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Published: Tuesday, 10/5/2004

Turnaround will take more than Gibbs

The old saying was that if mortal man ever walked on water, it would occur either on the Detroit River or the Potomac.

On one, there was enough solid waste to support a man's weight.

The other? Well, it would be Joe Gibbs doing the walking.

That was back in the day that Gibbs, not whoever was sitting in the Oval Office, ruled the nation's capital and the Washington Redskins had a death grip on the Lombardi Trophy.

Gibbs coached the Redskins to 140 wins, including playoff victories, over 12 seasons from 1981-92. In the 11 seasons after he left the team, the Skins went through four head coaches, won just 75 times and, it goes without saying, did not add to any of the three Super Bowl trophies won during the Gibbs era.

So when boy owner Dan Snyder eradicated himself and his franchise from its most recent mess - that would be the legend in his own mind, Steve Spurrier - after last season, he figured there could be no brighter future than one created by turning back time.

Gibbs returned to much fanfare, the Redskins signed free-agent quarterback Mark Brunell and traded for speedy running back Clinton Portis, and some penciled Washington right into the playoffs.

It hasn't quite worked that way in the early going of Gibbs' reincarnation.

He may have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he also has a pro football team that has gone bust so far in 2004.

Sunday's 17-13 loss at Cleveland, marking the fourth time in as many games that the Skins have failed to score at least 20 points, dropped Washington to 1-3 against a block of teams that figured to be the load-up part of the schedule.

"Obviously, we are being tested," Gibbs said after the game.

No one more than himself.

You see, when Gibbs took over the Redskins in 1981 they weren't far removed from the George Allen glory days. His quarterback was named Joe Theisman, who handed the ball off to John Riggins and passed it to Art Monk.

Taking over the '04 Skins is more like becoming coach of the Chargers or Cardinals, where a decade of mediocrity bordering on ineptitude is as much the standard as is third-and-long.

These Redskins don't run the ball particularly well and certainly don't hold onto it adequately.

Refuse workers handle Hefty bags more competently than receiver Laveranues Coles cradles the football. Portis fumbled the ball deep in his own territory early in the second half against the Browns and the whole offense seemed to come unglued.

Gibbs is taking some heat, too.

The Portis fumble was obvious even to fans in Section 527, Row NN. But Gibbs, who was standing 15 yards away, issued a replay challenge and lost a timeout when the call was upheld. Later, when the game was on the line, Washington used its final timeout while on defense with 2:21 to play, 21 seconds before the automatic clock stoppage for the two-minute warning.

After the Redskins regained possession, Coles appeared to be down by contact when his catch was ruled a fumble on the play before the two-minute warning. The Redskins couldn't challenge the call because they had no timeouts.

It was the second straight week that officiating challenges and clock management were key issues in a Washington loss.

It is unlikely the game has passed Gibbs by, although the average age of his coaching staff is about 97. Gibbs will get the game administration details straightened out. Whether he can get a pretty average ballclub straightened out is another question.

This is just the second time in his career that Gibbs has suffered a losing streak of three games or longer.

The other came when his very first Redskins team started 0-5. A year later, Washington won the Super Bowl.

"That was a horrible time to go through," Gibbs said of the '81 start. "And this is a horrible time."

With his offensively challenged team heading toward a Sunday night showdown with Baltimore's vaunted defense, Gibbs isn't even thinking about Super Bowls as much as simple survival.

And in a league that hasn't witnessed a miracle since Franco Harris' so-called Immaculate Reception, Skins' fans are starting to realize that Gibbs will sprinkle no fairy dust and produce no overnight sensation.



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