- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier popped in a tape at Redskin Park this week.

He watched Rod Gardner catch a deep cross for 16 yards. A four-wide, shotgun formation help Darnerien McCants get open for an 18-yarder. And Derrius Thompson haul in a 40-yard reception before getting pushed out of bounds.

The tape was of last year’s season-ending win over Dallas. Spurrier was struck by how his offense then barely resembled what he has used in losing the past three games.

“We’re spread out and we’re throwing it here, throwing it there,” Spurrier said of the win over the Cowboys. “You’re getting hit again [at the quarterback position], but we were attacking. And we’ve not been attacking the way we’d like to.”

Thus Spurrier has decided to go old school as the Redskins (3-4) use their bye weekend to recover from their recent slide. The coach believes he can run up yards if he reverts to offense the way he knows best.

If only it were that simple.

A number of team officials and players this week — all speaking on the condition of anonymity — said NFL defenses appear to have figured out Spurrier’s offense. They believe opponents started making changes after this season’s opening win over the Jets, with subsequent games providing blueprints for how to squelch the Fun ‘n’ Gun.

The underlying criticism is that Spurrier has not stayed ahead of the curve in the NFL. At this level, whatever you do on offense, defenses eventually find a way to beat it. The challenge of an offensive coordinator is to find new ways to beat defenses. It is a constant back and forth, and edges don’t last long.

Asked in an interview Thursday whether defenses have caught up to him, Spurrier made it clear that his plan to get ahead is to dip into the past.

“One of our biggest problems is, we’ve not protected well,” Spurrier said. “And I’m not blaming it on anybody. But we have not protected Patrick [Ramsey, the quarterback]. And obviously as a coach, you feel handcuffed, because every time you send him back there, almost every time something bad has happened. So now you’re into a lot of three-step [drops] and this and that. We’re not running our stuff.”

Is getting back to basics the solution or another refusal by Spurrier to acknowledge what he must do to succeed in the NFL?

It’s too early to tell. But one thing is certain: His latest plan doesn’t have much margin for error. Washington’s offense — once ranked No.1 and now No.17 — faces Dallas’ top-ranked defense Nov.2 at Texas Stadium. Considering all the turmoil of the past week and the difficulty of the next four games (at Dallas, vs. Seattle, at Carolina, at Miami), the Redskins’ season soon could be over.

Meanwhile, Spurrier going back to the true Fun ‘n’ Gun isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea. He did the same thing in the stretch run last season after vacillating between a run-based attack and his more traditional set, and it is how he opened this season.

But after beating the New York Jets and staging huge rallies against Atlanta (a win) and the New York Giants (a loss), the offense grew more and more ineffective. Spurrier reacted by trimming back. Ramsey was getting clobbered, so the coach audibled to three-step drops. But frequent audibles led to false starts, so Spurrier started calling more short passes and runs in the huddle.

By last week’s loss at Buffalo, the Fun ‘n’ Gun scarcely resembled the scheme that scorched the Jets, Falcons and Giants. Spurrier tried to run to set up the pass. He tried to get the Bills on their heels with quick slants and screens. Nothing worked.

Now Spurrier believes he can run his offense the way he knows best, provided coaches instruct better and players execute at a higher level.

“We’re just going to try to emphasize blocking and tackling — tackling on defense, blocking on offense,” Spurrier said. “Those are the two areas we’ve not been very good. Fundamentals of the game — it all gets back to that.

“And we’ve got to coach better, too. It’s not just the players. We’ve got to get them in better situations.”

Some in the organization have argued that the blocking actually was solid at Buffalo, that the continued hits on Ramsey — the NFL’s most-sacked quarterback (22 times) who hasn’t finished the past two games — came almost exclusively on blitzes.

Spurrier was gun-shy about criticizing players after Sunday night’s rant on their effort, but he did say the inadequate blocking was not due to a schematic inability to pick up blitzers.

“Most of our problems haven’t been just ‘who’s got him?’” Spurrier said. “It’s been guys sort of getting run around, and this, that and the other.”

One club official split that debate: He said that while the blocking probably has been adequate for most offenses, it simply hasn’t been good enough for the wide-open attack Spurrier wants to run.

Now that blocking will have to get even better with Spurrier calling more five- and seven-step drops. Players will have to pay closer attention to Ramsey’s calls at the line with more audibles. And Ramsey must be more willing to get rid of the ball, a tactic the second-year passer has struggled to pick up.

Because starting next weekend, for better or worse, Spurrier’s offense will be more Spurrier-ized than ever.

“We’ve been handcuffed,” Spurrier said. “We need to get back to our original plan of offense. We need to get back to that a little bit more. Hopefully, we’ll start doing that.”

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