- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

CLEVELAND — If anyone thought this was going to be easy — that Joe Gibbs would just march back into town and turn the Washington Redskins into winners after 11 years of mediocrity — they were mistaken.

Three Lombardi Trophies, a Hall of Fame bust in nearby Canton and a rock-solid reputation doesn’t mean much right now, and a disappointing 17-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns yesterday only confirmed that.

Gibbs and his 1-3 Redskins are dealing with a cold, hard dose of reality: This team is a long way from reassuming its once-lofty standing in the NFL. And with each passing week, more people are coming to terms with that fact.

“I don’t know what everybody thought with Coach Gibbs,” said linebacker Antonio Pierce following Washington’s third straight loss. “But I didn’t think it would be like a miracle and he would come in and win right away.”

Less than a month ago, few would have shared Pierce’s sentiments. The Redskins and Gibbs were the talk of the league after an inspiring Week1 victory over Tampa Bay.

Three weeks and three losses later, the Redskins have hit rock-bottom. This morning’s NFC East standings show Washington dead-last in the division, three games behind 4-0 Philadelphia, two games behind the surprising New York Giants and 1 games behind the idle Cowboys.

“Obviously, right now we are being tested,” Gibbs said after watching his team blow a 3-point fourth-quarter lead. “It’s a tough situation for us, but I think most of us have been in tough situations before.”

As a matter of fact, Gibbs’ first season back in Washington is beginning to look a lot like his original first season in Washington. In 1981, the then-rookie head coach lost his first five games and was subject to a world of criticism before rebounding to finish 8-8.

Gibbs wasn’t in the mood to take a stroll down memory lane yesterday, other than to say the 0-5 start in ‘81 “was a horrible time to go through, and this is a horrible time.”

This latest stretch might qualify as the toughest in Gibbs’ career, if only because the Redskins feel like they legitimately should have won two of the last three games. Yesterday’s loss certainly fell under that category, with Washington committing two costly second-half turnovers that allowed the Browns (2-2) to rally.

“I don’t think any team we played was flat-out better than us,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Nobody has flat-out beaten the Redskins. I think we aided them in beating ourselves. We did it [last] Monday night [against Dallas], and we sure did it today.”

Washington carried a 10-3 lead into the second half, and though the score might not indicate it, the Redskins were in firm control. Gregg Williams’ third-rated defense held the Browns to 97 total yards and the offense had made the most of its few opportunities.

Then the wheels came off.

On the first play of the third quarter, tailback Clinton Portis fumbled the ball away, and Cleveland’s Andra Davis recovered at the Redskins 31. It was Portis’ third lost fumble of the season.

“It’s very frustrating, because I know I don’t play like this,” said Portis, who lost only one fumble with Denver in 2003. “This is not me. I feel like I lost this game. I feel like I lost the Giants game [two weeks ago]. If you really want to believe, I feel like I lost the Cowboys game. That’s three games I cost us, if you ask me.”

The Browns capitalized on Portis’ latest gaffe. Four plays later, quarterback Jeff Garcia found Aaron Shea open and connected with the tight end for a 15-yard touchdown.

Washington responded to re-take the lead, thanks in part to a 45-yard bomb from Mark Brunell to wide receiver Laveranues Coles (seven catches, 122 yards). The Redskins’ offense stalled in the red zone, though, and Gibbs was forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal from John Hall and a 13-10 lead.

Needing only to hold the Browns’ less-than-inspiring offense in check down the stretch, the Redskins’ defense folded. Garcia (14-for-21, 195 yards) evaded the blitz and completed a pretty 23-yard lob to receiver Andre Davis. Davis, who beat safety Sean Taylor on the play, was finally brought down at the 6, with three more yards tacked on for Pierce’s roughing-the-passer penalty.

Seconds later, former Virginia Tech star tailback Lee Suggs burst through the line for three of his 82 yards on the day, this one resulting in a touchdown that put Cleveland ahead 17-13 with 6:51 to play.

Needing to march down the field and regain the lead, the Redskins’ offense was stopped dead. Brunell scrambled for 6 yards, then threw a pair of incomplete passes to force punter Tom Tupa onto the field.

The dismal three-and-out capped a frustrating day for a Washington offense that some thought might have been tipping itself off to the opponent.

“They were literally calling our plays,” Portis said. “They were hitting the gap before us and after us.”

Portis might have been onto something, because Browns cornerback Daylon McCutcheon intimated the same thing.

“Their offense is not that complicated,” he said. “They have certain tendencies. Let’s say it’s third down. They line up in this formation and they only run two different routes. It makes our job a whole lot easier.”

Stealing signs or not, the Redskins could only blame themselves after blowing their final opportunity to win the game. After stopping the Browns on a questionable fake field-goal attempt, Washington took over at its 27 with 2:15 to play. Brunell immediately threw incomplete to Gardner before Coles caught a 12-yard pass and fumbled it away.

It was the final indignity on day that left the Redskins red in the face.

“We’re 1-3, but I’m sure we do not feel like 1-3,” Coles said. “We’re just making mistakes at inopportune times. The only thing we can do is evaluate ourselves and see what we can do to win ballgames.”

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