- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

CLEVELAND.

Who saw this coming? Who saw the Redskins at 1-3 after four games — last (in the NFC East) and lost (on offense)? This is a team, after all, that might have set a record for minicamps, summer schools and “voluntary” offseason workouts. Even with a new coaching staff and new ways of doing things, it was expected to come steaming out of the starting gate.

But that isn’t what’s happened at all. The Redskins have an April look to them, not an October look. If they’re not killing themselves with penalties, they’re killing themselves with turnovers or killing themselves with mental mistakes. And here’s the biggest shock of all: Their Big Money Men on offense — Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis and Laveranues Coles — are as much a part of the problem as anybody.

Joe Gibbs might be comforted that Brunell is “fighting his guts out,” he might be “pleased with his leadership,” but he’d probably be a lot more pleased if the Redskins could manage to score more than 18 points in a game. Yesterday’s 17-13 loss to the Browns was the fourth straight week they’ve been in the teens — first 16, then 14, then 18 and now 13. And it’s not like the Cleveland defense is the second coming of the Steel Curtain. Most folks would be hard-pressed to name three starters.

Brunell’s largely ineffectual 17-for-32 outing wouldn’t be such a big deal if his supporting cast were playing up to its paychecks. But Portis handed the Browns a touchdown early in the second half by fumbling for the third time this season, and Coles short-circuited the Redskins’ last series with a fumble of his own.

“I’ve got guys depending on me,” a subdued Portis said afterward, “and I can’t give the ball up. It changed the momentum of the game.”

It did, indeed. Even with their offense hiccupping along, the Redskins managed to take a 10-3 halftime lead, outgaining the Browns, 154-97. But Portis undid that good work on the very first snap of the third quarter, letting the ball loose at the Washington 29. Four plays later, Jeff Garcia found tight end Aaron Shea unattended for a 15-yard touchdown, and the Cleveland crowd — which had shown great impatience with the home team up to then — came alive.

Coles’ turnover with 1:58 left deprived Gibbs of the chance to save the day with one of his patented late drives. We’ll never know whether he could have pieced something together and averted another spirit-sapping defeat. He’d gotten one first down — the pass to Laveranues picked up 12 yards to the Washington 39 — but then the ball popped out of his receiver’s hands.

“Guys like me have got to carry the team,” Coles said, “and right now I’m not doing it. I drop balls, I fumble the ball …”

It’s not just that the Redskins are 1-3 — and looking up at the Eagles (4-0), Giants (3-1) and Cowboys (2-1) in the standings. It’s that the karma is all wrong. Gibbs’ first coaching term was marked by much good fortune, but his second one has been cursed so far. Last week his club was hurt by a couple of egregious officiating mistakes, and yesterday it was hindered by technological problems. Brunell’s helmet radio went on the blink in the second half, and communications with the coaches upstairs, Coach Joe said, were “in and out.”

“It did not cost us the game,” he added, “but it was a little disconcerting.”

The play of the Redskins, though, was even more disconcerting. Let’s face it, they’re just not a very good team at this point. A good team doesn’t commit two 15-yard penalties to help its opponent put up its first score. A good team doesn’t forget to cover the tight end in the red zone (as the Marcus Washington — another of the Big Money Men — did on Shea’s TD). A good team doesn’t give up a 44-yard punt return. The Redskins are losing games about every way you can lose them.

Most disconcerting of all, they don’t look anything like a Joe Gibbs club. On offense, they’re forever putting themselves in difficult third-down situations, something they studiously avoided in Gibbs’ first go-‘round. You know why they converted only one of 11 third downs against the Browns? Because only once did they need less than four yards. Third-and-9, third-and-25, third-and-8, third-and-12 — Brunell had to deal with stuff like that all afternoon.

The Gibbsskins of the ‘80s and early ‘90s kept the chains moving by running the ball for consistent — if unspectacular — yardage. They’d 3-yard, 5-yard, 4-yard you to death. Portis has been able to do that at the beginning of games, but then the holes have closed up. (And maybe, too, he isn’t built for the between-the-tackles banging.)

Whatever the case, his frustration is beginning to show. “I’m not a 2-yard, 3-yard runner,” he said. “That’s not what I do. I’m a home run hitter. But I haven’t hit a home run since the first game of the season.”

The first carry of the season, to be exact.

“Obviously, right now we’re being tested,” Gibbs said. “We’ve gotta hang together and try to work our way out of it.”

The Ravens are up next for the Redskins, though, and the yards don’t figure to come any easier against them. Coach Joe, it would appear, has his first crisis on his hands.

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