- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

Surprise No.1 was that the Redskins came out running against the Jets on Thursday night. Surprise No.2 was that they kept right on running. Ladell Betts got 18 carries, Trung Canidate got 10, Chad Morton got three; in all, the offense ran it 34 times and pitched it just 23. But you can’t argue with the results: Washington 16, New York 13.

No one, least of all the Ball Coach, could have envisioned that the Fun ‘n’ Gun would undergo such a mutation. When he first arrived in town, his quarterbacks — as promised — winged it all over the lot. In last year’s opener, Shane Matthews came out smoking, throwing 40 passes for 327 yards and earning Offensive Player of the Week honors.

But the harsh realities of NFL life soon were driven home to Spurrier. For one thing, he didn’t have the personnel to play Bombs Away Ball. For another, the defenses are a lot better in the pro game. The front sevens can pressure the QB, the secondaries can cover and, well, it ain’t two-hand touch.

It took Spurrier the better part of last season to figure this out. By December, though, his offense was beginning to resemble the kind of unit we saw Thursday night. Perhaps the most overlooked statistic of 2002 — from the Redskins’ standpoint, at least — was this: In each of their last five victories, they ran the ball more than they threw it. And in each of their five losses during that stretch, they threw it more than they ran it.

Spurrier obviously took note of this … and planned his strategy for this season accordingly. Everybody interpreted the team’s offseason maneuverings — the signing of Laveranues Coles and two starting offensive linemen, the drafting of Taylor Jacobs, the release of Stephen Davis — to mean Spurrier wanted to open it up more. Even when offense played it conservatively in the preseason, the assumption was that the Ball Coach was simply Saving the Good Stuff for the games that mattered.

Then the Jets kicked off to the Redskins, and these were the first three plays Spurrier called: run, run, run.

Then the Jets kicked off to the Redskins again, and here’s how that series went: 14 plays, nine runs, five passes.

“As a coach, you do what you can do,” Spurrier said yesterday. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what we have to do. … We’re trying to win the game.”

A year ago, he had a hard time accepting that. After the Seattle game, in which the Redskins ran 29 times for 146 yards and threw 27 times for 114, he was visibly disgusted with his offense’s inability to move the ball through the air. (Never mind that the Redskins beat the Seahawks 14-3.) The following week, in a state of denial, he all but abandoned the run against Jacksonville and had Mathews put up 50 passes. It was a disaster, a 26-7 abomination, perhaps the lowest point of the season.

But Spurrier has wised up since. Talking of Betts and Canidate, he actually said, “Basically, we’re trying to get ‘em both involved a bunch.”

What’s this? A Steve Spurrier offense that revolves around its running backs?

“That seemed to be the direction we needed to go in [against the Jets],” he explained. “Of course, you don’t plan on that happening. … You like to throw it more than we did.”

And the Redskins undoubtedly will at some point if the defense or the situation dictates it. But the Ball Coach seems to have his ego more in check this season. He’s not as apt to freak out like he did last year at Alltel Stadium. If his offensive line is having some breakdowns and his quarterback is getting hit, as was the case against the Jets, he’s not going to keep calling pass plays — especially with his defense pretty much shutting the other guys down. He’s going to stick the ball in Betts’ belly and try to win the game that way.

The offense hardly had a great night Thursday. It managed only one touchdown, gave up four sacks, had a holding penalty and turned the ball over twice. And in the second half, you may have noticed, the Jets made Coles disappear.

The Jets’ defense is decent, in the top half of the league, but that’s about it. There are plenty of other defenses on the Redskins’ schedule that are as good or better — the Falcons’, the Giants’, the Patriots’, the Eagles’, the Bucs’, the Cowboys’, the Panthers’, the Dolphins’, maybe even the Bills’. What’s that, a dozen more games against defenses as problematical as the Jets’?

In other words, there may be plenty of weeks in which the points don’t come any easier for the Redskins than they did in the opener. The Jets game was no aberration. This is what the Redskins offense is now. They’re doing what they can do, as Spurrier put it. And with a young quarterback and an experienced, physical line, what they can probably do best is run the ball.

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