-- Joe Gibbs frantically scrambled around the sideline searching for NFL officials early in the second half Sunday, a malfunctioning headset in his hands and a look of exasperation on his face. As Gibbs checked the helmet of Mark Brunell, hoping desperately that radio communication between the coaches and the quarterback could be reestablished, his offense was failing again and another game was slipping away from the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins' offense turned in its fourth straight tepid performance and their blitzing defense buckled for the first time this season, culminating in a 17-13 win by the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium that dropped Washington to 1-3.
Gibbs, who had suffered three straight defeats only once before in his previous 11 years of coaching, was irked by technological breakdowns that occasionally prevented him from speaking via headset to Brunell and the coaches stationed in the press box. But he said his team's continued propensity for turnovers and penalties is of a more profound concern, as Washington has yet to score 20 points in a game, lacks a threatening passing game and on Sunday rushed for a total of 73 yards on 25 carries. The offense had a net total of 265 yards.
"Obviously, the Redskins right now, we're being tested," Gibbs said. "The biggest thing here is we all have to hang together and try and work our way out of it."
The offense was already sputtering when Gibbs lost his ability to communicate through his headset. He was warned before the game that this is something of a problem at Cleveland Browns Stadium -- it has occurred only with visiting teams, Gibbs said -- and sure enough the signal began fading in and out. So Gibbs resorted to hand signals from the sideline for a spell and had to burn a timeout early in the second half when the headset failed. A failed replay challenge left the Redskins without a timeout to use on the final drive for the second straight week.
"It doesn't result in you losing the game," Gibbs said of the headset problem. "But it was disconcerting, I'll say that."
The Browns, meantime, were just hitting their stride. They trailed 10-3 at the half, but were handed momentum when running back Clinton Portis, who has gone three weeks without a 100-yard rushing day for the first time in his career, fumbled on the opening play of the third quarter. Portis was wrapped up by defensive lineman Michael Myers and spun around, rolling to his back and landing on top of his tackler, when the ball popped loose and Cleveland recovered. Portis believed he was already down, but never made contact with the ground, a verdict upheld by video judges when Gibbs challenged the call.
"I thought I was trying to get up off the pile, and they didn't see it that way," Portis said. "I've just got to hold onto the ball."
"You're making your best guess on those things," Gibbs said of his failed challenge. "That's not an exact science." An unsuccessful fourth-quarter challenge by Gibbs of a Dallas Cowboys touchdown a week ago left the Redskins without timeouts at the end of that game as well.
After the Portis fumble, Cleveland took over at the Redskins 31. Three plays later, the Browns faced a third and six at the 15 when quarterback Jeff Garcia, whose ability to throw on the run proved problematic for the Redskins, averted a blitz and made a vital play. Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, was up against a mobile passer for the first time this season and was without Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, but continued to gamble by blitzing. On this play, he sent linebacker Marcus Washington from the left side. He and lineman Renaldo Wynn almost caught Garcia, but tight end Aaron Shea, Washington's responsibility, stood unguarded to catch Garcia's lob and rumble into the end zone. "I can't let that happen," Washington said.
Williams declined to comment after the game.
Browns Coach Butch Davis exploited the Redskins' aggressive schemes in several key sequences after stressing the importance of capitalizing on Redskins blitzes with his players all last week. "If you can get through the line, through the first wave of blitzers," Davis said, "you have a chance to hit a home run."
The Browns used a similar tactic on their game-winning, 80-yard drive when they were trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter. Running back Lee Suggs, who gained 82 yards in his season debut Sunday, softened Washington's defense with runs of 14 and 13 yards on the nine-play drive, and wide receiver Quincy Morgan kept it alive on third and eight, gaining position on nickel back Walt Harris to make a 14-yard reception.
Garcia avoided another blitz at the 29-yard line, which allowed wide receiver Andre Davis to roam uncovered. Davis waited for the wafting pass to finally come down and safety Sean Taylor made a touchdown-preventing tackle. But a roughing-the-passer penalty on linebacker Antonio Pierce put the ball on the 3, and Suggs plunged over the goal line on his first attempt with 6 minutes 55 seconds remaining in the game.
"We beat their butt for three quarters," Taylor said, "but all it takes is a matter of seconds when the game is so close."
The Redskins gave no indication that they were capable of a comeback. They started strong, as they have for each of their games this season, but again failed to sustain their offense. Washington marched 65 yards in the first quarter and opened the scoring on John Hall's 31-yard field goal, but James Thrash's 15-yard face mask penalty on the ensuing kickoff put the Browns in excellent field position at their 46 and they tied the game at 3 on the ensuing 13-play drive. The Redskins incurred five penalties for 50 yards in the first half, and ended the game with seven penalties for the second straight week.
Washington went ahead again in the second quarter, this time eating 6:33 on the drive. Brunell hit Laveranues Coles for 30 yards on fourth and six from the 37 and Portis took care of the rest, scoring his first touchdown since his first carry as a Redskin on opening day.
Brunell was 10 for 15 for 101 yards at the time and Portis had 13 rushes for 44 yards and a touchdown; Brunell would complete only seven of his final 17 passes for 91 yards, and Portis gained just 18 yards on his final seven carries of the game as the offense sputtered.
"We're going to work through this," Brunell said.
The lost radio contact between his helmet and Gibbs's headphones did the veteran quarterback no favors, but he and the offense simply could not make a play when it counted most, gaining 111 net yards in the second half.
The Browns provided Washington one last opportunity late in the game by failing to gain a first down on a fake field goal play, and the Redskins took over at their 27 with 2:15 to play. They had no timeouts, however, and Coles fumbled on the second play of the possession, the last time Washington's offense would touch the ball as the Browns ran out the clock.
"We have a lot of guys we are depending on," said Coles, who caught seven passes for 122 yards, "and when we do not make plays that is costing us the game."