Tuesday, October 12, 2004

He came out of retirement to great fanfare and expectation, but five weeks into his second stint as coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs is facing the harsh realities of today’s NFL.

Sunday night’s 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was the Redskins’ fourth straight, dropping Gibbs and his team to 1-4 and leaving everyone in the organization and across town wondering how everything has gone so wrong so quickly.

“There’s nothing good about this,” Gibbs said yesterday. “We don’t like it. But the only way out of it is to work our way out of it.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, not after Washington owner Dan Snyder spent $28 million to lure the legendary Gibbs out of retirement over the winter, instantly making the 63-year-old the National Football League’s highest-paid coach. The two then set out to revamp the Redskins’ roster, resulting in a league-record payroll of about $112 million and sky-high expectations from the club’s die-hard fan base.

The investments haven’t paid off. Washington is last in the NFC East, 11/2 games behind third-place Dallas and 31/2 games behind first-place Philadelphia.

The rough start has rekindled memories of the only other lengthy losing streak in Gibbs’ career: an 0-5 start in 1981 that had some people calling for the rookie coach to be fired.

“I just remember it being miserable,” Gibbs said. “And I’d say this is every bit as miserable.”

That 1981 club, though, rallied to win eight of its last 11 games, and the next year, it captured the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. Gibbs continues to point to the lessons that he and his assistants learned that season in the hope that it will help them make it through these rough times.

“I felt like, if anything, it’s helped me in life,” he said. “We’ll see what this one’s going to be. Life’s full of wild things, so we’ll see what happens here.”

Gibbs’ latest struggles have resulted in questions about whether the game has passed him by. The coach shrugs off such suggestions, while admitting that those kinds of criticisms come with the territory.

“It’s understandable,” Gibbs said. “You’ve got to expect it. I expect it. I know it’s going to be said. There’s only one way to change that [winning], and that’s something I can control.”

Redskins players, who in the past had been known to lose faith in former coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Marty Schottenheimer, insist that will not be the case this time around. They point to Gibbs’ no-nonsense, positive message and to his ability to build strong relationships with players of all shapes and sizes.

“We’re all disappointed with the way we’re playing, but he’s not in a panic stage,” tackle Chris Samuels said. “He said he’s been through this situation before, and the team turned around and pulled out of it. Hopefully, we can do that.

“We’ve got no choice but to be [optimistic]. If we start going ahead and getting down on ourselves, then the season’s lost.”

Perhaps most surprising about the Redskins’ losing streak is the manner in which it has played out. Gibbs’ once-renowned offense has struggled mightily against modern NFL defenses, producing just seven touchdowns in five games.

Gibbs’ handpicked quarterback, veteran Mark Brunell, has one of the lowest passer ratings in the league. Running back Clinton Portis, acquired from Denver in exchange for All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey and a third-round draft pick and was given a $50.5 million contract extension, is averaging just 3.6 yards a carry.

The offensive plights came to a head on Sunday, when the Redskins were held to 107 total yards — the franchise’s worst showing in 43 years. The lowly performance left fans at FedEx Field booing the offense, pleading with the unit to turn things around.

“It needs to start happening soon,” said Brunell, who despite his struggles received a vote of confidence from Gibbs yesterday. “I don’t think there needs to be a change in the offense, scheme or philosophy. We just need to make plays and play smart football.”

The Redskins’ struggles under Gibbs perhaps shouldn’t surprise Washington-area sports fans, who have been teased for years with high expectations only to be disappointed in the end.

In addition to the Redskins’ current stretch, which includes just one playoff run in the past 11 years, local fans have been subjected to Michael Jordan’s failed stint with the Wizards and Jaromir Jagr’s disappointing play with the Capitals.

The culture of losing is beginning to wear down some veteran players who have never experienced the thrill of victory since coming to Washington.

“It gets frustrating,” said linebacker LaVar Arrington, who has missed the past three games with a knee injury. “This is my fifth season, and it’s like the same old result every single season, you know? The same thing every season. … You don’t get used to losing. I’m tired. I’m physically tired right now. I didn’t even play in the game, and I’m tired because we lost.”

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