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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002
LANDOVER, Md. -- Unlike with the Florida Gators, he threw no sun visor in anger, but Steve Spurrier paid a bloody price.
Sunday's second half, for a while, was tight against Arizona. Old Ball Coach's new team, the Redskins, got flagged for holding. In a rage, Spurrier ripped away his headset, but a finger snagged on pro football technology, causing an inch-long gash.
A new red zone.
Beyond that, Spurrier was all but pain-free in a well-trumpeted start as an NFL coach, using his favorite new electronic toy -- radio communications via his quarterback's helmet -- to beautifully shepherd Shane Matthews, a Gainesville ally from the '90s.
Matthews, in Spurrier's first two seasons as UF coach (1990-91), pitched the Gators to the top of the SEC. At 32, after eight mediocre NFL seasons, mostly with the Bears, Shane found deja vu magic with Spurrier, hitting 28 of 40 for 327 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals in a 31-23 success.
"We weren't real perfect," Spurrier said. "Our defense was solid, our blocking pretty good and Shane made some good pitches. I'm not real good on (giving) praise unless we're moving the ball all the time."
Regarding his former life, in which Spurrier had massive hot streaks, the Redskins hope was asked about the Gators taking a 41-16 beating Saturday against national champion Miami. "I saw what everybody saw, that the Hurricanes were a lot better," he said, "but the Gators are still a good team and will win a lot. I'll be rooting hard for them."
But this is the NFL, where there are no Vanderbilts and nothing that resembles an easy touch. In 12 splendid UF seasons (122-27-1), Spurrier teams had a sizeable skills superiority on four opponents in every five.
Much different now.
Washington players are middle of the NFL talent pack or thereabouts, with a shortage of speedy receivers. Spurrier's QBs are Matthews and Danny Wuerffel, both Gator charms from his Gainesville past who have yet to wow pro critics.
"Everybody thinks I've been living forever with the Spurrier offense," Matthews said, "but it's been 11 years since we were together. I've been mostly in West Coast offenses as a pro. But, from the Florida playbook I knew in 1991, the change has been only maybe 5 percent to what the Redskins are running now. Just a few new, better things.
"Coach does have to get more familiar with using the helmet radio. He yells in my ear, then forgets to push the button and I hear all the racket going on around the Redskins bench.
"I really enjoy playing his offense, where you run the ball a lot more than most people think. Usually checking to see if a deep throw is there and, if not, flicking the pass underneath. Coach is the same old guy as the early '90s. His approach is unique and it works."
Spurrier said the helmet radio was "fun to work with. Around the South, everybody had come to know the Gators' signals. This sure beats having a backup quarterback flash the signs, trying to hide them from prying eyes. I just have a private line to my quarterback."
Colleges have no such.
"Doubters are always going to be there," Matthews said. "What we did against Arizona will quiet the critics for a few days, but they will be back a week from now when we play Philadelphia. Coach Spurrier is real good at ignoring what the outside world thinks."
Wuerffel quarterbacked the Gators to their only national championship in 1996, winning the Heisman Trophy. But on the day of Spurrier's first NFL game, Danny's role was wholly unpredictable. He made two plays, kicking off and then becoming a tackler.
Washington placekicker Brett Conway sustained a hip flexor. Two kickoffs in the second half blooped less than 30 yards before Conway said he was hurting too much. Matthews was in a hot streak, throwing touchdowns on three consecutive drives. Conway managed extra points but somebody else had to kick off.
Spurrier recalled Wuerffel kicking in high school. Danny warmed up, then gave it a try. It was ugly. He topped the football, skidding it 30 yards before returner Marcel Shipp scooped and sailed 29 yards to the Redskins 42. Wuerffel pushed Shipp out of bounds, his first tackle since sandlot football.
But it all worked out for Spurrier, his old Gators and his new Redskins. Stephen Davis, an Auburn fellow and one-time enemy of the Gators, carried 26 times for 104 yards to balance Washington's offense.
"So many things are mistakenly said about what we try to do," Spurrier commented. "Everywhere I've been, we've had 1,000-yard rushers most all seasons. It's a big part of the scheme. We love to throw footballs, but running is a vital part of making it all work."
For an opening Sunday, it was a hit. Next up for the 'Skins is Philadelphia on ABC Monday Night Football. Spurrier will get a few more gushings of NFL-style attention.
"It'll die down soon," he said. "We had six Florida newspapers covering this Arizona game. Next time, probably none of them will be here. I hope people get tired real soon of talking so much about me.
"Philly figures to be a lot better than the Cards. No easy weeks in this league. You've got to stick to your business."