State of the Coaching
Steve Spurrier came into the NFL last season wanting to see if his system would work in the NFL. After conquering the college ranks, it was time to see what he could do among the best of the best. With a team built for power running, he still managed a fairly respectable 7-9--not bad for a rookie NFL coach. After studying what did and didn't work in the 2002 season, he went into the 2003 offseason with three definite goals in mind: to find players who more clearly match the wide-open system he wanted to install, to be more involved with all aspects of the team, and to instill some discipline and heads-up play in his team.
I was taught as an undergrad that when reviewing books, you have to judge the book as the author intended it--not as the book you *wish* he or she had written. Likewise, when grading the Ol' Ball Coach, it's important that we rate him on his own stated goals rather than wishing he were playing some other brand of football. He has stated repeatedly that he intends to be with the team at least three years, and "if after three years, this team is still struggling, we're playing undisciplined and we can't block very well or tackle very well, shoot, somebody else deserves to be the coach." But the three-year plan he's been operating under gives us a pretty clear basis for judging his progress this season: Last year was about evaluation. This year is about "coaching 'em up" and getting things rolling in the right direction, perhaps into the playoffs. Next year is about making the push for the big game.
Steve Spurrier is a coach who believes in delegating responsibility, so he can't truly be evaluated on defense or special teams--those are areas over which he's got general authority but for which the day-to-day coaching is provided by others. But the offense--now the offense is his baby. With all of this in mind, let's see how he has done with his particular head-coach responsibilities now that we're about halfway through year two of the plan.
Having had a year to evaluate the Fun 'n Gun last season, it appears that the main conclusion Spurrier reached when it wasn't very successful is that he didn't have the right personnel to run it. So this year he and the front office went out to find pro players more suited to the scheme--fast receivers, shifty running backs, and strong pass-protectors.
At the same time, he has also made minor adjustments in the scheme itself. In 2002, it seemed the running game was virtually anathema to Spurrier, but this year--especially earlier in the season--he committed early and often to the run, striking an offensive balance that helped both the passing and running attacks and produced the number one offense in the NFL for a time. In the last few weeks, the balance has been skewed once again as the pass seems to have become Spurrier's safety valve when the team has fallen behind. But after talking up draws and short passes to running backs as being a staple of the revamped offense, there has been little evidence of such plays--which is a shame, as they may well be pretty successful given the backs on the roster.
But the scheme overall remains much the same as it was last year. The quarterback is encouraged--virtually required--to audible at the line of scrimmage in the hope of avoiding the negative play or exploiting a hole in the defense. He is also trained to look deep first and then to the middle before finally looking short--and the byproduct of that is that he hangs onto the ball longer than most (courage remaining the trait most valued by Spurrier) and forces the O-line to hold their blocks as long as possible. And Spurrier floods the field with potential receivers, which often leaves the line shorthanded against blitzing defenses and/or creates mismatches--one infamous example occurring of late when tight ends have been matched against defensive ends.
The Fun 'n Gun requires a virtually impregnable pass-protection--without that, the whole system breaks down. And for various reasons (see the O-line report card for details), the pass-protection scheme hasn't yet hit on all cylinders. Until it does, it's hard to judge the entirety of the Fun 'n Gun--as a scheme--being run by these more talented players. But, on the other hand, some of the problems stem from the nature of the scheme itself--which redounds to the coach. It's his scheme, so he has to figure out how to make it work.
Coaching is an amalgam of many different roles--disciplinarian, mentor, father-figure, psychologist, tactician. But the role with which Steve Spurrier most closely identifies is probably that of teacher. He came into the NFL expecting--in vain, perhaps--a group of self-motivated men who had mastered the basics of the game and needed only to learn the intricacies of his particular offense and style of play in order to become successful.
Unfortunately for the Ol' Ball Coach, discipline and motivation have taken up much larger chunks of his time than he'd like. But with regard to the overall ability to impart the Fun 'n Gun offense, I believe he has done well. There can be no doubt that he pays closer attention to the quarterback position than any other head coach in the NFL--from details of posture and head position to the ability to read defenses, Spurrier constantly works with his signal-callers. Several offensive players have mentioned in the offseason and during the season the importance they have come to put on reviewing film and time in the classroom. The improvement in players entering their second year in the Fun 'n Gun, such as Patrick Ramsey and Rod Gardner, and the success for those who have just been exposed for the first time, such as Laveranues Coles and Trung Canidate, is a testimony to Spurrier's ability to impart his system to players.
Once the season has begun, the time for teaching the overall scheme is more or less over. Week-to-week life in the NFL is about evaluating the last week's performance and planning for the upcoming opponent. Coaches study miles of film to learn the subtlest tendencies of their foe in order to exploit those inclinations during the sixty minutes of play between the whistles. Such familiarity is priceless--knowing how to attack an opposing offense or defense generally spells the difference between victory and defeat.
Or so it is with most teams. As far as I can tell, the Redskins this year haven't indulged overmuch in the art of game planning. I'm sure they do--if they hadn't at least a little, they probably couldn't have won any games at all--but for teams whose weaknesses are recognized even by the general public, there's been very little evidence of an intentional attack on those weaknesses. For instance, against the Jets there wasn't much of a pass-rush mounted against the living statue, Vinny Testaverde. Nor did they truly attack the injury-plagued Patriots defense in week 4.
It's almost as if the Redskins are afraid that their opponent has already game-planned the 'Skins game planning. So they don't attack the known weakness as if they fear that it has secretly been strengthened. Instead, the Redskins' plan going into most games generally seems to revolve around waiting to see how the game unfolds and taking it from there--not an awful approach, by any means, but one that leaves some golden opportunities sitting out there unclaimed.
Right on the heels of the game-planning discussion above comes the question of in-game coaching and adjustments. The Redskins--and Coach Spurrier--have been inconsistent on that score to say the least. At the end of last season and in the early games of this, the Redskins had sort of developed a reputation for never truly being out of a fight--even when down by 17 or 18 points, they'd managed to make adjustments at the half that gave them the opportunity to roar back and tie--and sometimes win--the game.
But on other occasions, the team played brilliantly for the first half and then came out and got smacked around in the second. One might argue that the team shouldn't make any changes if what they'd been doing had been working--the old "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" situation. But they *have* to be ready to adjust to their opponents' adjustments, and that has been the death of the team a few times this season.
As mentioned above, one of Steve Spurrier's most significant lessons upon entering the NFL is the discovery that professional football players are *not* all self-motivated men who live and die by every win or loss the way he is and does himself. Perhaps it is merely the nature of the game--free agency and the era of the multimillion-dollar contract may have simply changed the character of the professional athlete. In many ways, I believe Spurrier would have been happier coaching when pro players had to hold down jobs in their home communities in the offseason--those men played for the pure love of the game.
This season has been marked by the same sort of inconsistency with regard to heart and motivation as has marked other areas of the team's play. There can be no doubt that this is a team that has shown more grit and determination in two or three games than it seems it ever showed in seven years combined under Norv Turner. But at other times--notably in the second half of the Bucs' game and the whole of the Bills'--the team seems to just want to lie down and die.
Spurrier's approach seems to be to allow his players to be men and take responsibility for their own actions--and this works for many, especially the older veterans who have played under controlling martinets like Marty Schottenheimer. But other players--and sometimes the whole team--need external motivation, whether from pep talks or the threat of dire consequence for passive play. It is in this area that Spurrier might want to concentrate some effort, and happily it appears that he has recognized that during the off-week, when he was quoted as saying, "[A]s coaches, we need to get a little more fire and passion and be more demanding that our guys get the job done. I think players will respond to that, and we'll see."
Ah, discipline--the Achilles' heel of the team this year. It must be driving Spurrier insane. In the offseason he said, "We're going to emphasize doing the little things correctly, like lining up onsides, taking care of the ball, learning how to run with it correctly." He instituted a system of $10 fines for every jump off sides, every dropped pass, every false start. He brought in extra referees during practices. He preached the importance of disciplined play as often as possible. "We hope to be better organized," Spurrier said. "We hope to be more fundamentally sound than last year."
And then the season opened. And all that discipline seems to have flown out the window. Twelve penalties one week; seventeen the next. All told the team's 72 penalties is on pace to break the NFL record. And that doesn't even touch on the dropped passes and blown assignments that have held the team back.
Spurrier seems to be at a loss, though part of the blame must fall on him. He appears to be reluctant to light into his team, as if he doesn't want to shake the kind of relationship he established with them when he first became coach--unfortunately, he hadn't truly established himself as the sole and unquestioned (and unquestionable) leader when he arrived, so the team was never in fear of him. On the other hand, this goes back to his apparent feeling that players should be self-motivated and self-disciplined and he shouldn't have needed to concern himself with such matters. But it's all compounded by the fact that he has a tendency to threaten dire consequences immediately following a loss--fines, benched players, cuts, signing guys off the street--and then to backtrack after he cools down. I don't think there's a greater conspiracy afoot when he backs off of these extreme statements--some have argued that Snyder or Cerrato must be telling him he can't make those moves--I think he's just realizing that he has to play with the hand he was dealt. But this pattern has just reinforced the view that he's not really holding the players accountable for their actions.
The Ol' Ball Coach needs to get a little caustic and cutting from time to time--call out players directly for violations and get in their faces when they make mistakes. He was legendary at the University of Florida for dressing down his quarterbacks on the sidelines for the slightest error--even when they had scored a touchdown. This kind of attitude of uncompromising perfection needs to be brought to bear on all his players when they mess up.
Oddly enough, it strikes me that he was a little intimidated by the pro player or the pro game when he came to the NFL--it's like he was told he can't be too harsh with professional players or something bad might happen. But the time has come to cast those illusions aside and knock heads when it's warranted. Until he does, undisciplined play is going to be the millstone around this team's neck.
Overall, Spurrier's second year in coaching seems so far to be going much the way of his first--last season he ended up 7-9, this season is right in the same pattern so far, with a 3-4 record. But he does have the pieces in place--especially in talent--to take this team where he wants to go. There are signs that he is starting to shake off the funk that seems to have settled on him the past few games. He's declared his intention to reclaim his Fun 'n Gun system and start airing it out--I suspect he'll be wrapping in the lessons he's learned about the need to protect Patrick Ramsey, so we'll see something of a successful compromise between his Fun 'n Gun and a more traditional NFL offense. More importantly than the scheme change is the attitude change--if Spurrier truly does regain the swagger that sets him apart from his coaching peers and imparts it to his players, I believe he and the team will start building momentum as the season wears on.
Though the overall grade so far isn't good, I think better times are ahead for the Ol' Ball Coach. He's beginning a tough stretch, and it'll take all his skills to coach his way through it. But if the team gets disciplined, their talent can take them a long way. That, combined with his inborn mastery of play calling, might yet mean the playoffs aren't out of the picture. And if that momentum is rising at the end of the season--look out NFL, the Redskins are coming in 2004.
Overall grade: C-
This article was released on 2003-10-31.
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