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 so-called 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 season.
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 10-game 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 go-to 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."