With each dropped pass the frustration grew. Laveranues Coles, the Washington Redskins' premier wide receiver, had no trouble getting open, but simply could not hold on to the football, and his tribulations symbolized the struggles of the entire offense.
Six straight times in the first quarter of the Redskins' 21-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, before a Redskins home-record crowd of 90,367 at FedEx Field last night, quarterback Mark Brunell looked to Coles to lift the offense out of its slumber, and six straight times those passes were incomplete. Their rut was indicative of an overall malaise, and even when the speedy wideout and former Pro Bowl quarterback hooked up, it was often followed by another setback for an offense that has scored just 48 points and five touchdowns through three games and no more than 18 points in any one game.
"He's probably the hardest-working person in the world," Coach Joe Gibbs said of Coles, who finished with five catches for 42 yards. "It just kills him to drop the ball. He's one of our studly guys we count on. My impression is normally when that happens with a guy who works that hard . . . he starts coming around and making the great catches."
The Redskins again failed to move the ball for long stretches, an epidemic in each game thus far under Gibbs. For each step forward, like Brunell finding Rod Gardner on two long completions and a late touchdown, there were dropped passes, errant throws and drive-ending sacks to overcome. Brunell was pummeled frequently, as the offensive line failed to hold off a powerful pass rush, and played the game with a strained left hamstring.
Coles and Brunell have yet to exhibit much chemistry this season, but with Washington trailing 7-0 deep in the second quarter and in desperate need of something positive out of the offense, the quarterback and receiver finally made something happen. The Redskins were backed up to their 8-yard line -- poor field position was commonplace after so many short and unproductive drives -- and about to embark on a 91-yard march that temporarily squelched the mounting boos.
The quarterback and receiver needed something to build on; even the smallest success would be meaningful after six failures to connect. So on the second play of the drive Brunell dumped a two-yard pass to Coles. Brunell seemed more settled and completed six of his next seven passes, twice finding rookie H-back Chris Cooley, fast emerging as his favorite target, and Washington reached the 21-yard line at the two-minute warning.
They faced second and three when Brunell executed a perfect play-action fake. As he rolled left his eyes were locked on Cooley, who had come off the line when the ball was snapped to run a pattern to that side of the field. But Cooley was covered and Coles emerged slightly more downfield. Brunell found him on the run and Coles rumbled to the 1-yard line, where he was knocked out of bounds, for his biggest contribution of the young season. Alas, the Redskins would settle for a field goal, making it 7-3.
Coles's first catch of the second half sustained a scoring drive as well. Washington faced third and four, just 20 yards from the end zone, when Coles was one-on-one against Dallas's top cornerback, Terence Newman, wide to the left side. Brunell rolled to the left, tempting the oncoming blitzers from that side, then hit Coles, who extended the ball just enough to pick up the first down. The Redskins went on to score their first touchdown, with Gardner catching a one-yard pass, and trimmed the deficit to 14-10.
They got no closer, however, and Coles faded in and out of the game, ebbing and flowing in the same way Brunell's efficiency waxed and waned. Brunell misfired on seven straight passes during the first half, looking to Coles three straight times on consecutive drives with not one pass completed. He threw well over Coles's head a few times and way out of bounds on others, while the normally sure-handed receiver failed to corral even routine passes. The last of their six misfires was the worst of the bunch. Coles found a seam over the middle, jumped to meet the pass and had it pop off his hands before he was nailed to the ground; he would watch the next possession from the sideline, with what may have been a minor hand injury, and then returned for the final drive of the half.
Coles's inconsistent season has mirrored that of the entire offense. He was barely a factor in Week 1, with Washington leaning on the running game in a 16-10 win over Tampa Bay. In Week 2 against the New York Giants, Coles caught nine passes for 100 yards, but did his best work when backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey was in the game and again dropped balls he should have caught.
Like all of the skill players, he entered this game still looking to regain his top form and find his way in Gibbs's system, a quest that will continue Sunday in Cleveland.
"We've still got a lot of work to do," Gibbs said. "I think everybody knows that. We sure do."