- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Throughout Steve Spurrier's tenure as coach of the Redskins that is, before they played any games that actually counted he spoke in his folksy, Tennessee twang about how his team would "pitch it around." Indeed, the Redskins would pass a lot, just as his Duke, Tampa Bay Bandits and University of Florida teams did, all with impressive results. But if you're going to "pitch," you also need to "catch." It's easy to blame the quarterbacks for the Redskins' 1-2 start, simply because they don't seem to be very good, but the pass-blocking has been poor and Spurrier said his receivers aren't doing enough to get open.

This seems to be less of a problem elsewhere. If you think NFL stands for "No Fun League," think again. Offenses are having a ball, and they're throwing it, too. Going into last night's game, teams had scored at least 40 points nine times in the first four weeks. Last year it happened 20 times during the regular season. At this point, 11 teams are averaging at least 350 yards a game, a feat accomplished by five teams in 2001. Also last season, three teams scored at least 400 points. At the quarter-pole this year, 15 teams are on such a pace. Defenses undoubtedly will adjust, but right now, offenses have the upper hand.

And the hot hand. So far, six teams are averaging at least 40 passes a game. Last year, no team, not even St. Louis, did that. The New England Patriots, who won the Super Bowl largely on the strength of a power running game, are pitching it around as if they're the Florida Gators. In a win over Pittsburgh, quarterback Tom Brady threw 25 straight passes. The next week, Oakland's Rich Gannon threw 41 times against the Steelers in the first half.

Offensive coordinators are bucking the conventional run-first, pass-second wisdom, spreading the field, keeping defenses guessing with creative game plans and schemes. "The willingness to expand the parameters of the offense has probably grown a lot more," said Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders, whose team rang up 48 points against Miami on Sunday.

"It seems that offenses had been counter-punching for awhile," said Oakland assistant Marc Trestman, who handles the Raiders' passing game, "and now the defenses are."

Expanding offensive parameters, getting the defense to be the counter-punchers isn't this everything Spurrier hoped to do with the Redskins? Scoring in the NFL is up, yet without much help from Spurrier nor St. Louis' Mike Martz and San Francisco's Steve Mariucci, presumed geniuses who channel their considerable brainpower into their team's offenses. Seattle's Mike Holmgren was on the list until the Seahawks exploded for 48 points on Sunday. Then again, the Seahawks don't get to play the dormant Minnesota Vikings every week.

Mariucci still has Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia, but Martz's puzzling (and winless) Rams are down to back-up Jamie Martin. Spurrier, of course, has Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel, both of whom played for him at Florida, and played well. But as both Matthews and Wuerffel already know, as evidenced by their mediocre pro careers, Spurrier is learning that the NFL is a whole 'nother ballgame, as he himself might put it.

As cast-offs from other teams, Wuerffel and Matthews aren't doing anything we haven't seen before. Even Spurrier described them as "cheap and available." But Spurrier also figured his offensive system would restore the abilities they flashed in college, or at least bring out their best. It hasn't happened yet.

"It's players," ESPN commentator and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "It's not the system."

But for $25million, which is what Redskins owner Dan Snyder is paying him over five years, and given his reputation, shouldn't Spurrier come up with something to compensate for his lack of talent? Isn't this what Spurrier himself implied when he decided to go with Wuerffel and Matthews (not to mention a receiving corps that includes ex-Gators Jacquez Green and Chris Doering)? Wouldn't his mastery of X's and O's take care of everything?

Welcome to the big time.

"The man was immensely successful at Florida," Theismann said. "So you say, 'OK, if he was that successful at the Division I college level, you should be able to enjoy success at this level.' Well, that's all well and good if you have the people.

"His athletes at Florida were better than 99 percent of the athletes on the other team. And he was going against defenses that were as simple as Ned in the first-grade reader. Now he's going against these Harvard MBAs whose life is dedicated to making your offense miserable. But if you don't have the pieces, you're not going to solve the puzzle."

The main piece, obviously, is quarterback, a commodity so precious that teams are willing to empty their vaults. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb last week received the largest contract in NFL history, $115million, surpassing Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe. During the offseason, the contracts of Brady and New Orleans' Aaron Brooks were extended. All might have been available, but they certainly weren't cheap.

Even though none of the names appears on the Redskins' roster, the list of quality NFL quarterbacks seems to be getting longer. There are McNabb, Garcia, Brooks, Brady, Tennessee's Steve McNair, Peyton Manning of Indianapolis, Jacksonville's Mark Brunell and yes, Redskins fans, Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson. Cleveland's Tim Couch looks like he can play. Elder statesmen Brett Favre of Green Bay and Gannon are as good as ever. Atlanta's Michael Vick might be the hottest commodity in the league in terms of star power.

Brian Griese appears to have bounced back with Denver, as long as he watches his step. Bledsoe has been reborn with the Bills. Starting for the first time, Drew Brees seems well-suited to Marty Schottenheimer's system in San Diego. The focal point of "Martyball" might be the run, but Brees' 52-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Conway in Sunday's upset of the Patriots was a thing of beauty. And speaking of upsets, after Detroit beat New Orleans, Lions rookie Joey Harrington was proclaimed "the quarterback for the ages" by teammate Todd Lyght. Even Trent Green, the former Redskin, had a big day as Kansas City beat previously unbeaten Miami.

"The quarterback," Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said, "has got to be able to win games for you."

With help, of course. Bledsoe might be the league's most valuable player at this point, but he has a bunch of quality receivers and an emerging star in running back Travis Henry. The threat of running back Priest Holmes, who led the league in rushing and total yards last year and is headed that way again, makes it easier for Green to throw five touchdown passes to lead the Chiefs over the Dolphins.

The Saints traded Ricky Williams to Miami and made Deuce McAllister, who is faster and a better receiver, their featured back. They drafted wide receiver Donte Stallworth to team with Joe Horn and give New Orleans a speedy 1-2 receiving punch. Even though the Saints have seven new starters or players at new positions on offense, McCarthy has fashioned a potent attack.

"I think our identity is having the flexibility to get the ball to our playmakers," he said. "It's built around the quarterback, it's a quarterback-friendly system."

But also, McCarthy added, the Saints are much faster than before.

"You can't teach speed," McCarthy said, reciting a timeworn maxim. "It's made our vertical game better and our underneath game better," he said. "We've got guys who can not only catch it, but run with it."

The same thing happened in New England, which made several moves during the offseason to get the most out of Brady. They already had Troy Brown and David Patten to catch Brady's accurate passes, but that wasn't enough. The Pats drafted wide receiver Deion Branch, a second-round steal, and tight end Daniel Graham. And because they had managed their salary cap wisely, they could sign wide receiver Donald Hayes and tight ends Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland.

After passing 54 times for 410 yards against Kansas City last week, Brady said, "It's fun to stand back there and look at all these guys and pick them out, knowing that I'm going to try to find a guy who's in single coverage, and when I throw it to that guy he's going to make a play."

It appeared the Patriots missed the injured Brown in Sunday's loss, their first of the season. But having diversity, supplemented by Brady's rapid development, gave offensive coordinator Charlie Weis the means to install a radically different system that makes the Patriots more dangerous than last year. No one is calling Weis a genius, but his offense is as creative as any in the league.

CBS commentator Dan Dierdorf, who has worked two Patriots games, noted that Weis is a Bill Parcells disciple, "and Parcells was a gambler who wasn't afraid to do different things," he said. "The Patriots have figured out that, in Brady, they have a quarterback who is unbelievably accurate and decisive and can get rid of the ball in a hurry. He gets that ball and he's looking downfield and, whoop, it's gone."

After he got the Redskins' job, Spurrier poked fun at New Orleans coach Jim Haslett and others who worked excessive hours, often sleeping in their offices. Al Saunders, who came from the Rams with coach Dick Vermeil and has the Chiefs doing what the Rams were supposed to be doing, said one night last week he was planning to work until 1a.m. just going over third-down situations.

"We look at all the third-down situations our opponents have had and break it all down on our computer," he said. "We look at everything they've done this year, and at all 16 games last year. So, as a staff, we can look for schematic advantages and personnel advantages and formulate our third-down game plan."

Before the season, some were speculating that Spurrier's "work better, not harder" philosophy might catch on, if it worked. "I think you can overdo it," Spurrier said then. "If it takes six hours to get a good plan ready, why do you need 26 hours?"

Maybe because NFL offenses and defenses are so complex and the talent is so good. Maybe all those hours of preparation are necessary, and not just for coaches to simply justify their existence.

Saunders, whose offensive system derives from the brilliant and innovative Sid Gillman in the old AFL later modified and refined by the likes of Don Coryell and former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs coached at five different colleges before moving to the NFL. "The difference is, the quality of athletes you're working with is the best in the world at what they do," he said.

"You have more skill and more adaptability, and more time. You have from 8 in the morning until they leave at night. The professional level is just the highest level you can imagine. There are limits to some of the things you can do. But you are forced to be more creative with the people you have. Everyone has that challenge, to determine what players can do within the system, so they can perform at their highest level."

It's not just Theismann's "Harvard MBAs" coaching defense that Spurrier is competing against; his rival offensive coaches are pretty smart, too, and all have pro experience Spurrier lacks. Before the season, Spurrier was quoted as saying, "We call the same pass patterns that we did at Duke in '80." Compare that with Trestman, whose pass-happy gameplan against Pittsburgh was not inspired by what the Patriots did the week before, but by a game in 1996 when the team he was with then, San Francisco, played the Steelers.

"We threw the ball 18 or 20 times in a row, and we were up something like 26-0 at halftime," said Trestman, who has a law degree and is known as a brainy, cerebral sort. "That was my first experience with throwing the ball like that. It wasn't a matter of installing a new offense. New England just reinforced the way we wanted to play."

In 1996, Spurrier was leading the Gators to a national championship, which seems of little help to the Redskins right now.

With the Redskins, Spurrier handles the offense and Marvin Lewis the defense. This isn't unusual, but the Raiders take the division of labor even further. Head coach Bill Callahan, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Jon Gruden, is responsible for the running game, Trestman the passing game.

"We have great dialogue and we work together to package everything," said Trestman, whose Raiders (helped by special-teams and the defense) scored 52 points Sunday against Tennessee. "I have game-day communication with [Gannon] and I call the plays. Bill assists me with the runs. But he has 51 percent of the say. He's the head coach."

Trestman said comparable systems are used elsewhere. In San Francisco, he said, offensive coordinators Holmgren and Mike Shanahan ran the passing game, and offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick handled the running game. "There's so much volume, there's no way one person can handle it," Trestman said.

The Redskins' passing game pretty much is the offense, at least for now. Spurrier said he does not plan to change things and feature running back Stephen Davis, his best offensive player, but he might not have a choice.

"Stephen Davis has proven why he's a Pro Bowl [player]," Theismann said. "When you watch the Redskins play, the one thing that continues to jump out is how good Stephen Davis is."

But Theismann said the Redskins' problems on offense go beyond deciding whether to feed the ball to Davis.

"You can't interchange people at [quarterback]," he said. "It has to do with leadership. A coach is not on the field on Sunday. There are things the quarterback needs to do. The team needs to believe they are in charge. In college it doesn't work that way, but at the professional level the guy behind center has to be the leader.

"You talk about a growing process," Theismann said. "[Spurrier] has an inadequate offensive line, they're not fast enough at wide receiver and he's playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks. He's got to change. Steve Spurrier has got to change. Does all that fit into the same sentence? Not necessarily. I think he's a very bright football coach, he has a very bright mind. But you have to spend a lot of time figuring out a way to win."

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