CLEVELAND - Joe Gibbs has coached only four games this season, but the giddiness surrounding his return suddenly seems like the oldest of news.
That excitement, once shared by Washington Redskins players and fans alike, has been replaced by stone-cold reality.
The latest cold splash of truth came yesterday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the Redskins fell to 1-3 after a 17-13 loss to a Browns team that had dropped two straight games to NFC East foes.
The loss was all the more sobering for Washington because the Browns (2-2), whose only wins are against the Redskins and Ravens, didn't play particularly well.
Cleveland made just four first downs in the first half, when the Redskins, who have lost three straight games, held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the time and built a 10-3 lead.
But Washington's Clinton Portis fumbled on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, and the Browns seemed to become energized.
Cleveland, whose longest drive of the first half was 41 yards, took over on the Washington 31. Jeff Garcia hit tight end Aaron Shea four plays later on a 15-yard scoring pass and the game was tied.
The Redskins could not make a first down in their next two series after Portis fumbled.
"I think I started the bleeding" with the fumble, Portis said. "We lost momentum."
Portis said he thought he was down when the ball came out, but the officials denied the Redskins' instant-replay challenge. It appeared on replays that Portis was lying on top of other players when the ball was jarred loose. It was the running back's third fumble this season.
"We're stinking the place up," Portis said. "We're giving the ball up when we've got a drive going."
Gibbs said the Redskins were hampered in the third quarter when he lost communication with quarterback Mark Brunell on his headset, and Redskins coaches resorted to hand signals to relay the plays.
"The phones started going in and out. We lost communication with our quarterback, which cost us," Gibbs said. He called the malfunction "disconcerting."
According to Gibbs, the officials didn't consider the Washington communications problem serious enough to warrant shutting down Cleveland's system to balance things out.
Said Brunell: "It cost us a timeout. It's tough, particularly when you get into an audible situation and you need time at the line of scrimmage."
With the Redskins ahead 13-10 in the fourth quarter, the Browns took over after a punt and drove 80 yards in nine plays, taking the lead with 6:51 left on a 3-yard run by Lee Suggs.
Suggs, making his season debut after sitting out with a pinched nerve in his neck, had 22 carries for 82 yards.
The key play was Garcia's 23-yard pass to Andre' Davis to the Washington 6.
"It was just another one of those games where we kept grinding it out," Garcia said. "We kept willing our way ... and finally had some success toward the end of the game."
Browns coach Butch Davis said his team's offense adapted well to Washington's persistent blitzing.
"We talked about it all week, that they were going to bring a lot of blitzes," Davis said. "They had 83 blitzes on first or second down in the first three games."
A 25-yard run by Suggs on his first carry in the first quarter caught the Redskins in a blitz and helped set up a Browns field goal, Davis said.
Gibbs, who returned to the league this year after an 11-year absence, said the Redskins are "being tested. The biggest thing is that we all need to hang together and try to work our way out of it."
Gibbs said the team was falling victim to "penalties, mistakes and turnovers."
The Redskins, who often used a no-huddle offense, controlled the game in the first half. They took a 10-3 lead in the second quarter on a 1-yard-run by Portis. The 78-yard drive was kept alive by a 30-yard, fourth-down pass from Brunell to Laveranues Coles to the Cleveland 7.
Coles finished with seven catches for 122 yards. But he fumbled with 2:08 left in the game when the Redskins needed to drive 73 yards for the winning score.
NOTE: Redskins kick returner Chad Morton was inactive after spraining a knee during last Monday night's loss to the Dallas Cowboys. James Thrash and Ladell Betts filled in. ... Washington's offensive line did not give up a sack after yielding nine in the previous two games.
Keys to the game
Clinton Portis' fumble: The running back's miscue to start the third quarter seemed to change the complexion of the game. Portis averaged just 2.9 yards on 20 carries.
Lee Suggs' return: Cleveland's offense seemed to perk up with the return of the second-year running back from Virginia Tech.
Grounded: The Redskins have just one rushing TD from inside the 10-yard line this year, and yesterday settled for a field goal with the score 10-10 in the fourth quarter after getting a first down on the Cleveland 12. - Jeff Barker
Next for Redskins
Matchup: Ravens (2-1) vs. Redskins (1-3)
Site: FedEx Field, Landover
When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 7, ESPN/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (1300 AM), WJFK (106.7 FM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Off the board