The Washington Redskins sure aren't resembling a team coached by Joe Gibbs.
The Redskins again were haunted by a lack of offensive execution, turnovers and penalties on Sunday as they lost, 17-13, to a struggling Cleveland Browns team and dropped to 1-3 with a quarter of the season in the history books.
It is an improbable start for a team with the highest payroll in National Football League history being led by a Hall of Fame coach whose return in January after an 11-year absence was heralded as just the shot in the arm a once-proud franchise needed to return to glory.
When Gibbs guided the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles between 1981 and 1992, his teams were known for their precision and smart play. While the Redskins' defense has exceeded expectations so far this season, the offense has been sluggish, with only workmanlike production from quarterback Mark Brunell and sub-par performances from running back Clinton Portis, who finished with 58 yards on 20 carries, his third straight game with less than 100 yards.
The Redskins incurred seven penalties, including five in the first quarter, plus two costly turnovers on lost fumbles by Portis -- his third of the season after losing only one all last year with the Denver Broncos -- and wide receiver Laveranues Coles.
"The biggest thing here is we all have to hang together and try and work our way out of it," said Gibbs, still wearing his sunglasses at his postgame news conference. "It's a tough situation for us, but hey, I think a bunch of us have been in tough situations before. Right now, it's penalties, mistakes and turnovers. We hurt ourselves."
The Redskins scored first and led 10-3 at halftime and 13-10 less than a minute into the fourth quarter before surrendering the lead to Cleveland for good with about seven minutes left.
The Redskins still had a chance to pull the game out with about two minutes left on second and 10 from their 27-yard line. Brunell whipped a pass that Coles went high to snag for a 12-yard reception. But Coles was hit hard by linebacker Kevin Bentley and the ball popped loose. Cleveland defensive back Earl Little pounced on the football, eliciting a roar from the crowd of 73,348.
"Guys like myself, the team depends on to make plays," Coles said. "Right now I'm not doing it. I've dropped balls. I've fumbled the ball. Now, I just need to evaluate myself and try to get better."
The Redskins locker room was funereal after the game as players changed into their clothes. Defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, wearing an ice pack on his right elbow, sat for several minutes staring at the ground. Tackle Chris Samuels wore a black shirt, black slacks and black leather shoes to capture the mood.
Virtually every player was stumped when asked to explain Washington's woes -- they cited the intense preparation the Redskins have gone through since Gibbs's first minicamp in March.
"Nobody believes we're a 1-3 team. If you go up and down our roster, you won't believe we're 1-3," Portis said. "But we have to find some way to get the job done. We're stinking it up. The offense has to contribute."
Portis, with Brunell, was the team's biggest offseason acquisition as the Redskins spent more than $70 million in signing bonuses to assemble a lineup in Gibbs's image. The total payroll is more than $110 million, breaking the record of $102 million spent by the Denver Broncos in 2001, according to the NFL Players Association.
Washington started off the season in good form, winning its opener, 16-10, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Washington lost, 20-14, to the New York Giants the following week, committing seven turnovers, and 21-18 last Monday night to the Dallas Cowboys in a game marred by poor clock management and several miscues.
The Browns seemed like the perfect opponent for a team trying to regain its self-assurance. Cleveland was without seven starters because of injuries, and the Browns' offense was one of the league's worst.
"We've got the coaches, we've got the players, it's just not there right now," Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. The Redskins converted only 1 of 11 third-down plays Sunday, but the offense's main problem once again was its running game. Portis was one of the league's top tailbacks with Denver, becoming only the third rusher in NFL history to amass at least 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons. But Portis has been mediocre since his first carry as a Redskin went for a 64-yard touchdown in the season opener. Time after time Sunday, Redskins players said, the Browns yelled out Washington's run schemes before stuffing Portis near the line of scrimmage. "We're changing plays every week," Portis said, "but for teams to know where we're going before we get there is tough. That's a disadvantage. Somehow they knew everything we were doing."
Around the Washington area Sunday afternoon, the mood among Redskins fans was somber as they contemplated how their team could have lost again and wondered whether things are all that different, after all, than they were under Steve Spurrier the previous two years, and Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner and Richie Petitbon before then.
Although some were reminded that the Redskins started 0-5 in Gibbs's rookie season as a coach in 1981, only to win the Super Bowl the following year, the disappointment after the team's first four games this year was palpable.
"There was just so much excitement that when he came back he was going to turn everything around," said Sanford Hoffman, 39, an insurance salesman from Germantown. "But he just can't get the team together."
"I'm not going to cheer for the Redskins anymore because they don't merit being cheered for," said Amy Smith, 23, an Annapolis resident who works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "They lose every game."
Patrick Delaney, the bartender at Park Bench Pub in Cleveland Park, said he rarely hears the team's name mentioned now without an expletive modifying it. "There is just such disappointment," he said.
Fans watching the game at Bedrock Billiards in Adams-Morgan said the initial expectations created by Gibbs's coming out of retirement made Sunday's loss all the more painful.
"This low would just be an average low if it were any other coach," said Erica Hoffmann, 35, an Adams-Morgan resident who works at a used book store and wore an oversized Redskins jersey for the Browns game. "But because it's Gibbs, it feels like plummeting down a cliff."
Hoffman took a swig of beer and deep drag on her cigarette, and added: "The bloom is off the rose."
Washington Post staff writer Amit R. Paley in Washington contributed to this report.