The Washington Redskins played the first quarter Sunday as if still anointed by Joe Gibbs's golden touch, rolling to a 7-0 lead over the New York Giants and primed for a 2-0 start under the Hall of Fame coach. Seven turnovers and 45 puzzling minutes of football later, Gibbs would leave Giants Stadium saddled with his first defeat since returning from an 11-year retirement and wondering if he had ever witnessed one of his teams handle a football so carelessly.
Washington's 20-14 loss, before 78,767 giddy spectators at the Meadowlands, was almost entirely its own doing, as turnovers led directly to 17 of New York's points and sloppiness seeped into every aspect of the Redskins' offensive game. Fundamentals -- the very fabric of Gibbs's coaching core -- were sorely lacking amid the four interceptions (one by starting quarterback Mark Brunell and three by backup Patrick Ramsey), five fumbles (three of them lost), continued botched snaps and crushing penalties and miscues that thwarted every Redskins attempt to take the lead.
"We made so many mistakes today," Gibbs said. "I think back and I don't know that I have seen that many. . . . That's about as many mistakes as somebody can make in a game."
Positive vibes flowed along Washington's sideline early on. Cornerback Shawn Springs sacked Giants quarterback Kurt Warner -- who won for the first time since the 2002 NFC championship game -- to force a quick punt, then the Redskins mounted a 10-play, 53-yard drive that took 51/2 minutes off the clock. Brunell fooled the Giants twice on nifty bootlegs, including his two-yard pass to rookie Chris Cooley for the H-back's first NFL touchdown.
"We snatched the momentum immediately," tackle Chris Samuels said. "But we just didn't hold on to it."
Brunell, who left the game early in the second half with a pulled left hamstring, said afterward he was unsure when he would return but did not rule out playing next Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.
The game started to get away from the Redskins on their first drive of the second quarter. Brunell, who ended the day 10 for 18 for 92 yards, was sacked and stripped of the ball by Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins and defensive end Michael Strahan was first to the fumble.
Warner connected with wide receiver Tim Carter for a 38-yard touchdown on the next play, as Carter raced past safety Matt Bowen into the end zone to tie the game. Five minutes later, running back Clinton Portis, who had 69 yards on 20 carries, dived over guard Randy Thomas and lost control of the ball for a rare fumble; New York linebacker Barrett Green rumbled 16 yards into the end zone with the recovery to give the Giants a 14-7 lead.
The Redskins' next drive ended when Brunell was flushed out of the pocket and lobbed an ill-advised pass into traffic that landed in Robbins's hands. "I just didn't get enough on it to get it by that D-tackle," Brunell said.
That turnover set up Steve Christie's 38-yard field goal. Warner, a two-time league most valuable player, had one more scoring march in him as he marshaled the Giants 72 yards late in the first half and Christie hit another field goal to conclude New York's scoring.
Overall, Washington's defense provided another stout effort, holding the Giants to 62 yards rushing and keeping the Redskins in the game despite all the turnovers, but could not overcome the offense's blunders.
"We are really putting our defense in a bad position," Gibbs said. "They kept on fighting hard today, but when you make that many mistakes you are not going to win games."
The Redskins, who are 9-20 against the NFC East since 2000, spent the rest of the game teasing their coaches. Each time they seemed poised to pull the game out, they succumbed to errors and frustration. Place kicker John Hall, battling a hamstring injury, hit the right upright from 41 yards to end the first half. Brunell exited the game on the opening drive of the second half, straining his hamstring while throwing a pass. After stumbling on a routine handoff to Portis on the next play, Brunell was replaced by Ramsey. Three plays later, cornerback Will Peterson stripped Portis of the ball and the Giants recovered the fumble.
Washington's offense was largely stagnant for the second straight week. After the opening drive, Brunell led the team to just three more first downs before getting hurt. He has completed only one pass of more than 20 yards in two games. Washington mustered just 101 total yards in the first half.
"It's only been two weeks and we've got a lot of football to be played," Brunell said. "Today was a step backward. You're not going to win games when you turn it over and the passing game needs some work. . . . We've got to be better if we expect to win some games."
Ramsey provided a brief lift by connecting on the first long-range passing play of the season -- a 51-yard bomb to Rod Gardner late in the third quarter -- but his three interceptions negated any chance of a Redskins comeback.
Gardner's full-extension catch took him to the Giants 7-yard line, but a false start penalty stalled the offense, then Ramsey forced a pass to Laveranues Coles, who had nine receptions for 100 yards in the game, in the back of the end zone that safety Brent Alexander ripped out of the air for a touchback. That was to be the more difficult of Alexander's two interceptions.
"Every time we got the ball it was like, 'Okay, here's the drive,' " Cooley said. "'We're going to go ahead and take the lead on this drive.' It's so tough to start a game off like that and then not be able to finish it off."
Ramsey rallied by firing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Portis on Washington's next possession to cut the margin to 20-14, but it was a brief reprieve. Cooley forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff that teammate Todd Franz recovered, then Ramsey pumped a pass beyond Coles and into the hands of safety Gibril Wilson. Ramsey followed that with his worst pass of the afternoon, rolling out into heavy coverage and hitting Alexander again.
"That was really stupid," Ramsey said of that pass.
"It was just like catching a punt," Alexander said.
Ramsey finished the game 9 of 18 for 142 yards. "Our team expects me to perform better," said Ramsey, who was sacked three times, "and I expect myself to perform better."
Washington never got close to scoring position again. The Giants, who had not forced seven turnovers since facing Gibbs's Redskins in 1986 and had lost nine straight games, entered the contest bristling over some recent fines and reprimands from their new coach, Tom Coughlin. But their defense thrived despite a dearth of proven linebackers and Warner's sizzling first half provided enough offense to earn the victory.
The Redskins, meantime, must prepare for another divisional foe next week, with the luster of Gibbs's triumphant first game no longer shining quite so bright and seven turnovers weighing heavily on the coaching legend's mind.