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Balance of Power

Spurrier Adjusts Offensive Game Plan To Provide Relatively Even Play-Calling

By Mark Maske


With his offense rolling like it rarely did last season and the Washington Redskins off to their first 2-0 beginning in a dozen years, Steve Spurrier is being hailed for a dramatic transformation of his coaching approach.

Spurrier isn't sure he believes it. He did not suddenly discover the running play between his first and second seasons as an NFL head coach. But he did acknowledge yesterday that he has modified his views on how to attack the league's defenses, scrapping the throw-first, run-second tactics he utilized to amass 122 victories over 12 seasons at the University of Florida in favor of a relatively even split between passing and rushing plays.

"At Florida, we would basically open up the game throwing all over the place and get a lead, and then run the ball to keep the lead," Spurrier said yesterday as he and his assistant coaches prepared their game plan for Sunday's meeting with the New York Giants at FedEx Field. "We can't do that here. The defenses are too good to open up the game just throwing. We've learned that."

Spurrier arrived in the NFL with lofty expectations generated by his reputation as an offensive wizard and a $5 million-per-season contract. But his offense sputtered and the Redskins stumbled to a record of 7-9.

He has acknowledged last season's mistakes and disappointments, and he has made changes. He handed his offensive coordinator title to his running backs coach, Hue Jackson, although he still calls the plays. He conceded that he erred by bringing in too many of his "cheap and available" former Gators players last season and by rotating Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel and Patrick Ramsey in a starting-quarterback carousel. He pledged to stick with Ramsey, now a second-year pro, as his starter this year and made certain that his public comments about his expectations for this season were uncharacteristically low-key and humble.

The criticisms leveled most widely against Spurrier last season were that he valued his offensive system over the strengths and weaknesses of his players; that he wasn't willing to run the ball often enough; and that he wasn't willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect his quarterback by devoting fewer players to running routes and more to blocking.

The first of those issues seemingly was put to rest when the Redskins overhauled their personnel in the offseason, better tailoring Spurrier's roster to his system. Club officials signed guards Randy Thomas and Dave Fiore and wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Patrick Johnson as free agents. They traded for tailback Trung Canidate and used their second-round draft choice on another speedy wideout, former Florida star Taylor Jacobs.

Spurrier has answered the other two criticisms in the first two games. He engineered a 16-13 victory over the New York Jets by leaning on his running game in the second half after a first half that featured big plays in the passing game between Ramsey and Coles. The Redskins won their second game, 33-31, this past Sunday at Atlanta in large part because Spurrier and his coaching staff made mid-game adjustments to protect Ramsey after the young quarterback absorbed a series of hits by Falcons defenders. The Redskins devoted some additional manpower to maximum-protection schemes and used screen passes and other short, quick-hitting throws to slow down Atlanta's pass rush.

The perception, both inside and outside Redskins Park, is that Spurrier has made a significant alteration in his coaching.

"For the most part, I thought his offense was going to be great [but] a couple things had to change," Falcons quarterback Doug Johnson, who played for Spurrier at Florida, said before last weekend's game. "Everybody knows you've got to run the ball in the NFL to win. I think he's changed that a little bit. I think they run the ball a lot more. Other than that, his offensive scheme is unbelievable and I expect it to do very well in the NFL."

Veteran quarterback Rob Johnson, who was signed to back up Ramsey after spending last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said on Monday: "The first game was a total shock to everyone, especially because we opened up throwing so well. We did have a couple turnovers in the second half, so maybe that led to running the ball. But in this league, you have to run the ball. Obviously you can pass a lot, and we've done that. We did it last game. But I think the running game opened that up. When you're running and getting 10 yards a pop, that opens things up.

"It's a different league than college that way, and I think he's adjusting. I wasn't here last year, but you heard things. I think he's reluctantly changing. He still wants to throw it. He's an ex-quarterback. But I think he's learning. It's tough when you're used to one thing. You're in the college game your whole life and you're winning, and the pros are a totally different game that way. You need a couple years, and I think he's ahead of the curve that way."

After gaining 77 of the Redskins' 160 rushing yards against the Jets, second-year tailback Ladell Betts said: "From what I've seen of Coach Spurrier so far, he seems to be a pretty smart guy. It seems like he'll do whatever it takes to win. I think running the ball was pretty effective for us, so he kept with it."

But are the changes in Spurrier's approach really as dramatic as they are perceived to be, or are his tactics merely being viewed differently because he's winning?

Said Spurrier: "I don't know if I have the answer to that. Looking back at last year, in the games we won, we had a good balance. It's just that if you're not making any yards running, it's difficult to keep running the ball. It's pretty simple: If you're having success running, you keep running the ball. If you're having success throwing, you keep throwing the ball. We're trying to be balanced. If you're not having success one way, try the other."

The Redskins have run the ball 51 percent of the time in their first two games of this season (discounting sacks), up from 44 percent last season. But when the Redskins fell behind, 17-0, in the second quarter in Atlanta, Spurrier says he turned to Coles and fellow wide receiver Rod Gardner and told them to be ready. Ramsey threw 39 passes against the Falcons, and Coles and Gardner combined for 20 catches. The Redskins finished the Atlanta game with 39 passes by Ramsey and 31 runs, but their final eight plays were runs.

The bottom line, the Redskins believe, is that their options are better this season no matter what play is called. Canidate, who rushed for 89 yards in Atlanta, and Betts have been formidable while sharing the workload replacing Stephen Davis. The development of Ramsey and the arrival of Coles have revved up the passing game. Spurrier's offense is doing its part. But he cautions that it's far too early for his players to get excited.

"We've got to be more disciplined in everything we do," Spurrier said. "We're not a real good team right now. We're 2-0. We've beat a couple teams in close games. But for us to sit around and think we're hot stuff -- both of them could have gone the other way if a play or two go bad. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to play a lot better."

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Glad to read where the Coaches mind set is.

He's not blinded by the two wins, and understands, as he always has, that balanced wins. It's so simple isn't it? Run untill they stop you then bombs away.

It's his playcalling and system that sets him apart. Thing I noticed last year and this year is Third Down completion. Any time we had a third and long we were always in position to make the first down, sometimes they were dropped. This year same thing.

It's just a huge difference in playcalling from Schott and Norv. Maybe what makes him so better is for a different thread...

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