- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

Steve Spurrier’s motto for fixing the Washington Redskins’ penalty problems essentially has remained the same since he came to town.

“We’ve got to coach better,” he has said on countless occasions, shouldering the blame for his players’ mistakes.

After Sunday’s atrocious, 17-penalty performance against the New York Giants, Spurrier finally decided it was time to start holding his players accountable.

“At some point, older guys and guys who are sort of star players have to be the leaders,” the Redskins coach said yesterday. “But some of those guys are getting the penalties, too. Now you have the problem of leading by example. We’ve got to get the captains, the leaders playing error-free. Hopefully, it will transfer down to the rest of the team.”

Numerous factors contributed to Washington’s 24-21 overtime loss to the Giants on Sunday. None, however, stung as much as the Redskins’ club-record-tying 17 infractions for 142 yards.

It would be one thing if it had been an isolated incident, an unfortunate series of mistakes that happened to come at some inopportune moments. The Redskins’ problems with penalties, though, have been slowly building with each passing week.

They now lead the league with 35 infractions in three games. It’s early, but they’re well on pace to shatter the club and NFL single-season records for penalties (the 1948 Redskins committed 122, the 1998 Kansas City Chiefs committed 158).

And after dearly paying the price for their mistakes Sunday, Washington’s players know they no longer can let their coach take the blame.

“I know he would probably take responsibility for it,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We can’t put it all on him. We’ve got to learn how to control ourselves. We’re supposed to be professionals. If you want to be treated like one, you’ve got to act like one.”

Spurrier was so incensed after Sunday’s game that he wondered aloud whether he should start fining players for committing what he calls “careless” penalties: false starts, offsides, personal fouls and the like.

He decided against resorting to such a drastic plan yesterday but said he’ll still consider it — plus perhaps even benching a player — in the future should the problem persist.

“We might consider it,” Spurrier said. “It seems to me in pro football, the players have got to be involved in this thing a lot, too. We have got to be on the same page and want the same results. The accountability factor has to go throughout the team.”

High-penalty games are nothing new for Spurrier-coached teams. His Florida Gators had a penchant for getting flagged repeatedly, especially in big games against top rivals.

But it’s much easier to get away with sloppy play in college, where talent always prevails in the end, and so Spurrier never had to give the subject much thought. Not so in his current job.

“You can’t do that and expect to win games in the NFL,” Bailey said. “Good college teams do it, those teams at Florida did it a lot. But they win because it’s college. In the NFL, you can’t do it.”

The Redskins’ sudden penchant for committing penalties is even more disturbing given the franchise’s long and successful history of good, clean play. Want to know just how costly penalties can be to a team? Consider this:

During Joe Gibbs’ 12 years as coach, Washington committed an average of 5.6 penalties for 49.2 yards a game. Overall record during that span: 124-60.

During Spurrier’s inaugural NFL season, the Redskins committed an average of 7.3 penalties for 60.8 yards. Record: 7-9.

So far this year, Washington is averaging a stunning 11.7 penalties for 92 yards.

Given that correlation, it would seem reasonable to lay blame on the coach. One of the stars of Gibbs’ old teams, though, doesn’t buy into that argument.

“I think Steve is probably at his wit’s end,” Joe Thiesmann said. “But it’s up to the guys. You’re paid as a professional football player a boatload of money to do your job right. I don’t believe it’s Steve’s responsibility or Patrick Ramsey’s responsibility or anybody’s responsibility to make sure that you are onsides or that you don’t jump offsides. It’s your job.”

So how do you solve the problem? How do you convince players to hold firm at the line of scrimmage until the ball is snapped, to keep yourself from holding an opponent’s jersey, to maintain your composure when another player shoves you after the play?

Some players admit that mandatory fines for game infractions would make some amount of difference.

“You start getting fined,” linebacker Jessie Armstead said, “and it’ll give you a sense of urgency.”

For the majority of players, though, the notion of being forced to put a couple of bills into a cookie jar pales in comparison with the guilt of doing something stupid that directly hurts your team on the field.

“That’s what we really have to take a close look at for ourselves,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “I don’t know, a $250 fine, you pay a fine. But if it costs you the game, it costs you the game.”

Which seems to underscore the players’ real motivation. For all the preaching they get from coaches to play with more discipline, and for all the threats they hear about getting fined or benched, the Redskins need only look at Sunday’s game to know just how costly penalties can be.

“As a team, it’s getting frustrating, all the silly penalties,” tackle Chris Samuels said. “Because we have a good ballclub here. We have a lot of talent. We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”

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