ASHBURN, Va. (AP) – Joe Gibbs isn’t shy about taking the blame when the Washington Redskins struggle. “It starts and ends with me” has been his standard reply following each of this season’s nine losses.

Maybe it’s time to start taking the Hall of Fame coach at his word.

Many of the reasons the Redskins have faltered this season – untimely penalties, poor clock management, embarrassing drives, overconfidence entering training camp, head-scratching trades, questionable free agent signings and a bloated coaching bureaucracy – tie directly to Gibbs’ dual role as head coach and team president.

A key play in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia came when a player was penalized because he didn’t know a substitution rule. Gibbs faulted himself for not making sure the rule was properly explained.

Simply put, the Redskins have too much talent to be 4-9, and even the players themselves are citing intangibles as the scourge.

“It all comes down to discipline,” fullback Mike Sellers said.

“It’s concentration and readiness,” center Casey Rabach said. “We’ve just got to play smarter,” left tackle Chris Samuels said.

“It’s mental,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “We’ve gone out and beat ourselves. That’s the most frustrating thing.”

They added that the players themselves were to blame, hardly surprising given that all four are fans of Gibbs. But the head coach sets the tone for matters such as discipline, smarts and readiness, and Gibbs and his staff know it well.

“The players hit it right on the head. I can’t deny anything,” longtime assistant Joe Bugel said. “Nobody’s excused on that. You get what you demand. You have to demand it, and nobody demands it more than Joe Gibbs. It’s got to sink in.”

It doesn’t always. Gibbs is 21-26 since returning from retirement in 2004. He needed time to catch up after 11 years away, but seemed to regain his old form when he willed the Redskins into five straight wins at the end of last season to end the franchise’s playoff drought.

Now a burning issue is whether those five weeks were a mirage. Gibbs knows the questions are out there, and the 66-year-old coach on Wednesday had no problem stating a list of criticisms he’s sure will appear in any story written about him.

“This general manager stuff,” Gibbs said. “The way we’re organized. I’m one year older, so I’m really over the hill. I’m out of touch with everything. I shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Gibbs has said repeatedly he’s coming back next year as he pursues his goal of making the Redskins championship contenders, as they were when he coached them in the 1980s and early ’90s. He also says he’s “not afraid to change anything.” But what will he change? Every time Gibbs appears to open the door for a major move – such as hiring a general manager – he starts to shut it with comments like “I like our process” and “We’ve got good people.”

Gibbs made a significant move last year when he hired Al Saunders to run the offense and call the plays. Gibbs stepped in three weeks ago and ordered a recommitment to the running game, but Saunders’ duties didn’t change. The dynamic is intriguing because Gibbs is extremely loyal and won’t fire anyone he likes, so his old guard of offensive assistants – Bugel, Don Breaux, Jack Burns and Rennie Simmons – plus Saunders make for lots of chefs in the kitchen.

“Let me put it this way: I think everything is going to be tweaked,” said Bugel. “I don’t think Joe Gibbs is going to overlook anything. He’s the boss.”

Still, Gibbs has said he expects assistants Saunders and Gregg Williams (defense) to return.

Then there’s Gibbs as team president, a role he didn’t have when he was winning three Super Bowls two decades ago. He loves free agency, spends owner Dan Snyder’s money with ease and trades draft picks like candy, a high risk-reward strategy that has met with mixed results.

The 2004 crop was good, but ’05 and ’06 brought too many examples of wasted money and squandered draft picks. David Patten, Adam Archuleta, Brandon Lloyd and T.J. Duckett top the list, with Carlos Rogers, Warrick Holdman and Kenny Wright not far behind.

Still, Gibbs isn’t likely to give up his authority over player personnel, so a GM hire appears remote.

“Obviously there are lot of things we can learn from this year when we get to the offseason,” Gibbs said. “I’ve got a lot of things in my mind. When you get in a situation like this, you’ve got to be a good student and learn from it, but I like our process.”

Gibbs said there will be “no experiments” over the final three games, and he won’t sit hobbling starters to save them from further injury. He is prideful and not used to losing, and it shows.

“Losing is not a tonic for him,” Bugel said. “He’s here 24 hours a day. I see what he’s going through, but there’s no stopping him. He’s not a pouter; he’s not a complainer. His whole theory is this: ‘Let’s work a little bit harder, Buges. We’ve been working 18 hours. How about working 20 hours?’ That’s why I love the man, and that’s why I know it’s going to be fixed.”

AP-ES-12-13-06 1919EST

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