The question isn't whether Joe Gibbs will eventually return to the sidelines.
The question is when and where.
When Gibbs resigned after 12 years as the coach of the Washington Redskins, he left the door open to return if he overcomes his health problems.
"Somewhere down the road, if I really miss coaching, I want to be honest with everybody and say it's a big part of me and I might want to try to get back into it," he said.
Because Gibbs figures to miss it -- he's too competitive not to -- that means he will become the obvious front runner for every coaching vacancy until he is lured back. His credentials -- three Super Bowl rings -- speak for themselves.
It's impossible to predict where he'll wind up, but there is one city that is likely to have an edge in enticing him back.
Would you believe Baltimore?
Imagine Gibbs as the coach of the Baltimore expansion franchise.
Don't laugh. Baltimore makes sense for Gibbs for several reasons.
Right now, Baltimore and St. Louis are the leading contenders to get the two expansion teams because they're the only two cities with public financing in place for new stadiums.
Then there's the matter of timing. The two cities are expected to be named this October to play in 1995.
That means the two expansion teams can make Gibbs an offer that none of the teams that fires its coach next year can match.
Those teams will need a coach in 1994. Coaching that season would mean Gibbs would miss the senior season that his son, Coy, will play as a linebacker at Stanford.
By contrast, one of the expansion teams can hire him for the start-up season of 1995, which means he'd have his future set, but he'd also be free in the fall of 1994 to watch his son play his senior year.
Gibbs' first choice would be Charlotte. There's long been speculation he might finish his career there. That's where his NASCAR racing team is based, and that's where his older son, J. D., lives while he works for the racing team. Gibbs is a North Carolina native, although he grew up in California.
If Charlotte gets a team, it would be in good shape in the Gibbs derby.
Charlotte's problem is that it doesn't have public funding for a stadium. It is trying to finance one by having the fans pay premiums to buy their seats.
Unless Charlotte comes in with public financing in the next six months -- and the North Carolina legislature has shown no interest in doing that -- the city figures to come up short in the expansion derby.
That leaves Baltimore and St. Louis to bid for Gibbs. Baltimore figures to be more attractive to Gibbs even though he was once an assistant coach in St. Louis and liked the city.
Baltimore is 90 minutes from his suburban Virginia home, where he also sponsors a youth home. It's also a lot closer to Charlotte than is St. Louis.
That leaves the question of whether Gibbs is going to come back. Even he probably doesn't know right now. His departure from the Redskins wasn't orchestrated the way Bill Parcells' departure was from the New York Giants two years ago. When Parcells left, he wanted to take over a team where he had total control, and he got that this year in New England.
Gibbs, by contrast, isn't a control freak. Although they had the usual coach-scout differences on personnel, Gibbs worked well with general managers Bobby Beathard and Charley Casserly in Washington.
There was no hidden agenda behind Gibbs' departure. He left for the reasons he stated. He became ill last fall and then decided he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Owner Jack Kent Cooke even suggested he cut back, turn over the offense to an assistant, oversee the operation and go home )) at night.
Gibbs, though, said he can't coach that way.
"We talked about all the other alternatives, but Joe Gibbs can't take time off," Casserly said. "He only knows one way to do that and that's the Joe Gibbs way."
Gibbs said: "I didn't want to try and fake it."
For Gibbs, working less than round-the-clock is faking it.
But once he steps away from it, it's difficult to believe in his early 50s that he won't miss it.
When he was asked if he's thought about how he'll feel when the RTC 1993 season kicks off this fall, he said, "Believe me, I've run that through my mind several times. I'm sure I'm going to miss that. I may try and slip in there someplace and call a play or something."
Does that sound like a man who'll never coach again?
John Madden and Dick Vermeil walked away and never came back, but they're the exceptions to the rule. Vince Lombardi left the sidelines for one year, said he missed the "fire on Sunday," and returned. Bill Walsh came back, although to the college ranks. Tom Flores returned. Dan Reeves didn't wait to be asked when he was fired by the Denver Broncos. He applied for the New York Giants job and had no trouble accepting it as the third choice.
Gibbs is just as competitive. When he took up racquetball, he became the national 35-and-over champion. When he decided to build a NASCAR team from scratch, he won the sport's Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, in his second year.
Casserly won't be surprised if he comes back. "If he comes back to coach, he comes back. Either way, it wouldn't surprise me. If he can find something he can hang his hat on, then he may not coach. That's the future. It's hard to say what's going to happen," Casserly said.
The only thing that would probably keep him out is if he can't solve his health problems. But if he becomes completely healthy again, he's going to get offers, and it'll be hard for him to turn them down.
Gibbs, meanwhile, didn't want to discuss the possibility of coaching in Baltimore or any other city.
When a Baltimore reporter told him after his farewell news conference that he'd see him in Baltimore in two years, Gibbs jokingly said he didn't know if he could deal with the Baltimore reporters.
But Baltimore would be a logical next stop for him.
Just imagine the thought of Gibbs taking a Baltimore team into Washington to play the Redskins.
.' Stranger things have happened.