- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

There’s no bickering, no finger-pointing and no feeling sorry for themselves. The Washington Redskins are approaching their disheartening, three-game losing streak with a matter-of-fact attitude, determined to climb out of their hole.

“We’re all being tested,” coach Joe Gibbs said one day after his team’s third-straight loss, 17-13 to the Cleveland Browns. “We’re 1-3. It’s a tough thing in football when you’re going through that. But life is lots of times that way, too. Football, to me, is a lot like life. What are the two things that really test us? Adversity and real success. We’re being tested right now, and we’re going to have to see how we work our way out of it.”

Taking a cue from their Hall of Fame coach, Redskins players are treating their early-season troubles with the same attitude. They’re stunned by their sub-par record four weeks into the season, but they’re committed to rectify the situation before it gets further out of hand.

“We would have never expected to be going through anything like this. But we are,” tackle Chris Samuels said. “I think guys are still positive. You know, in the past we had our problems with team meetings and all that. But guys are still positive, we’re still believing. That’s encouraging.”

Some previous Redskins teams have been known to wilt at the first signs of turmoil. When last year’s squad lost three in a row to fall to 3-4, ex-coach Steve Spurrier questioned his players’ level of effort; they responded by losing 10 of their last 12 and hanging the “Ball Coach” out to dry, even though they insisted they were fighting hard down the stretch.

The generally upbeat public sentiments coming from this year’s team don’t appear to be sugar-coated. Several players confirmed the attitude behind closed doors is just as positive.

As evidence of that, players point to the fact the Redskins have given themselves the opportunity to win each of the last three games late in the fourth quarter.

“When something goes wrong, guys can all hang their heads and say, ‘The game is over. We lost,’” wide receiver Laveranues Coles said. “Our ballclub is still fighting down to the last second. That’s what you want to see.”

For all their attempts to find positives out of a negative situation, the Redskins have several clear-cut areas of concern. The offense is struggling to put points on the board and to move the chains. The defense, despite its No. 4 league ranking, has been susceptible to big plays. And a host of key players have been prone to costly mistakes at inopportune moments.

Chief among the culprits is running back Clinton Portis, who was supposed to be Washington’s home-run threat but through four games is averaging 4.0 yards a carry (3.4 yards when you throw out his season-opening, 64-yard touchdown run). More disconcerting to the Redskins’ coaching staff are Portis’ three lost fumbles, including a costly one Sunday on the first play of the third quarter.

“I want to put this team on my shoulders, but I’m not carrying this team,” said Portis, who fumbled just once last season in Denver. “Somehow, someway, I need to find a way to take this team to where it needs to be.”

Try as they might to find reason for Portis’ butterfingers, Washington’s coaches are dumbfounded. Said Gibbs: “It’s just something we’re going to have to live through right now.”

Portis hasn’t been the only culprit — Coles also fumbled the ball away Sunday during a crucial, late-game drive. The Redskins have committed 10 turnovers in four games, and their minus-6 turnover ratio ranks second-to-last in the NFC ahead of only winless San Francisco.

“We’re playing OK, we’re just making mistakes,” Coles said. “I, myself, am making too many mistakes for us to win. I just need to evaluate myself and ask, ‘Am I helping this team more than I’m hurting it?’”

Defensively, Washington continues to play well enough to keep itself in games, surrendering only 253.3 yards and 17 points a game.

But beneath the surface lies a significant concern: Coach Gregg Williams’ unit is surrendering big plays when it can least afford to. Linebacker Marcus Washington blew an assignment on Cleveland’s first touchdown Sunday (Jeff Garcia’s 15-yard pass to wide-open tight end Aaron Shea), while the secondary gave up three long passes during the fourth quarter.

“Basically, it’s coming down to one or two plays that we’re not making and they are making,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Until we stop killing ourselves, we can’t move on.”

The Redskins’ road to respectability doesn’t get any easier, with the imposing Baltimore Ravens making the short trip to FedEx Field for a nationally televised contest Sunday night and the Packers, Eagles, Steelers and Vikings still to come.

For now, Washington seems less concerned with the status of its upcoming opponents and more intent on righting itself.

“In a way, we’ve really hurt ourselves,” Gibbs said. “But we’ve got to find a way to work out of it, and the only way I know how to do that is with a lot of hard work.”

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