An Oct. 4 Sports column incorrectly said that Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs has lost three consecutive games only twice in his career, in 1981 and this year. Gibbs also lost three straight games in 1988. (Published 10/6/04)
This was supposed to be the rinky-dink, get-some-early-momentum portion of the program for the Washington Redskins. Tampa Bay was back to being dreadful. The Giants were in revolt against their new coach. The Cowboys had been manhandled by the Vikings. And the Browns? Their wunderkind draft pick was out for the year. The quarterback was complaining about the structure of the offense. The Redskins weren't supposed to go 1-3 in the first quarter of the season, not against those teams; there's not a serious contender in the bunch.
But the Redskins are a pretty bad football team right now, just like they were last year, the year before that and most of the last dozen years. The return of Joe Gibbs hasn't fundamentally changed anything yet.
At the moment, the Redskins can't run the ball, as evidenced by their 2.9 yards per carry here Sunday. They can't throw it, as evidenced by fewer than 200 passing yards in 32 attempts by Mark Brunell. They can't hold on to the ball, as evidenced by two crushing fumbles, one by Clinton Portis, who rarely fumbled as a Denver Bronco, and one by Laveranues Coles, who dropped two passes last week. They're not particularly organized, as evidenced by more offensive formation penalties and ill-advised timeouts. And they don't do anything particularly impressive on special teams, as evidenced by yet another week without a big kickoff return or big punt return.
Mostly, they can't move the football and don't even dream of scoring the way we're used to a Joe Gibbs team scoring. Through four games, the Redskins have scored 16, 14, 18 and 13 points. So they haven't hit 20 yet, in four games. After one long pass, 45 yards to be exact, from Brunell to Coles, the Redskins' next longest play from scrimmage was 13 yards, a pass to tight end Walter Rasby. The longest run for Portis, a home-run hitter while wearing a Broncos uniform, was 10 yards.
The defense, again, was better than average, even without the injured LaVar Arrington. The Redskins held the Browns to fewer than 100 rushing yards (and an average of 3.0 yards per carry) and fewer than 200 yards passing. But when your offense is this feeble, this loose with the football, this prone to lose the battle of field position, the defense has to pitch a shutout. The Redskins have a really nice defense, but not a dominant one that can carry a team like, say, Baltimore's surly defense, which comes to FedEx Field on Sunday night.
There's no need for looking ahead through the schedule (which gets more difficult) or ruminating on playoff possibilities. The Redskins are at the point, having beaten only winless Tampa Bay, where they need to pull themselves together and simply win a game. You know how many times Gibbs has lost three straight games in his career? Twice. In his rookie season as a head coach in 1981. And now. That's it.
Those of us who thought Gibbs could simply pick up where he left off were apparently mistaken. It's going to be harder than that, much harder. Gibbs didn't inherit a culture of losing when he took over in 1981; Jack Pardee's team had been in contention before Gibbs arrived. But now Gibbs has undertaken a task that is not unlike Marvin Lewis's, trying to reverse years of incompetence in Cincinnati.
"It is ourselves," Gibbs said after the game. "We spend a lot of time in practice [working on] all the things that a referee can help us with in practice. Right now, we are making a lot of mistakes and it is costing us."
It's going to be just as difficult climbing out of this hole as it was climbing out of that 0-5 hole in 1981; there's no in-his-prime Joe Theismann on this team, no young Art Monk that we know of, no Hall of Fame-bound John Riggins. There's no Joe Gibbs magic dust, no speech that shortens the road out of this.
The Browns know all about early season desperation themselves, because they were in it coming into this game. Kellen Winslow Jr., the team's top draft pick from Miami, is out for the season with a broken leg. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was unhappy with the way offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie had been calling plays. A loss to the Redskins at home would have put Coach Butch Davis on the hot seat, considering he's the one who has shaped the roster and the philosophy of how the Browns are doing things. "We worked our butts off all week to get out of that [funk]," Browns linebacker Kevin Bentley said. "We spent the whole week obsessed with technique, fundamentals, extra film study, extra work in the weight room. And we have to presume we need to do that from here on out. The players took the onus upon ourselves. The coaches can stay on you and cheer you on, but the players have to do it, to lead it."
So it is with these Redskins, whose leaders have yet to emerge. Ideally, the best players had better be involved. "When guys like myself who the team depends on to make plays and we do not come through, I think it's a big problem," Coles said quite accurately. "We have a lot of guys we are depending on and when we do not make plays, that is costing us the game."
Portis, likewise, seemed in a state of disbelief. "If you go up and down our roster, you still will not believe we are 1-3," he said. "The offense needs to contribute. We are leaving the defense on the field too long. We need to put up points."
And that starts with catching the ball and holding on to it. It starts with players such as Coles and Portis, who should be the engines in the offense.
In the Browns' locker room, breathing a sigh of relief, Garcia tried to explain the difficulty of winning a game in the NFL. "Nothing," he said, "comes easy and everything is a challenge." He was talking about the Browns' own difficult week, his own difficult week. But he might as well have been describing what the Redskins face now, not just next week against Ray Lewis and the Ravens, but what they're going to face from here on out, which is to say a king-sized challenge that, as of now, nobody knows if they're up to.