- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

"I know people are wondering about how I am going to make the adjustment from college to the pros, but our offense will finish ranked in the top five in the league. You can count on that."

Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, last spring.

Unless they gain about a mile's worth of yardage in the next two games, the Redskins, who rank 24th in total offense, are not going to finish in the top five in the league. You can count on that.

You also can count on the Redskins having a losing record in Spurrier's first season as coach, this after three straight non-losing seasons under Norv Turner, interim coach Terry Robiskie and Marty Schottenheimer, all of whom were fired.

And you can count on one more thing: People no longer are wondering how Spurrier will make the adjustment from college to the pros. By all accounts he has adjusted little, if at all. As a result, even for a billionaire like Redskins owner Dan Snyder, the price of victory has been steep and exorbitant.

Let's do the math. Snyder is paying Spurrier $25 million for five years. At $5 million a year, that comes down to $1 million for each win for the 5-9 Redskins. For a businessman presumably as sharp as Snyder, that can't be much of a bargain. As Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said the other day, "We're regressing."

Progress, not regress, was the plan when Snyder introduced Spurrier last January. It was balmy outside and even warmer inside a Redskins Park meeting room bathed in camera lights and the glow of high hopes, high expectations and great anticipation.

Spurrier, the "Ball Coach" from Johnson City, Tenn., twanged his way through a 40-minute news conference, uncharacteristically humble. The only time Spurrier ventured on a limb was when he promised Snyder a game ball after beating the Dallas Cowboys (But he didn't say in which game. He still has a chance to make good). "I don't want to talk too big right now," Spurrier said. That proved wise.

Knowing it would please the fans, Spurrier invoked as a role model the name of former coach Joe Gibbs, who led the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three. "Our styles, hopefully, are somewhat similar," Spurrier said. "I'm gonna try to coach the offense, call the plays, the way he did."

Feel free to insert you own joke here.

Amid the glow and the warmth, it would have been inconceivable to think that deep into the 2002 season, people would be publicly debating the question of whether Steve Spurrier has been a bust.

Addressing whether it is "fact or fiction" that "the Steve Spurrier experiment has been a failure in D.C.," former Redskins lineman Mark Schlereth (a Hog!) said on ESPN last week, "That's an absolute fact. It has been a debacle. The experiment has been wrong. He's got to change everything about his offense. He's got to redo the whole thing."

Not since Spurrier played quarterback for the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers has his name been linked with the word "failure." He won at Duke, where football was relegated to a footnote. His Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL won with a broken-down quarterback. He won big, really big, national championship-big at Florida after taking over a program on probation. Spurrier and success were synonymous. And he did it all with a bold, brash, wide-open offensive style.

Not here. Not now.

An offense that offends

Given the holes at quarterback, receiver and in the offensive line, it was optimistic to expect the Redskins to make the playoffs this season. Pragmatists scanned the roster and believed the task to be daunting, even for Spurrier. He didn't get much help from what passes for a front office: The team has no general manager. Player personnel director Vinny Cerrato and Joe Mendes, the vice president of football operations, were feuding. Snyder, whose football knowledge has yet to achieve the "advanced rotisserie" level, was involved in draft and personnel decisions.

But Spurrier exacerbated matters with his dispassionate lack of NFL knowledge and insight, as evidenced by how he mocked other coaches who dared put in long hours of preparation or questioned the need for an isolated training camp. He happily, almost brazenly, stayed out of the loop, acting as if ignorance was a virtue. "I don't pretend to know much about [the NFL]," he said after he was hired, and he has since given little reason to believe anything has changed.

Spurrier has yet to figure out which plays he can challenge. He went for it and failed on fourth-and-10 early in the game. He deactivated his best kickoff returner. Just last week he talked about moving Champ Bailey, perhaps the best cornerback in the world, to wide receiver. And not as a two-way player; offense only. When asked why, Spurrier said Bailey only has a couple of interceptions and "has not been put in position to make a difference in the game that much."

Bailey usually takes the opponents' top receiver out of the game.

Still, given his track record and reputation, sprinkled liberally with the insistence of veteran Spurrier-watchers that his presumed genius would somehow triumph, it would have been just as farfetched to envision the Redskins as an inept, listless, mistake-plagued team that stands around watching a live ball being run back for a touchdown, which happened Sunday in Philadelphia.

Yet Steve Spurrier's Redskins are exactly that.

With two games remaining, Steve Spurrier's Redskins are positioned to finish with the franchise's worst record since 1993. But even if they beat the expansion Houston Texans and/or the wounded-but-dangerous Cowboys in the final two games, the word "failure" as it relates to Steve Spurrier will remain a subject of debate.

Former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury, who took the "fiction" side of the argument as opposed to Schlereth, said Spurrier simply needs more time.

"Talk to me eight games into next season and then ask, 'Has he adjusted, is he too stubborn, will it ever work?'" Salisbury said.

But Spurrier, brandishing his ultra-sophisticated, cutting-edge "Fun 'n' Gun" offense, the likes of which the NFL had never seen, was not only supposed to win now, he would win now, dadgummit. And it wasn't just Spurrier predicting a top-five finish in offense by calling "the same pass patterns that we did at Duke in '80."

Astute, well-informed people believed in him, too. The testimonials were endless. Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, as respected a football man as there is, called Spurrier the best coach in the game. Legendary Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen compared Spurrier's arrival to that of Vince Lombardi in 1969.

Before the season, Fox commentator and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said, "I believe that whatever doesn't work at this level, he'll figure it out and make the necessary adjustments." Aikman's Fox colleague, Cris Collinsworth, who played at Florida when Spurrier was the Gators' quarterbacks coach, said, "I think his methods will really translate well to the professional level."

Even the veteran players were excited, or at least acted as if they were. "If it's Steve Spurrier, you're talking about an individual who's going to come in here with some real energy, an offensive mindset," said cornerback Darrell Green, who believed his 20th and final season would turn out better. "Offense is what puts people in the seats and excites the team. That's something we need desperately."

Not only hasn't it happened, the Redskins' struggles have defied even the worst worst-case scenarios.

There were some skeptics, of course. Most shared the sentiment of Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who said, "Steve is like the rest of us in one regard. If he has enough good football players, he'll win. It all starts there."

Anyone will do

Clearly the Redskins don't have enough good football players. Either Spurrier didn't know this or didn't care, and rather than lobby for more good football players, such as a veteran quarterback (Drew Bledsoe?), he chose to go with two journeymen with questionable NFL credentials.

"Cheap and available" is how Spurrier described Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. But both were stars for Spurrier at Florida (Wuerffel even won the Heisman Trophy), both had flourished in his "system." And so they would again, even though the receivers, as a group, were just as ordinary. With Spurrier, it's the "system," stupid. "Mr. Snyder didn't hire me to copy NFL coaches," he once said. "He hired me to coach the way I've done in the past."

Translation: Spurrier would continue to "pitch the ball around," regardless of who was doing the pitching and the catching.

There was a third quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, drafted at the end of the first round last spring not on Spurrier's advice but at Snyder's urging. But Spurrier, secure with Matthews and Wuerffel and frustrated by Ramsey's training camp holdout, was not impressed with the rookie and even approved a trade of Ramsey to the Chicago Bears. The Bears nixed the deal.

If there is one positive element, maybe the only positive element, of this season, it is the promise shown by Ramsey, who is smart, poised and has a big-league arm. Yet Spurrier, who supposedly knows quarterbacks better than anyone, was set to trade Ramsey for a draft pick and a backup guard. If you think things are bad now, imagine the Redskins without Ramsey.

When it comes to offense, Spurrier has been portrayed as a riverboat gambler for his boldness, his nerve, his guts. Now we know why. Since the end of training camp, Spurrier has played roulette with his quarterbacks, spinning the wheel six times, coming up Matthews, Wuerffel, Ramsey, Matthews, Wuerffel, Ramsey.

"Who's the team supposed to have confidence in?" Salisbury said.

All year Spurrier has groped for the right combination, likewise shuffling his receivers and offensive linemen. But does he even know an NFL player when he sees one? Earlier in the year Spurrier elevated wide receiver Kevin Lockett to the starting lineup, praising his route-running ability. Within a month Lockett was released, replaced by Willie Jackson, who played for Spurrier at Florida.

Jackson was cut last week.

But through all the changes, Spurrier's play-calling genius was supposed to make up for all the uncertainty.


Success becomes a mirage?

It now seems clear that the Redskins' overwhelming success during the preseason, which included running up the score against San Francisco in the opener in Osaka, Japan, reinforced to Spurrier the sanctity of his "system." Conveniently overlooked was that the Redskins exploited the opponent's scrubs. And when the offense sputtered against Pittsburgh and New England's first-teamers, it did not seem to register.

Matthews carved up the Arizona Cardinals' defense in the regular-season opener, earning player of the week honors. Never mind that the Cardinals defense was terrible. Spurrier kept pitchin' it around, even after the offense was exposed and dominated by Philadelphia, even after it became clear that opposing defensive coordinators, with players the size and speed of whom Spurrier was unaccustomed, knew how to defend his "system."

Finally, reluctantly, Spurrier turned to running back Stephen Davis, the first Redskins player ever to rush for at least 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. And it worked. Even when Davis got hurt and Kenny Watson stepped in, it worked. But after beating Indianapolis and Seattle, Spurrier inexplicably went back to the pass. Playing a Jacksonville team with a porous run defense that was reeling from a loss to the expansion Texans, the Redskins threw 51 times and lost 27-7.

"I guess I was dumb enough to think we could throw it up and down the field," Spurrier said.

Some suspected Spurrier changed his play-calling because he was back in Florida in front of thousands of Gators fans, in Jacksonville, the site of several Gators triumphs over rival Georgia. "That's Spurrier," Jaguars cornerback Fernando Bryant said after the game. "But I was a little [surprised] because of the way they had won the last two weeks."

Spurrier had another reason the weather.

"A perfect night," Spurrier said. "We've had such beautiful weather to throw the ball, it's been unbelievable."

In bad weather against the New York Giants, the Redskins tried to establish the run but ended up throwing in a 19-17 loss. It was back to the ground against St. Louis, and guess what? The Redskins controlled the clock and won 20-17. But Dallas stopped the running game on Thanksgiving, beating the Redskins 27-20, and afterward Spurrier again was his own worst critic.

"We ran the ball three times and got a field goal blocked, and we never threw the ball into the end zone," he said afterward. "I'm not very proud of those calls."

As if to atone, Spurrier dialed up a heap of pass plays in the second Giants game. Six sacks and an interception later, the Redskins lost 27-21. They came out running against the Eagles on Sunday, but Davis was knocked out with a dislocated shoulder after two plays. Washington quickly fell behind 17-0, and by then it had to pass. Ramsey, despite taking a beating, played well. The rookie quarterback whom Spurrier wanted to trade to Chicago has, in fact, played much better than Matthews and Wuerffel, the veterans, the ex-Gators.

Finally, with two games remaining and his second losing record in 19 seasons as a coach guaranteed, Spurrier had found his man.

At his weekly news conference Monday, Spurrier refused to talk about the season, saying he will address that in two weeks. He even knew at what time 11 a.m. That was moved up five hours so he could get out of town.

Last week, before the Eagles game, Spurrier was cornered by a reporter who wanted to know if he still believed in his "system."

"It's not working too bad now," he said. "It's not the worst in the league. But if I told you what I thought, then you'd say he's criticizing his players or his system or his coaches. Let's just say it's a combination of everything that hasn't been quite as good as we hoped."

As he walked away, Spurrier's voice got excited, reaching an even higher pitch than usual.

"But preseason we were pretty good," he said. "How 'bout that? We led the league during preseason."

It was hard to tell whether he was kidding.

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