- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

The long, long wait is over. The Steve Spurrier era officially begins for the Washington Redskins this afternoon after a seemingly endless five-game preseason and an offseason of constant speculation.

Is Spurrier, a coaching wizard at the USFL and college levels, prepared for the NFL? Will the Fun n Gun work against professional defenses? Can the Redskins navigate a difficult schedule for their first playoff berth since 1999 and just their second in a decade?

Finally - a word uttered myriad times around Redskin Park this week - the answers start to come today against the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field.

"Finally the regular seasons here," offensive tackle Jon Jansen said this week. "Were going to see what were really about, see what weve accomplished this preseason."

"Seven weeks, dog, seven weeks," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said, referring to the time since the start of training camp, which was early because Washington played in the American Bowl in Osaka, Japan. "Finally. Were playing the games that count."

Spurrier, most recently 122-27-1 in a dozen seasons at the University of Florida, seemed somewhat taken aback by all the scrutiny after signing a five-year, $25 million contract that made him the NFLs highest-paid coach.

One day early in the offseason he walked quickly off the field and past reporters, saying over his shoulder, "You guys dont have anything for me today, do you?"

Actually, they did. There were queries that day and almost every one of the winter, spring and summer - about Spurrier, about his vaunted offense, about the "cheap and available" former Gators he signed to play it, and about the top-10 defense Washington hoped to improve by signing coordinator Marvin Lewis and several big-name free agents.

This week Spurrier called the attention "intriguing" - but not necessarily in a good sense.

"Im embarrassed a little by it," Spurrier said. "Ive said many times that this is the Redskins team - owners, coaches, players and fans. And were all in it together. I just have a role as head coach and offensive coach. Weve all got a part to play. Im just doing my part the best I can to help our team be successful."

The Redskins were plenty successful in a 4-1 preseason. As Washington set an NFL record with four straight games of 35 or more points, expectations around town soared. The preseason ended with a poorly played 28-14 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, but most players used the defeat as motivation.

The exhibition success confirmed optimistic views of Spurriers offense and focused internal and external expectations on the playoffs. One theory holds that if the defense and special teams stay strong and the offense improves only marginally, a team that went 8-3 in last seasons stretch cant help but reach the postseason.

And "marginally" wouldnt begin to describe how much better Washingtons offense looks. Last year under Marty Schottenheimer the Redskins averaged 16 points, ranking 28th; this preseason they led the NFL with a 32.8-point average.

There are however, at least two caveats to the theory. First, Washingtons schedule includes non-division games at San Francisco, Tennessee, Green Bay and Seattle, and at home against New Orleans, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

Thats besides a trimmed-down NFC East that no longer includes Arizona.

Second, the Redskins offense will face a whole new set of challenges from first-string defenses and tailored game-planning.

Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, for example, said theres no comparison between the regular season and preseason, calling the next 17 weeks "no holds barred."

"These are the money games," he explained. "Youre jockeying for that number one position in your division, playoffs, everything. Everyone wants to get up to that spot. A lot of teams, come Week 10 or so, theyll look back at the season and say, 'If we hadnt let this or that one go, wed be in perfect position for the playoffs or whatever. So its critical we get off to the right start."

At least the Redskins open with one of their not-so-threatening opponents - Arizona. The Cardinals last year finished a third consecutive season below .500, and their top draft pick, highly rated defensive tackle Wendell Bryant, still hasnt signed. The Cardinals defense ranked 28th in the league and its only big pickup is cornerback Duane Starks; the offense, while potent with Pro Bowl wide receiver David Boston, remains suspect on the ground.

Washingtons offense, however, also has questions. Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis carried just 18 times for 57 yards in the preseason. The offensive line, playing with Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels (sprained ankle) for the first time since Aug.[ThSp]10, is rotating David Loverne and Ross Tucker at left guard and starting Brenden Stai at right guard after trading for him only two weeks ago. And at tight end the Redskins will play untested Zeron Flemister and Leonard Stephens while Walter Rasby sits with a sprained knee.

The defense has a few issues, too, particularly whether the back of defensive tackle Daryl Gardener - who hasnt played since Aug. 10 following spasms - can hold up. And on special teams, kickoff returner Kenny Watson averaged just 21.4 yards in the preseason.

"Who knows how were going to be playing?" Spurrier said. "Were not making any predictions. Were just going to play the best we can and see what happens. Thats the only thing we can do now."

And all everyone else can do is watch - finally.

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