They are becoming annual rituals for the Washington Redskins. Owner Daniel Snyder introduces a big-name, high-priced new head coach in January, then the team spends the next few months talking about its great expectations while shaping its roster. That turns out to be the highlight of the Redskins' year. Around Thanksgiving, when the true championship contenders in the National Football League begin to separate themselves from the pack, the cracks show in the Redskins' season and they start to contemplate their next retooling.
So it is for Coach Steve Spurrier's first Redskins team as it enters today's game against the St. Louis Rams at FedEx Field with two straight losses and a record of 4-6, clinging to faint playoff hopes as Spurrier turns to one of his former University of Florida quarterbacks -- this time Danny Wuerffel -- to try to salvage the season. Already, many in the organization are looking toward a future that includes young quarterback Patrick Ramsey and a new cast of offensive players for Spurrier.
"Steve has arrived back from the honeymoon," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "Now the reality of working in the city of Washington has arrived, and it can be a tough, tough place. . . . This is a defining moment for the Redskins and Steve Spurrier. Whether the Redskins win or lose, in my mind, is nowhere near as significant as how hard they play. That will show whether he still has the football team or not. Just because you're getting paid a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean you're going to play your butt off."
Spurrier amassed 122 victories in 12 seasons at Florida and arrived in Washington billed as a genius of the passing game who said he expected to win the NFC East title this season. Questionable offseason personnel decisions by the team's reorganized front office, an over-reliance on former Florida players who had been discarded by other NFL teams, four starting quarterback changes and, most ironically, an overemphasis on passing are seen as the causes for the Redskins having the seventh-worst offense in the league.
Spurrier, always a lightning rod for criticism because of his brash style and under even more scrutiny because of the five-year, $25 million contract he signed in the offseason, has taken much of the blame.
"That always happens when you lose," Spurrier said. "Let me tell you this: It's not the first criticism I've had, nor the last. If you're a coach that can't take criticism when you lose, you need not be a coach in any sport. That's the way life is. I can handle it, whatever it is. But we're going to carry on, trying to do what we think is best for the Redskins, and that's the only thing we can concern ourselves with. . . . When you're not doing well, that's the remarks you're going to get. That's the way life is. We're trying to do what we think gives us the best chance to win the game. . . . I'm only as smart as my last game. Right now, I'm not very smart."
Running back Stephen Davis said following a 19-17 loss to the New York Giants last Sunday that the Redskins should not have abandoned the run so quickly. Veteran defensive end Bruce Smith declined to comment on Monday when asked whether the Redskins were avoiding the same sort of rift between players and coaches that plagued them last season under former coach Marty Schottenheimer, who is having a successful season as coach of the San Diego Chargers.
At midweek, defensive tackle Daryl Gardener was asked whether the players simply need to play better or the coaches need to change their approach, and said to reporters: "Why are you going to ask me that and put me on the spot? You know good and well. But I guess it would sound better coming out of my mouth. . . . Nobody wants to give up. Nobody wants to start finger-pointing when we easily could and actually get away with it and single some people out. That shows you the character of this team. We all still believe in each other. We know that collectively as a group, we have to get it done. If we start finger-pointing, we can tear this team apart even worse than it already is."
Spurrier has admitted to not running the ball enough and has said he doesn't want to have a revolving door at quarterback, but has kept making changes this season in hopes of finding a passer with a hot hand. The Redskins hope Ramsey, their first-round draft choice in April, is the long-term solution. He is Wuerffel's backup today and could play in the season's remaining games, Spurrier said.
"I still believe in Steve Spurrier. But I think Steve Spurrier has got to change," said Theismann, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "It's hard for him to realize because he's set in his ways and he was very successful at the college level. But in the NFL, you've got to prove to your veterans that things work or you'll lose them. . . . I really think Steve has to sit down and evaluate how he approaches the game and how he calls plays. I can go to a cabbage patch, and I can look for a watermelon all day long, and I'm not going to find one. . . . You can't continue to change the quarterback at the professional level and turn it into a 'Star Search' contest. What teams seek at this level is consistency and continuity."
Regardless of what happens in the last six games, and if changes occur in the front office, Spurrier has said he will take a more active role in the coming offseason in shaping the team's roster, and sources said last week the Redskins' main priority will be to give Spurrier a revamped corps of wide receivers and some reliable blockers. It appears increasingly likely that the club will lose tackle Jon Jansen, who is in the final season of his contract and is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the offseason, and Davis, who is under contract for next season but has such a hefty salary ($7.5 million) and impact against the salary cap ($11.4 million) that the Redskins likely will release him unless the two sides agree to renegotiate his deal.
After firing Schottenheimer and having a near deal to hire Bobby Beathard to handle personnel matters unravel at the last minute, Snyder shared the decision-making duties last offseason with Spurrier, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, vice president of football operations Joe Mendes and director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato. Most of the money the Redskins spent on the player-acquisition front was devoted to improving the defense, and the result is the ninth-ranked unit in the 32-team league.
But the Redskins , who lead the NFL in attendance averaging more than 80,000 fans a game with annual revenues of more than 200 million, assembled their offense cheaply. They didn't want to spend millions on quarterback Drew Bledsoe were they able to trade with the New England Patriots. Bledsoe has been a star with Buffalo.
Snyder and Mendes convinced Spurrier to use the club's first-round draft pick on Ramsey rather than a guard, and Mendes decided against signing veteran guards Ray Brown and Glenn Parker as free agents this summer. The guard play has been deficient. Spurrier brought on board "cheap and available" former Gators such as Wuerffel and wide receivers Jacquez Green, Chris Doering, Reidel Anthony and Willie Jackson. He originally passed on another former Florida quarterback, Shane Matthews, but was convinced by front-office personnel to sign him. None of the former Gators has had much success.
Snyder refused to comment for this article but sources close to him said he remains confident Spurrier will succeed.
Spurrier "found out that Jacquez Green [released 12 days ago] is what he is, and Danny Wuerffel is what he is," said former NFL player Brian Baldinger, an analyst for Fox who played at Duke when Spurrier was an assistant there. "You're not going to win in this league without a solid quarterback and without a solid offensive line. . . . He's always tinkering with things to make the system better. But mainly, he just needs a quarterback and he needs better talent at wide receiver and in the interior of the offensive line."
The team will spend more money on offensive players next season, and Spurrier will have to fit the pieces into place.
"There's no question he will succeed once he gets players in there who are competitive," said Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian, who sent Spurrier a note of encouragement after his team lost to the Redskins four weeks ago.
At least no one expects Snyder to change head coaches this year. Lewis is a candidate for Michigan State University's head coaching job and could depart in the offseason to become the head coach of another NFL team or at a major college. But the Redskins have not given up on keeping Lewis, and they hope to maintain some stability in an organization that has had four head coaches and four defensive coordinators over the last four seasons, and 14 starting quarterbacks over the last 10 seasons.
"That instability has plagued them back to [former coach] Norv Turner," Baldinger said. "That's tough on any organization. It's tough on the players. It's tough on someone like [linebacker] LaVar Arrington to have a different defensive coordinator every year."
But Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, who has had his battles with Snyder, said he can't fault the Redskins' owner on a stability issue, given his team could take the field today with only one healthy, starting defensive player from the team that won the Super Bowl only two years ago.
"There's no stability any more, really," Modell said. "There will never be another dynasty in the NFL, no team that dominates like Green Bay or Pittsburgh did. You just try to get as much stability as you can over a short term."
For now, the Redskins will try to make the most of their situation. Smith and veteran cornerback Darrell Green, in his final season, led a players-only meeting on Thursday at Redskins Park to try to keep the team's tone positive, and veteran guard Tre Johnson said it is crucial that the players continue to trust and support Spurrier.
"It's all about who believes," Johnson said.