- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Not long after he was hired as coach of the Washington Redskins nearly two years ago, someone asked Steve Spurrier what he knew of the NFL. The former quarterback, a quarter-century removed from his last game in the league and having not spent a single minute as an NFL coach, answered honestly. “I don’t pretend to know that much about it,” he said.

Cynics might say nothing has changed. Not true. Spurrier eventually learned at least one thing — he simply was not cut out for the job. As noted by Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry,” a man has got to know his limitations.

But give Spurrier this: The Ball Coach is smart. It takes intelligence to size up a once-promising situation, a situation that seemed at one time to be full of sunshine and hope and optimism, and realize it will only get worse.

With a five-year, $25million contract, the largest ever for an NFL coach, Redskins owner Dan Snyder lured Spurrier from a momentary retirement after his unqualified success at the University of Florida. It seemed like an odd coupling from the start. They were vastly different in age, background, culture, personal experiences — everything. Spurrier did not seem comfortable when he was introduced at Redskin Park in January 2002.

Known for the swagger and confidence that inspired the nickname, “Steve Superior,” he acted uncharacteristically reserved; tentative, even. This wasn’t the cocky, brazen “Evil Genius” who terrorized the Southeastern Conference, running up the score and ridiculing opponents. Of course, he had yet to win a game in the NFL, but those expecting a fiery, let’s-go-win-us-some-ballgames type of speech were disappointed.

Leading up to his first training camp, the old Spurrier emerged now and again, predicting a top-five finish for the offense here, a playoff berth there. But his actions spoke much louder. The big story was the importation of former Florida players, notably quarterbacks Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel.

It didn’t seem to bother Spurrier that Matthews and Wuerffel, whom he both labeled as “cheap and available,” were no more than competent NFL backups. But he said he would “coach ‘em up.” The Redskins would “pitch it around.” Just like at Florida, and Duke and the U.S. Football League before that. The NFL was no different, not really.

Spurrier’s offense, the Fun ‘n’ Gun, would be way too complex and sophisticated for more pedestrian, less-creative NFL coaches, even those who slept in their offices. Spurrier poked fun at such behavior, as if preparation and hard work were superficial affectations.

Maybe the worst thing to happen was a 4-1 2002 preseason. To Spurrier, this validated his system. To the objective observer, it was unrealistic; most of the damage was inflicted against opponents’ rejects. Yet even as the Redskins went 7-9 in games that counted, Spurrier referenced the preseason as if it meant something.

The Fun ‘n’ Gun sputtered minus the necessary talent and was exposed almost immediately. Spurrier marveled at the speed of the defenses. Meanwhile, he waffled between Matthews and Wuerffel before finally settling on rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey, whom Spurrier had considered trading during a training-camp holdout.

Spurrier occasionally and reluctantly turned to power runner Stephen Davis and there was some success. But it was always back to the pass. The week after the Redskins rushed for 146 yards in a 14-3 win over Seattle — without Davis — Spurrier called 50 passes in a 26-7 loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville. “A perfect night,” he explained. “We’ve had such beautiful weather to throw the ball, it’s been unbelievable.”

The final record was disappointing, but big changes were in store. Snyder raided the New York Jets and came away with wide receiver Laveranues Coles and guard Randy Thomas, among others. Trung Canidate, a speedy running back, came from St. Louis. Ramsey would only get better. Spurrier had the pieces he needed.

Ignored, was the reality of Davis leaving via free agency, the defensive line significantly weakened and Marvin Lewis, the accomplished defensive coordinator, going to Cincinnati as the Bengals’ coach. Suddenly, the Redskins had the most inexperienced staff in the league.

But Spurrier presumably was smarter. During the early days of training camp, Spurrier sat behind his office desk and proclaimed, “Hopefully, I’ve learned a lot. A whole lot.” Such as? “I learned the defenses in this league are all very good,” he said.

He said he also learned the importance of special teams, paying attention to detail and enforcing discipline. He made it sound as if he discovered these concepts for the first time. He made Hue Jackson offensive coordinator and promised more contact with his defense, now in the hands of George Edwards.

“We’ve added 10 or 12 players we think are gonna strengthen our team,” Spurrier said. “But we’ve got to go prove it on the field. We’ve got better players than we had last year. Now we’ve got to coach a little bit better and go prove it during the games.”

The Redskins started 3-1, and the cheerleaders proclaimed Spurrier finally “got it.” The reality was the opponents were crippled. Against healthier teams, the Redskins fell to earth amid an avalanche of shoddy quarterback protection, penalties and defensive errors. Without Davis, the running game posed little threat. Ramsey was brutalized, eventually retreating to injured reserve. The Redskins lost a lot of close games in the fourth quarter, but that’s what bad teams do.

Spurrier still had trouble remembering the names of his defensive players, and it recently came out that there was a lack of discipline and respect. It was well-known Spurrier and vice president of player personnel Vinny Cerrato didn’t get along, then Spurrier’s relationship with Snyder deteriorated. On the sideline, Spurrier looked miserable. Worse, he looked clueless. In the end, it was the one reality he acknowledged.


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