At some point, even the most devoted fans of Steve Spurrier must
ask this question of the first-year Washington Redskins coach:
What's more important--to win your way, or simply to win?
On Sunday, for the second game in a row, the Redskins faced a
defense that was ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL against the
run. For the second game in a row, despite having one of the
worst aerial attacks in the league, Spurrier called for a pass
on 60% of Washington's plays--and lost, this time 19-17 to the
New York Giants in the muck and mire of a blustery, rainy, 42°
day at the Meadowlands. And for the second game in a row,
there was grumbling in the locker room afterward from players
who wonder why a socalled offensive genius doesn't focus his
game plan on a two-time Pro Bowl running back instead of a
struggling quarterback who had already been benched earlier this
On Nov. 10, in a 26-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars,
Washington ran the ball on 16 of 69 snaps against the league's
26th-rated rushing defense. After that game two unnamed Redskins
posed the same question to reporters: "What the hell are we doing
on offense?" On Sunday, in the bowels of Giants Stadium, one of
the befuddled players was soft-spoken running back Stephen Davis,
who rarely gripes. "What we do best is run the ball," said Davis,
who carried 19 times for 59 yards against New York's 24th-rated
run defense. "We have to do more of that."
The Giants were similarly dumbfounded. "I was surprised," said
defensive end Michael Strahan. "In fact, I was shocked. Davis has
really hurt us [in the past], and I expected to see him all day.
This is a division where you have to play power football late in
the year, and they hardly tried."
So 10 games into Spurrier's reign in Washington, at which point
the team is 4-6, it's easy to see that his transition from
college to pro football has been anything but smooth. The
Redskins are clearly worse than they were on the day last January
when owner Daniel Snyder fired Marty Schottenheimer, paving the
way for Spurrier. In his last 10 games Schottenheimer was 7-3,
having built the team around the defense and the running game.
Schottenheimer ran the ball 55% of the time in those 10 games.
With essentially the same key personnel, Spurrier has run 39.5%
of the time.
Not since 1987, when he finished 5-6 in his first year as coach
at Duke, has Spurrier lost so many games in one season. If he's
second-guessing his move from Florida, where he was a perennial
10game winner, to the NFL, where his detractors pointed out that
there were no Vanderbilts, he hasn't admitted it and he wasn't
showing it in an interview last Saturday night. He was smiling
and typically fidgety in the face of the stinging questions.
"Maybe we can do things better," he said, sitting in the coffee
shop of the team's hotel in Teaneck, N.J., a few long spirals
north of the Meadowlands. "But right now these are the players we
have. This is not our final product, I can assure you of that.
This is definitely not my final product."
It takes more than five double-digit losses, which Spurrier has
already endured this season, to shake his confidence. "I'm still
convinced things can work that have worked for me in the past,"
he said. "They worked in the USFL, they worked at Duke, and they
worked at Florida. I expect they'll work here."
But Spurrier doesn't have the right players to make that
offensive plan work this year. The interior of his line
(newcomers Wilbert Brown and David Loverne at guard and Larry
Moore at center) can't protect the passer. There's no goto
receiver, and the wideouts are often sloppy about running routes.
The three quarterbacks Spurrier has started have a combined 51.8
completion percentage, the second-lowest in the NFC. "In all my
years of playing football, I've never been as frustrated as I am
right now," quarterback Shane Matthews said after Sunday's
debacle. By Monday, Matthews was back on the bench. Spurrier
announced his fourth quarterback change in 11 games, saying he
would play journeyman Danny Wuerffel or rookie Pat Ramsey--or
both--this Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
Even when the Redskins have won, as they did against the Seattle
Seahawks on Oct. 27, they haven't done so impressively. "That was
one of the most unusual games I have ever coached," Spurrier said
after that 14-3 win over Seattle. "We just didn't do much. We
didn't throw or catch very well the whole game, but fortunately
we won." That was partly because Kenny Watson, spelling Davis,
who was out with a sprained knee, rushed for 110 yards.
The next week Spurrier returned to his home state for a
much-hyped meeting with the Jaguars. One play in that game
symbolized all that ails the Redskins' passing attack. Trailing
23-7 and facing fourth-and-five early in the fourth quarter,
Matthews looked for wideout Willie Jackson, who was running a
skinny post (straight ahead a few yards, then breaking toward the
goalpost). But Loverne and Moore couldn't stop blitzing
linebacker Akin Ayodele, Jackson never got inside cornerback
Kiwaukee Thomas, and Matthews, in trying to avoid Ayodele, had to
adjust his throwing motion. The pass was behind Jackson and
broken up by Thomas. Routinely victimized by shoddy protection,
the quarterback rarely gets off a pass without having to duck,
take a hit or throw on the run.
Spurrier is reluctant to disclose what he has learned in his
first NFL season or what he'll do differently in 2003, but he
does acknowledge this much: He can't just stick any quarterback
out there and expect to win the way he did in college. "I've
learned that now," he says. "Plus I can see that the ability to
escape is so helpful to a quarterback in the NFL, because the
defenses are all so good."
So why not run the ball more? Spurrier grew almost wistful when
asked why, after gaining 48 yards on seven rushes in the first 10
minutes, he gave up on the run against the Jaguars. "It was a
beautiful night," he said of the 82° weather at kickoff. "No
wind. The balls felt great in your hand. Perfect night to pitch
and catch." Over the last 50 minutes, Washington threw 41 passes,
ran only nine times and was outscored 26-0. "My fault," Spurrier
said last Saturday. "I made some dumb calls. We threw too much."
Yet there he was on Sunday, repeating his mistake against the
Giants, on a day that was not even conducive to throwing the
ball. With 1:26 left in the third quarter and the Redskins
clinging to a 17-16 lead in a steady rain, here's what Spurrier
called on a series that began at the Washington 30: a 15-yard
pass across the middle to wideout Rod Gardner (incomplete), an
18yard out to Gardner (incomplete) and an 11yard out to wide
receiver Derrius Thompson (intercepted by cornerback Jason
Sehorn). The Giants defense had loaded the line to stop Davis,
but even so Davis has always been a back who gets stronger as
the game goes on. Why not use him? Why not chew up the clock? "I
don't know why we did that," a weary Spurrier said of the pass
Many NFL insiders still believe that Spurrier will win,
eventually. "I fear him," says Giants G.M. Ernie Accorsi. "He
revolutionized the SEC. No question, in time, that he'll win."
Adds former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, now a
consultant for the team, "It's going to take him a while until he
understands the league. He's too good not to succeed. He's a
brilliant tactician. He doesn't have much help, but he'll learn
and it'll work."
Merril Hoge, an ESPN analyst and former player, isn't so sure,
saying, "How can you say he's smart when he doesn't know how to
manage the game and he's careless?"
Spurrier may have to tweak his offense--throw more screens and
short stuff--until he gets better receivers who can win the
battles on the deep routes he prefers. Spurrier certainly has to
run the ball more and stop abandoning the ground game the first
time Davis is stuffed on successive plays. Rushing is an
efficient way to move the ball; it eats up time, wears down the
opposition and reduces the probability of turnovers. That may not
thrill Spurrier, but boring wins are better than exciting losses.
Spurrier says ego has nothing to do with his play-calling. "I'm
just trying to help us win," he says. "Maybe I just have too much
confidence in our passing game." Until he gets the personnel to
open up the offense the way he likes, he should place that
confidence in Davis and the running game.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES (LEFT) CUT OFF AT THE PASS The sight of Matthews (opposite) being swallowed by the rush has become all too familiar for Spurrier.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER CUT OFF AT THE PASS The sight of Matthews (opposite) beingswallowed by the rush has become all too familiar for Spurrier.
COLOR PHOTO: AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES (MATTHEWS) GROUNDED Matthews couldn't hold on to the job early in the seasonand on Monday was headed back to the bench.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (2) ROADBLOCK The Giants did a nice job defending the run but weresurprised that Davis's number wasn't called more often.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (2)