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Spurrier faces unprecedented pressures in NFL

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002


It's a new kind of pain for Steve Spurrier. Never has the Ball Coach felt such pressures of doubt.

Facing challenges at Duke, Florida and with the Tampa Bay Bandits, he did occasionally get bloodied by adversity.

Remember the 62-24 Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska? Spurrier winced through a few Saturday smacks against FSU. But nothing nasty and steady. No noises from nonbelievers like the current rants around Washington.

Until now, S.O.S. constituencies were rich in the devout, near unanimous in belief that extended failure was not a possibility.

En masse, they sensed in Durham, Gainesville and Tampa that the old Heisman Trophy quarterback was a lock to create repetitive success.

This morning, the Ball Coach, an especially rich Redskins rookie, swims in colder, shark-infested NFL waters. Laced with vocal doubters.

"Send him back to the Gators," suggested a caller to Washington sports-talk radio. "Spurrier's sophomoric playbook can still fool them at Georgia, Vanderbilt and Auburn, but in the pros he is clearly overmatched. Ruination of my Redskins."

Unfair words, I think. With his team sitting at 1-2, seemingly weakening by the hour, predictable trigger-finger reaction is flying from public and media. Mushrooming by the minute.

It's been a slopping September for a lot of genuises. Spurrier, Mike Martz, Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick and Bill Cowher have a combined 1-12 record and only Stevie has a win.

Flak abounds.

'Noles, Bulldogs and Volunteers have always taken shots at Spurrier, but now it has expanded to Democrats, Republicans and independents, the Washingtonians the Ball Coach hopes to have on his side.

Next to Iraq, the most sizzling D.C. subject is Spurrier. "Makes me even yearn for a return of Marty Schottenheimer," said a talk-show critic. "He's got to be chuckling in San Diego."

Well, call me sophomoric, but I am still relatively sure Redskins owner Dan Snyder has not wasted his $25-million. Spurrier will notably achieve in the NFL, but he indeed must change -- dramatically in some ways.

Gators who delivered for the Ball Coach back in the Swamp are drowning in Washington.

Danny Wuerffel is not NFL-able. After the sweet kid from the Florida Panhandle won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy with Spurrier as boss, the new coach of the Redskins had to be shown that his favorite QB will not excel in the pros.

Danny is over his blond head. It might be time for Wuerffel to get a real job. Washington's other ex-Gator quarterback, Shane Matthews, can maybe function as a 32-year-old backup. Nothing more, even if Shane was named offensive player of the week in an opening win over Arizona.

S.O.S. should move on to Patrick Ramsey, a strong-armed rookie who is greener than the grass at FedEx Field. He could be the Redskins' future. Matthews cannot. Wuerffel certainly not.

Spurrier is hearing the taunts, getting the capital heat, and must make the call on a load of changes, offensive and defensive. Today's roster would have no chance of making the playoffs even if the coach were Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh or Don Shula.

Defense was supposed to carry the 'Skins until Spurrier could get his offense primed. D gets a D-minus for September, having been beaten 37-7 by Philadelphia on a mortifying Monday night and then allowing 252 rushing yards in the latest flop, 20-10 at San Francisco.

LaVar Arrington, Jeremiah Trotter and Jessie Armstead were expected to be the NFL's best troika of 'backers. Instead they are a porous mess. Marvin Lewis, builder of a Baltimore stone wall that crushed all NFL comers two years ago, got stiffed in a wacky offseason coaching hunt of the Tampa Bay Bucs and reacted by jumping to Washington as the league's highest-paid coordinator ($900,000).

Okay, let's see his wizardry.

In a unique metropolis that encompasses Maryland, Virginia and D.C., the Redskins are second only to politics as conversational fodder. Spurrier's approval rating, high in the preseason, has sunk well below that of President Bush.

In his 25 years as a coach, we have seen Spurrier in angry, visor-slamming moods. We've seen him cocky and conquering, but with a periodical meltdown with the Gators, Blue Devils and Bandits. But never have the S.O.S. challenges been so severe, so threatening, so laced with such high stakes and so cluttered with nonbelievers.

Listening to the D.C. uproar, you'd think he was 1-12 instead of 1-2. In retrospect, was there ever a more misleading game than a 40-10 preseason win by the Redskins against the Bucs? Tampa Bay is clearly 30 percent ahead of Washington in personnel as well as possibilities.

Even so, let us not forget that there is no more gritty competitor than Stephen Orr Spurrier. He hears the critics. Ball Coach is probably taking names, hoping for strike-back use when his Redskins become achievers.

His defense needs a kick in the posterior, whether from Orr's foot or that of Lewis. Washington's interior offensive line, the center and guards, are terribly inferior. Pressures flow too freely up the middle.

Spurrier is ravenous for a breakaway pass receiver who can even approach the gifted neighborhood of a Terrell Owens or Marvin Harrison or New Orleans rookie Donte' Stallworth.

Above all, Spurrier is desperate for Ramsey to quickly mature, embracing the complex offense that worked so well with the Gators and Devils and Bandits, muffling the venomous bellowing around the nation's capital.

If, in October and November, there are signs of Redskins hope. If the defense performs to expectations. If the OL begins to block more effectively than a revolving door.

If the 'Skins muster a steady ground threat with the powerful Stephen Davis. If the kid QB from Tulane can progress at warp speed, instead of getting warped. I'm thinking the Ball Coach might outlast Saddam Hussein.

Spurrier has never experienced such a challenge.

-- To contact Hubert Mizell, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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