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Spurrier's struggles should be short-lived

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Put your ear to the historic marble in this monumental town, from Capitol Hill on past the White House to Georgetown -- what you hear are Washington residents talking politics, terrorism, the economy and Steve Spurrier.

The hottest of topics.

There are no holidays from serious issues, but today D.C. crackles with unity, a September hope that bullish times are about to be reborn for its Redskins.

Spurrier, a collegiate coaching wizard with the Florida Gators, brings his unique offensive schemes and controversial personality to football's biggest, toughest stage.

We'll see if a Spurrier act that sizzled in the ACC and SEC as well as among backstreet USFL pros can wow the NFL. "We've got a good team," he said. "We have a chance to have a real good season."

Dozens of times, in 17 Spurrier seasons, I've heard the self-proclaimed "Ball Coach" assessing his Gators, Duke Blue Devils or Tampa Bay Bandits. But this didn't seem quite the same, listening to Steve's evaluations before the Spurrier 'Skins play to 86,000 at FedEx Field in his inaugural NFL coaching exam against the Arizona Cardinals.

Spurrier is confident he will succeed, like always. Self-assured, like usual. But there appeared to be uncharacteristic mysteries afloat in Steve's mind, especially about his favorite subject -- offense -- where the Redskins are operating with lukewarm talent including two quarterbacks who qualify as teacher's pets.

Washington won four preseason games, but last weekend the 'Skins were overwhelmed and all but humiliated in an exhibition against Super Bowl champion New England.

It was a blueprint of what NFL opponents are apt to attempt against Spurrier's offense -- solid coverage of Redskins receivers who are not especially fast or scary, blended with a furious rush of the revolving quarterbacks.

Danny Wuerffel led the Spurrier Gators to the 1996 national championship and, like his coach, was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Wuerffel is with the Redskins because Spurrier is comfortable with him and knows that Wuerffel excels in the academics of Spurrier's complex offense. Even so, against the Pats, Wuerffel was sacked five times and significantly blundered.

Spurrier's other quarterback option is Shane Matthews, who likewise played for him at UF. Wuerffel was so wobbly against New England that Matthews will start today against Arizona. I see no sign of either of them taking exclusive hold of the job.

Expect a shuttle. Spurrier constantly will be trying to find cool leadership and a hot passing hand from Wuerffel or Matthews. "Each week, I believe at least one of them will do okay," Spurrier, 57, said. "Some critics say it hurts a quarterback's feelings and confidence to bench him. Well, against the Patriots, it was clear I was doing Danny a favor by taking him out. He needed a relief pitcher."

Predictions are running strong in both directions on Spurrier regarding his NFL chances. Some analysts anticipate the $5-million-a-year Washington property will be a whopper flop. I disagree. Spurrier won at Duke where no other coach could. He's smart. He's as fierce a competitor as I have ever seen. He may struggle temporarily, but I expect eventual grandeur.

NFL operators came after Steve for 10 years. Dallas owner Jerry Jones called to see if Spurrier was interested in leaving the Gators for the Cowboys. No dice.

Spurrier came within a sunshine heartbeat of becoming Bucs coach in 1996. He stayed in Gainesville and won a national championship that year as Tampa Bay opted for Tony Dungy.

Ron Wolf, recently retired as Green Bay general manager, told me, "I have long thought Spurrier was the sharpest coach anywhere. I see him becoming a big winner. I tried three times to hire him." It was the big money and roaring promises of Redskins owner Dan Snider that finally prodded Steve into jumping.

"Scrutiny will be heavy," Spurrier said, "but I've been dealing with that for a long time. It doesn't bother me.

"I'm just interested in what 53 players on our roster believe. Every indication is that they are very excited and think we can do some big things."

Offense is Steve's gig, but it will be defense that carries the Redskins this season. They have the best troika of linebackers in the league with LaVar Arrington, Jeremiah Trotter and Jessie Armstead.

Snider not only made Spurrier the NFL's highest-paid field commander, but he also hired former Baltimore Ravens defensive guru Marvin Lewis, architect of a Super Bowl champion, making him the league's highest-paid coordinator at $900,000 a year.

"It's bigger, faster, stronger football," Spurrier said of the NFL. "We're not as good as we're going to be.

"We had a great thing going for years at the Swamp in Gainesville, and I want the pro football version at FedEx Field. It's the biggest stadium in the league and should be the loudest ... and I hope, before long, the happiest."

-- To contact Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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