- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The Washington Redskins' first season under coach Steve Spurrier is starting to feel a lot like the early part of last season under Marty Schottenheimer.

A number of veteran players are questioning Spurrier and his coaching staff after the Redskins (4-6) lost two straight games to reach the brink of playoff elimination. One player said he believes as much as half the team is frustrated with the coaches right now.

Players' concerns, voiced in private conversations over the past few days, range from personal problems such as the ways they are being used on the field to specific issues with Spurrier his decision-making and demeanor.

Some veteran players even said they are starting to play for each other rather than for the team a scenario similar to last season during the 0-5 start. But that terrible stretch was followed by five straight wins and gradual acceptance of Schottenheimer, a pattern players hope can be repeated in this season's final six weeks.

A key difference between this season and last is the backdrop of institutional pressure. Unlike Schottenheimer a year ago, Spurrier doesn't seem to be in danger of losing his job. Still, the similarities underscore just how far off course Spurrier's NFL debut has veered.

And there could be long-term consequences of players' questions, such as whether certain star players return. Running back Stephen Davis and offensive tackle Jon Jansen are eyeing the open market at season's end; already, Davis has expressed frustration with Spurrier's play-calling.

Some veteran players said it is too early to judge Spurrier. They said they are more concerned with their own play than the performance of their coaches.

But others wonder whether Spurrier is picking up the NFL quickly enough after dominating at Florida the past 12 years.

Spurrier's play-calling has been a key question among players. They have seen Washington, a capable rushing team, lose two straight games to marginal opponents while passing more than 70 percent of the time. They wonder why Spurrier is so determined to throw the ball.

Private conversations revealed other concerns, such as Spurrier's hasty decision-making. The coach is making his fourth quarterback switch of the season this week. He has shuffled his wide receiving corps frequently, twice cutting players that were significant contributors, either on offense (Kevin Lockett) or special teams (Jacquez Green).

In the latest instance, Green was jettisoned to promote Justin Skaggs from the practice squad; Skaggs then was left inactive for Sunday's game against the New York Giants. In Green's place on punt returns, cornerback Champ Bailey fumbled one kick and let another bounce and settle inside the 5. Fortunately, he recovered his fumble and the latter play was called back because of penalty.

Yesterday another unforeseen move was made: Alex Sulfsted was told he would start at left guard Sunday against the St. Louis Rams ahead of David Loverne. Sulfsted has not practiced at guard since the middle of the preseason because he has been at tackle.

Spurrier's quirky decisions, according to some players, at times combine with a limited appreciation for special teams to affect the units a possible reason special teams are down despite returning a good deal of personnel from 2001.

Spurrier, for example, didn't decide that running back Kenny Watson would be taken off kickoff returns until Nov.1, two days before the game at Seattle and one day after wide receiver Willie Jackson signed. So Jackson didn't practice kickoff returns, and he awkwardly stepped in front of Ladell Betts on the opening kickoff and returned it just 13 yards.

Some players also are frustrated that no one knows who will be inactive until the team arrives at the stadium on gamedays. They believe the chemistry is affected on special teams because of the last-minute personnel groupings.

But a larger concern is whether Spurrier can be an effective leader while paying so little attention to areas outside the offensive skill positions. Some players have started to question him for that reason.

For awhile it didn't seem to matter that Spurrier didn't know some players' names or what was happening in certain areas of the team. But he raised eyebrows Sunday when he fingered long snapper Ethan Albright for the crucial miss on a field goal attempt, when in reality the problem was that kicker James Tuthill slipped on the muddy turf.

Spurrier said during his postgame news conference that Albright should have asked for a dry ball, indicating that the snap somehow was bad because the ball was soaking wet. But subsequent interviews revealed that Albright did nothing wrong.

Overall, Spurrier seemingly has more to fix than just his 26th-ranked offense. Creating a relaxed atmosphere for players led to a good foundation for interaction something Schottenheimer lacked initially and gained only as last season progressed.

Now the current scenario seems to be eroding, whereas last year's improved. Schottenheimer, players have said, relaxed his rules even though he refused to admit he was doing so. By year's end, he had won over all but a few of the players.

Of course, winning eight of the final 11 games boosted morale tremendously. Failing a late surge this year or in order to make one Spurrier might have to adjust some of his methods to win back the veteran players who have started to question him.

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