When Joe Gibbs announced his return to the NFL in January after an 11-year absence, he was often portrayed as a savior returning to a team he had once made great and would make great again.

Three games into what has been called "the second coming," Gibbs's Redskins are 1-2 and criticism has been mounting. There have been costly turnovers, questionable coaching decisions and mistakes. Gibbs, who admits to reading newspapers regularly, says he is taking the media criticism in stride.

"The first two or three years I coached I got uptight about a lot of stuff, because it hurts your pride," Gibbs said. "It hurts your feelings because it's what you do. So all of a sudden it clicked one night when I kind of went off about something. I forgot what it was. And I said, 'You know. I'm getting a lot of heartache over something that I shouldn't be getting heartache over.'

"The bottom line is -- and I can go back over instance after instance -- if you win, in the end what's gonna happen is going to be positive stuff. And if you lose, it's going to be negative stuff and you can't do anything about it.

"Sometimes one week, you're doing all great stuff. The next week you're chopped meat. You have to laugh."

Gibbs said that one thing he won't laugh about is when he believes his players are unfairly criticized. During his media briefing Tuesday, Gibbs praised quarterback Mark Brunell, whom the coach felt received too much blame for Monday's loss.

"That bothers me," Gibbs said. "I understand that it happens: The press might see that he's throwing [away] two or three balls. 'Why's he doing that?' They don't always understand the reasons.

"If you want proof in the pudding you look at his quarterback rating against Dallas [97.5]. And you go and check the quarterback ratings for last year against that team."

Brunell said yesterday that as a veteran quarterback, he understands that a signal-caller will get too much credit when a team wins and too much blame for losses. But Brunell said he was pleased to hear that Gibbs publicly came to his defense. "I'm appreciative. That goes a long way for me or any player to read that the head coach stands up for them," Brunell said. "I think that the best coaches are the one that realize that we're truly all in it together."

Bowen Upgraded

Strong safety Matt Bowen (groin pull) was upgraded from questionable to probable for Sunday's game at Cleveland. Bowen practiced yesterday after missing Wednesday's workout. . . .

Linebacker Antonio Pierce (foot) also returned to practice after missing Wednesday. Pierce has been removed from the injury list -- he had been considered probable. . . .

Wide receivers coach Stan Hixon addressed the Washington media for the first time after returning this week from spending almost three weeks with son, Drew, who has been in a coma at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. Drew Hixon, a Tennessee Tech receiver, was injured in a helmet-to-helmet collision in a game Sept. 11.

"Drew is showing a lot of encouraging progress," Hixon said. "He's out of the critical situation, so it's a matter of time, rehab and physical therapy. Hopefully, next week we'll try to move him up here to a rehab center at the University of Virginia."