Spurrier, Redskins have something to prove this season

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) _ The practice was intense, yet Steve Spurrier wasn’t watching. With his back turned to the 11-on-11 drill between the Redskins’ scout team offense and the first-string defense, Washington’s coach was laughing and teaching kicker John Hall a trick that involved bouncing a ball on the ground and catching it behind the back. On another day during training camp, Spurrier was asked who would start at right defensive end _ a valid question given that soon-to-be sacks king Bruce Smith plays that position. Spurrier grimaced and answered: “Aw, gee, you’re asking me that?” He then erroneously listed left end Renaldo Wynn as a candidate, and he didn’t mention Smith at all. In other words, the old Florida ball coach really hasn’t changed much from Year 1 to Year 2 in the NFL. He’s still basically a $5 million per year quarterback-and-receivers guy who designs and calls the plays and leaves most everything else alone. “Mr. Snyder didn’t hire me to be the organizational chief,” said Spurrier, a reference to owner Dan Snyder. So what went wrong last year, when Spurrier’s ballyhooed debut limped to a 7-9 finish? Why would anyone expect this year to be different? Is Spurrier really cut out to be an NFL coach? And how long can he tolerate working for Snyder? Most of the answers start coming Thursday in the opener against the New York Jets, but Spurrier has a few of them in advance. “We were optimistic last year,” Spurrier said. “But looking back, it was sort of some false optimism. We obviously thought some players who had not done a whole lot in the NFL would become really top players, and it didn’t really work out. “Now we have more proven players.” Gone are the Spurrier favorites he coached at Florida, including Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel and Chris Doering. They’ve been replaced through another Snyder spending spree that netted Laveranues Coles, Randy Thomas, Dave Fiore, Trung Canidate, Chad Morton, John Hall and several others, making the Redskins younger, faster and more-suited to Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense. “If we can’t succeed this year, we’re going to have to scratch our heads,” second-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “I think we’ve got a really good team.” The season hinges on Spurrier and Ramsey, especially now that Snyder has called Spurrier’s bluff and cut Wuerffel. After changing starting quarterbacks five times last season, Spurrier has little choice but to keep to his pledge to stick with Ramsey; the only backup, Rob Johnson, is still learning Spurrier’s system. “I hope he doesn’t have to come out,” Spurrier said. “We’re planning on him being our guy.” Spurrier will pass early and often, especially now that Stephen Davis has been replaced by the erratic Canidate. The offensive line is much better, so there could be points aplenty if Ramsey matures quickly. Defensively, there are stars all around, led by cornerback Champ Bailey, linebackers LaVar Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter and defensive end Smith, who is three sacks from Reggie White’s career record. All that talent could be negated if the interior of the defensive line, patched together to replace starters Dan Wilkinson (cut) and Brandon Noble (injured), doesn’t stop the run. But, as much as anything, the Redskins last season were a team lacking leadership. Spurrier noticed it, and this year he wants to keep a better handle on the players’ collective mood. “Trying to,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been to, I think, all of the special teams meetings this year. Most of the defensive players are in there. I have more contact with the entire team.” The message isn’t always getting through. Spurrier emphasized eliminating penalties and turnovers during camp. But those problems made the team look so bad in its first two exhibition games before a somewhat better effort in the third game. The team still seems to function as if there are three head coaches: Spurrier, defensive coordinator George Edwards and special teams coach Mike Stock. If the don’t jell quickly, the Redskins could be in trouble. The first seven games are brutal, but they’ve caught breaks _ literally and figuratively _ for the first two games because of injuries to New York quarterback Chad Pennington and Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick. A slow start would not bode well in the NFC East, where Philadelphia and the New York Giants are consensus playoff contenders. Spurrier has given himself until the end of next season to prove his system works. If it doesn’t, he says he’ll walk away from the final two years of his mammoth contract. If could be sooner, if Snyder again pulls rank on the selection of quarterbacks. “He owns the team,” Spurrier said. “As long as he doesn’t tell us which quarterback to play, or which play to call or how to coach, we’re fine.” Actually, the way to make things fine is to win. “We think we’ve got a good plan, but we’ve got to show it,” Spurrier said. “We think we’re prepared, but it’s all thinking and belief right now.”

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