When the Redskins first hired Steve Spurrier, there were many questions. But one was most tantalizing of all. In 12 years at Florida, had he created a new theory of offense that was simply better, more radical, than anything before it? And when he took that Spurrier System to the NFL, would it prove unstoppable, even if the Redskins players employing it were of merely modest ability?
The final verdict isn't in yet on whether Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" is an evolutionary jump in NFL theory. But quite a bit of contrary evidence is arriving weekly. So far, it looks like the dang thing isn't, in and of itself, any better than the systems used by proven NFL offensive minds like Mike Martz or Norv Turner.
Spurrier may even have wanted a pure test of his system -- almost a laboratory experiment of how well it would translate to the NFL level without the aid of exceptional personnel. In his first Redskins season, he didn't seek a free agent like Drew Bledsoe for his quarterback. Instead, he deliberately chose players with run-of-the-mill NFL ability for his skill positions largely because they knew his system inside out from their Florida days.
The arrival of Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Chris Doering was a statement. The Redskins could spend big money in the offseason to turn a good defense into a superior one, because The System could take care of the offense, even if the talent level was a little light.
Asked his favorite play, Spurrier said, "Touchdown."
After nine games, Spurrier's system could hardly have produced more mundane results. Actually, that's generous. His offense has been held to one touchdown four times already.
The Redskins have three single-digit totals in nine games. How bad is that -- especially in a high-scoring era? When he arrived, Spurrier said he hoped to be compared to Joe Gibbs some day. Not yet.
In Turner's last 81 games here, the Redskins were held under 10 points only three times. Even in his first year, inheriting a lousy 4-12 team, Turner was held under 14 points only three times. Spurrier has topped that dubious total already. And the Redskins still face five games against teams ranked in the NFL's top five in fewest points allowed. So, now it gets harder.
This season, only five teams in the NFL have scored fewer points -- 18 per game -- than Spurrier's. One is an expansion team (Houston) and another (Cincinnati) is almost a joke.
For comparison, in the last 11 games under coach Marty Schottenheimer, an offensive dinosaur, the Redskins scored more than that -- 20.4 points. The '01 team had a higher completion percentage, more yards per catch and, most important, only threw 13 interceptions all year. The result: a plus-six turnover differential. The '02 Redskins already have 12 interceptions and a minus-eight differential.
Things can't be as disappointing as they look right now. One NFL executive says, "How can he be judged yet? Look at his personnel at the offensive skill positions."
On the other hand, who picked them?
Spurrier inherited a 1,400-yard back, two fine tackles and a promising flanker in Rod Gardner. The cupboard wasn't bare. While leaving interior line problems to others, he gathered ex-Florida pitchers and catchers. They haven't done too much.
Usually, nine games is enough for a sensible preliminary evaluation of an NFL offense. However, in Spurrier's case, another possibility, and a dramatic one, is still plausible. The NFL may not have seen the real Spurrier System yet.
"There's a learning curve in this offense that everybody has to go through, and it's much different in the NFL than it was at Florida," Doering, a wide receiver, said this week. "In college, you redshirt a year, don't play [much] as a freshman. You might be with Coach Spurrier for two or three years before you play. You have time to absorb his offense until it's second nature.
"This offense is very different. You change plays a lot at the line. You identify open areas in the defense, then run very precise pass routes, with perfect timing between you and the quarterback, to get the ball in those vulnerable areas at the right split-second."
That does sound like it would take more time to master than learning Gibbs's ultra-simple playbook, made sophisticated by all his shifts and men in motion. Turner's explosive offense could be installed quickly, since it was built on traditional read-sequences by the quarterback. Spurrier's passers read "through" those vulnerable defensive spaces. Spurrier disciples even have trouble describing the process, it's so unconventional.
Spurrier's approach may face a problem he didn't fully anticipate. In the NFL, those "spaces" simply aren't as big and don't stay open as long, because NFL defensive backs and linebackers are far faster and smarter than those in college.
Matthews, Wuerffel and Doering can run exactly the same play they ran at Florida, but the Giants or Eagles are going to pinch that "vulnerable space" while the route is in progress, then close on the ball once it's in the air, far more suddenly than Florida State did.
To make Spurrier's system work at the next level, it seems logical that he simply needs pitchers and catchers who are a full level better as athletes than those he had at Florida. The pass has to hum harder, arrive a beat faster, so that the smaller gaps available in the NFL are big enough. In Patrick Ramsey's first game, you could see what a difference a true fastball made. And the receiver has to put the fear of speed, the fear of athleticism, into those defenders so they can't be such aggressive, confident "space" eaters.
In "Jaws," when Roy Scheider finally sees the size of the shark, he says, "We're going to need a bigger boat."
Spurrier's system has met the NFL. So far, it looks like he's going to need a bigger boat. That means more talented athletes at quarterback and receiver than he ever had at Florida. Or has now.
What this season may prove is that Spurrier's system isn't revolutionary enough to overcome a significant talent deficit.
That, however, doesn't mean that it couldn't be effective someday -- or even Gator-scary -- with equal or superior talent.