HERNDON, Va. -- The fallout of defeat has showered Joe Bugel's desert paradise in Arizona this season.
In the second year of an ambitious project to turn the Phoenix Cardinals into the Washington Redskins West, Bugel treads water with a 4-9 record.
It was bad enough that the Cardinals' head coach lost his starting quarterback before the season began. The situation grew worse with the five-game losing streak the Cardinals take into Sunday's home game against the Redskins.
But this week found Bugel defending the organization from an insinuation that Cardinals management restricts individual expression, and that the restriction has hurt the team.
The issue arose from comments by linebacker Eric Hill, the club's No. 1 draft pick in 1989 and its second-leading tackler this season.
In the wake of a 34-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13 when at least three Cardinals taunted the Eagles, Hill defended theuncharacteristic display of emotion. He told the Arizona Republic that Phoenix was the most "mellow" team he has played on.
"We've got guys walking around like zombies," Hill said. "And they act like they're scared to show any emotion, like they're looking over their damn shoulders, scared to get in trouble or show any signs of emotions, scared if they speak out."
Hill stopped short of blaming Bugel, but clearly was suggesting players were being restricted by management.
"You take a guy's personality away from him, he has nothing, because a lot of players thrive off that emotion," Hill said. "That's their fuel to the flame."
In a conference call yesterday, Bugel, a nine-year assistant with the Redskins, said his players were frustrated from losing, but were not being harnessed in their actions.
"There was nothing to that," he said of Hill's comments. "I think coming out of training camp, the way we started [4-0 in preseason, 2-0 in the regular season], we were a very optimistic team. We had very, very high expectations. Once we hit a slump, I think a lot of people became frustrated. Our football players are upset. They're disappointed. They have every right to be.
"Sometimes when you make a quote, it's coming out of context. There's really nothing to that because we don't sit on our players. . . . It was just a matter he made a few bad quotes and I know he's sorry about 'em."
The Cardinals started coming unhinged when quarterback Timm Rosenbach suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. He was replaced by inexperienced Tom Tupa, who started 11 games before losing the job to Maryland graduate Stan Gelbaugh two games ago. Gelbaugh will start Sunday, with recently acquired Chris Chandler, waived by Tampa Bay, waiting in the wings.
The offense never recovered from the loss of Rosenbach, who passed for 3,098 yards and rushed for 470 last year. The Cardinals have scored just 16 touchdowns in 13 games, and three of those were by the defense. The running game hasn't had a 100-yard rusher this season.
"If you look at the record, we're bad," Bugel said. "Four-and-nine, we're not proud of that. [But] we look at the entire team and the direction we're going. We look at how many young players [we have] and how they're playing. There's definitely some light in the tunnel. There's some parts that have to be fixed. That's what we intend to do."
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said the changes Bugel has made in Phoenix -- which include revamping the defense this year -- won't bear fruit until sometime "down the road."
"His defense is tougher," Gibbs said. "Because he changed the defense in his second year, it's like his first year. There's a lot more turmoil in the second year when you do that."