesday, three days after a playoff loss ended an inspirational late-season run that followed the death of safety Sean Taylor.
Gibbs will remain as a special adviser to owner Dan Snyder and was to discuss his resignation at an afternoon news conference at Redskins Park. The news startled players, who left Sunday's final team meeting certain their 67-year-old coach would return for the final year of his contract.
"That's part of this business -- it's full of surprises," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "Most of us suspected he would be back, and he'll definitely be missed."
Among the candidates to replace Gibbs will be two former head coaches on his staff, Gregg Williams and Al Saunders. Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher also could be a candidate. The team will have to interview at least one minority to comply with the NFL's "Rooney Rule" as it seeks the sixth coach since Snyder bought the team in 1999.
Several players on Tuesday immediately endorsed Williams, the fiery coach Gibbs hired to run the defense in 2004.
"Coach Williams is a great coach," fullback Mike Sellers said. "The players love him. It would be sad to see him not get it."
Williams was 17-31 as head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001-03 but has put together solid defenses in three of his four seasons in Washington. His in-your-face style would be a marked contrast to Gibbs' more measured approach.
"Coach (Gibbs) has that granddaddy effect on you," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "And Gregg, he gives off a mad scientist-type vibe. You've got to love that if you're a football player."
Gibbs went 31-36, including 1-2 in the playoffs, after emerging from NFL retirement and his NASCAR career to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract in 2004. He had always maintained he intended to fulfill the contract, but he wavered from that stance Monday when asked if he would return for the 2008 season.
Gibbs' resignation brings an end to a coaching career in which he twice raised the Redskins from mediocrity into a playoff team, although he failed in his goal of bringing the team back to the Super Bowl during his second stint in Washington. Gibbs won three NFL titles during his first stint from 1981-92; the second time he took the team to the postseason in two of his four seasons.
His decision to leave follows perhaps the best coaching performance of his career. After the death of the Taylor on Nov. 27, the Redskins lost a game to Buffalo in which Gibbs was flagged for a vital 15-yard penalty for trying to call back-to-back timeouts in the final moments. Gibbs said he wasn't aware of the rule, giving more fodder to the argument that his game management skills had waned.
"I just recall after the Buffalo game him saying that he made a bad call and that he didn't know if the game was for him anymore," kick returner Rock Cartwright said. "And (quarterback) Mark Brunell stood up and told him that we win together and lose together so don't put that on yourself. That could have been a sign right there."
But, following Taylor's funeral, Gibbs and his team rallied to win the final four regular-season games, going from 5-7 to 9-7 to claim the final playoff berth in the NFC. The emotional run ended Saturday, when the Redskins lost 35-14 at Seattle in the wild-card playoffs.
"It was the toughest (season) for me," Gibbs said Monday. "When you go through a season like that, for a while it's kind of hard to regrasp reality."
Gibbs also has endured a personal crisis for a year. One of his grandsons, Taylor, was diagnosed with leukemia last January at age 2. Gibbs frequently talks lovingly about his "grandbabies," and he made an overnight trip to North Carolina on Sunday to be with his family, interrupting the postseason routine of meetings that usually follow the final game of the season.
Still, for much of the season, Gibbs seemed intent on returning to coach. Players and coaches said publicly and privately over the last week that they would be shocked if he didn't stay on to finish the job. Last month, he said he would be open to discussing a contract extension so that he would not return next season as a lame-duck coach. An official within the league, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, told The Associated Press that Snyder was prepared to offer such an extension.
At a news conference Monday, Gibbs spoke about plans for next season -- the team's approach to free agency, offseason workouts and the possibility of an open quarterback competition at training camp -- as if he were going to remain on the sidelines. However, he hedged when asked if he would definitely be back, saying it would hinge on his meeting Monday night with Snyder.
"Everybody's situation will be taken into context here -- including mine, and my future here and all that," Gibbs said Monday.
Gibbs went 124-60 during the regular season and 16-5 during the playoffs during his first term with the Redskins. He won Super Bowls following the 1981, 1987 and 1991 seasons with three different quarterbacks.
Having said repeatedly that he did not intend to coach again, Gibbs was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996. Snyder lured him out of retirement four years ago to rescue a franchise that had floundered for more than a decade, having made only one playoff appearance since Gibbs' first retirement.
Gibbs' last four years were down-and-up, down-and-up. He had his two worst seasons as a coach -- 6-10 in 2004 and 5-11 in 2006 -- but he also led the Redskins to the playoffs with late runs in 2005 and 2007.
"There's not enough words to say what he's done for the organization," Cartwright said. "Especially this year. We had a tough year, he pulled it all together and brought us closer as a family."
Gibbs' final career totals: 171-101, including 17-7 in the playoffs, a career .629 winning percentage that ranks third all-time behind George Halas and Don Shula among coaches with more than 125 wins.