- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Opening night in Osaka, Japan, remains the shining moment for Steve Spurrier's offense in the NFL.

The coach, in fact, seems to be growing more attached to those halcyon days of the Washington Redskins' preseason. On three separate occasions yesterday, Spurrier brought up how well his Fun 'n' Gun set worked in exhibition games.

That night in Osaka, in Spurrier's debut, Washington passed for 434 yards and five touchdowns. The 38-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers set the tone for a preseason in which the Redskins ranked among the elite with 384.2 yards per game and 32.8 points.

Three and a half months later, Washington has dropped to 26th in total offense (293.8 yards) following Sunday's season-low 166 yards in a 19-17 loss to the New York Giants. The Redskins now also rank 26th in scoring (17.9 points). After a few glimmers of hope in the season's early weeks, Spurrier's offense has settled in as one of the NFL's least effective units.

"[The yardage ranking] means we're struggling," Spurrier said. "Preseason we were doing a little bit better than we are now. But we're trying to get better. Yeah, we're not making a whole bunch of yards, are we?"

The offense's poor performance comes as a surprise to Spurrier, his players and certainly observers. Many observers saw Washington competing for a playoff spot if its defense and special teams could maintain their 2001 performances under Marty Schottenheimer and the offense could improve only marginally from Schottenheimer's plodding attack.

The defense has returned to form after a rough start; it now ranks No.9. Special teams have been a recurring problem; they fix one area only to watch another falter. And the offense, most significantly, barely has improved over last season.

Washington is averaging only about 13 yards better than the attack Jimmy Raye devised, which was best known for completing 6-yard passes on third-and-8. And the Redskins are scoring fewer than two additional points per game.

"I thought we'd have a lot more success offensively than we've had," said wide receiver Chris Doering, one of Spurrier's Florida imports. "But when there's breakdowns and people not taking care of their assignments on every play, you can't jell together the way we'd like to."

That has been a consistent explanation by players in recent days. They believe that one player makes an error on one play, another on another play, and ultimately it all adds up to a series of three-and-outs.

"It's definitely an execution offense," said guard Tre Johnson, who signed four weeks ago. "You can't make those kinds of mistakes. There are no gray areas. Everybody has to hit their mark. And we haven't done that holistically since I've been here."

Obviously the play-calling is controversial, too. Spurrier called 51 passes and just 16 runs in the Nov.10 loss at Jacksonville; Sunday, in windy, rainy weather, he still elected for 37 throws and 21 runs. But while Spurrier was frustrated with himself after the Jaguars game, he seemed confident in the balance after reviewing tape yesterday.

"I'm not against the run," Spurrier said. "I'm not trying to explain why we throw. But it's hard to just run every play, OK? To win the game [Sunday], we really felt like we needed to throw successfully. Obviously the Giants had only about one decent run all day [a 23-yarder by Tiki Barber in the third quarter]. They made all their plays throwing the ball."

A more fundamental concern is personnel. This week Spurrier is shuffling quarterbacks again moving back to Danny Wuerffel or Patrick Ramsey from Shane Matthews but it seems to make little difference. Matthews and Wuerffel have played like NFL journeymen, which they are, and Ramsey has mixed the big plays and big mistakes expected of a rookie first-round draft pick.

The personnel questions extend throughout the offense. Does Spurrier have enough speed and talent in his receiving corps? Does the offensive line protect well enough? Are the tight ends and running backs capable of contributing big plays in the passing game?

"We are what we are this year," Spurrier said. "At the end of the season, we'll do like all teams we'll see how we can get better, how we can improve, and go from there."

At least one Redskin believes personnel is the problem and that Spurrier will succeed in boosting it.

"If you tell a chef to come in and cook a meal, you've got to give him all the ingredients," linebacker Jessie Armstead said. "I think it's going to take some time for him to get all the ingredients he needs. Coach Spurrier, he'll find the kind of guys he needs for his program. He'll get the ones he doesn't need out, and the ones he does need he'll keep. As time goes on, his whole arsenal will be around."

But time is running out on this season. Another loss should eliminate Washington (4-6) from the wild-card and NFC East playoff races, and the offense's repeated struggles have put tremendous pressure on the defense. The Redskins are 23rd in points allowed (23.6), despite ranking third in red-zone defense.

There is, of course, no easy solution. Just hope from the coach to get back to the preseason.

"What we need to do is maybe watch some of our preseason games," Spurrier said. "I cut out the NFL stats [from the preseason], and I think we were on top of most of them. I know it was our preseason team against their preseason team; it's not the same. But maybe we need to look back and try to gain some confidence."

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