The hype makes it hard to put the season in perspective. The hype, and Steve Spurrier's own expectations. He came to town last January on a wave of excitement, people convinced that he could begin a new era for the Redskins, that he was just the right guy to turn around the ailing franchise that means so much to this city.
Nearly a year later, he has finished his first season and escaped to his beach house in Florida. Taken out his old golf clubs. Watched college bowl games on television. Celebrated New Year's with his wife, Jerri. And faced the fact that the goal for this season wasn't reached: The playoffs are underway, but the Redskins have all gone home.
The regular season ended with a disappointing 7-9 record, with a team's weaknesses exposed and with a city desperate for a winner now pragmatic. Spurrier is still perceived to be brilliant, talented. A winner in a town that craves winners. The town keeps the faith.
Now, though, comes the time to accept that even with a proven winner at the helm, football life is complicated and can't necessarily be fixed with one dramatic change. That when Dan Snyder opened up his wallet last winter and persuaded one of college coaching's top talents to come to Washington, and the NFL, it was the start of something, not the instant solution.
"I think the hype was hype," says Mike Torbert, a founding member of the Redskins' famous fan group, the Hogettes. "It was superficial and false and based on hopes. I think there's too much pressure on these guys. Coach Spurrier was a rookie. He was a rookie coach. Coach [Vince] Lombardi said it best: The first thing a coach has to learn is how not to lose, then once they figure that out, they start winning and then they're successful."
Lombardi was the name people liked to drop when Spurrier arrived. The greatest football coach who ever lived. The one who first gave the Redskins a taste of what it was like to be a winner. George Allen came later, and then Joe Gibbs. Everyone here wanted Spurrier to be the next one. They still do.
"Perhaps the expectations were too high," says Calvin Hill, a former Redskin and longtime Washington area resident who consults for the Cowboys. "I just think that people should not be dismayed. It was probably a learning transition for Steve Spurrier, but he'll figure it out. He's a very smart man."
Hill played for two years under Allen, and he lived in town during the Gibbs era and the three Super Bowl victories it brought.
"I know what it was like even that one year when Lombardi was here," he says. "The environment, the excitement. It's a great feeling. You taste that, and you don't want to give it up. It's about winning, and I think people know Steve Spurrier is a winner."
He made mistakes. The luster that came with his reputation was tarnished a little during this difficult season. People questioned his commitment to his two quarterbacks from the University of Florida -- Danny Wuerffel, particularly. There were fans who stood in the stands at FedEx Field and shrieked, "Run the ball!" when the high-flying offensive coach continued to pass even after that didn't seem to work. Columnists criticized. Fans called the talk shows to question his play calls.
"I think people are always looking for others to fail," says Chris Doering, the Redskins receiver, "and when you have someone who gets as much attention as Spurrier, that increases that."
As the shine faded, though, people got to know him better. He answered the call-in questioners with self-effacing responses. He criticized his own play-calling. He made people laugh at his news conferences. He was very much unlike his predecessors. Norv Turner made excuses. Marty Schottenheimer talked in coach-speak, using lots of words and often saying nothing. Spurrier was blunt. People liked that.
"He's a departure from what I'm used to in a head coach," says Ray Schoenke, a former Redskin. "He's so open and honest and refreshing."
"We didn't get it done," Spurrier said the day after the season ended. "We thought we had a team that could make the playoffs, and we didn't do it. I didn't have a very good year, simple as that."
And matched against the expectations, it wasn't a good year. Spurrier didn't create a miracle. Yes, there was excitement at FedEx Field this season -- but there was also disappointment, frustration and, at times, outright fury.
It was a rookie having a rookie year. Even Snyder -- notorious for his impatience with his coaches -- saw that clearly. Snyder has shown nothing but patience and commitment to Spurrier, giving him yet another endorsement one day after the season ended. Snyder gave the man a five-year, $25 million contract, which he has to pay even if he fires him, so of course he wasn't going to pull the plug quickly.
Nevertheless, it's different from the Schottenheimer days. Schottenheimer was canned after an 8-8 season, in large part because he and Snyder did not get along. In Spurrier, Snyder sees a coach he respects.
"You give people the benefit of the doubt, because the benefit of the doubt says, 'I won a million games in college,' " says retired cornerback Darrell Green, who has seen his share of NFL coaches, good and bad. "Spurrier has a track record."
By now, the facts of this year's failure have been hashed over and hashed over some more. Spurrier, by his own admission, brought in too many of his former Florida players. He kept fiddling with his quarterbacks when perhaps the only one with the true ability to execute his system against NFL-caliber defenses was the rookie, Patrick Ramsey. Mostly, though, there were things he could have used as excuses: There were holes in the offensive line. The receiving corps needed an upgrade. Too much money was spent meeting needs on the defensive side of the ball last off-season. The team's components still reflected Schottenheimer's style, dramatically different from Spurrier's.
He didn't say most of that, though. He said he failed. And that he would try to do better next year. "I think they like his honesty," says legendary Redskin Sonny Jurgensen. "His straightforwardness. And his assessment of what happened. For that reason, I think they really have patience with him. He's not alibiing."
Jurgensen thinks that Spurrier is the person most disappointed in the season, perhaps because he was the one who most believed in his ability. He believed so strongly that he was able to get others excited by his promises of playoff appearances and wins over the hated Dallas Cowboys.
"I was very disappointed for him," says Schoenke.
So now it's time to think of next year. The hype has dissipated, but the personnel problems still exist. Yet, hope is pinned in almost equal parts on Spurrier and Ramsey. The expectations may be tempered by what happened this first season, but the pressure will be increased. Reality doesn't necessarily come with patience. It's easy to lose this town if you don't win.
The losing record this season marks only the second time in Spurrier's head-coaching career that he has finished under .500. The first was his rookie season at Duke University, where he promptly turned around a moribund program. He was immediately loved because he is a winner, and if he doesn't find a way to win, that love will quickly wane.
"Washington's a city where every two, every four and every six years, winners come in and losers leave -- or become lobbyists," Hill says. "Maybe it's less transient here than it used to be, but the major thing about this city is winning. It's a city of winners."
And Spurrier still talks like one, even when he's beating himself up. He acts like one. On the last day of the regular season, the Redskins finally defeated Dallas, 20-14, after five years of frustration, delivering on Spurrier's promise.
In his news conference, he was humorous, sharp, entertaining -- but disappointed. There was no joy for him in the victory. No gloating. Not even, it seemed, a little satisfaction. Dallas, he pointed out, was a pretty lousy team this year. His team hadn't played all that well.
A half-hour later, he came down the hall from the locker room, a Sprite in his hand, son Scotty by his side. He'd already asked a reporter, jokingly, how he'd done in his last post-game news conference. But he paused before disappearing into the lounge where the rest of his family was waiting, jubilant. There was no sign of victory on his face. "We should have beat them by more," he said. "I like beating them by more."