Boos from most of the fans cascaded onto the field after Danny Wuerffel's third incomplete pass. The 79,823 fans at FedEx Field didn't seem to care that the Washington Redskins' quarterback had crisply moved the ball against the St. Louis Rams' stingy defense. The catcalls, which came despite Wuerffel having completed 7 of 10 passes, stemmed from the offense having shown all the spark of a wet napkin this season. But to a lesser extent, the spectators seemed to display their impatience -- and disapproval -- toward Wuerffel, who Coach Steve Spurrier named the latest starter at quarterback.
"I really didn't pay any attention to it," Wuerffel said of the boos.
When Sonny Jurgensen recently told Spurrier that he was the only NFL coach to display faith in Wuerffel, the former Redskins great appeared to echo fans and the media. But Spurrier -- whose memory of Wuerffel is of the quarterback's glory days at the University of Florida -- ignored the criticism. And in his second NFL start since 1998, Wuerffel ignored the boos before igniting the Redskins' offense in a stirring 20-17 victory.
"I'm just very thankful for this opportunity to be here," said Wuerffel, whose ability to audible led to the Redskins employing 39 running plays vs. 24 passes. "I've been around a lot [and] haven't gotten a lot of chances to play. This was just a phenomenal week. It was exciting; it was fun."
Wuerffel had the best performance of his six-year career, completing 16 of 23 passes for 235 yards. Wuerffel didn't throw for a touchdown but with no interceptions or sacks, he finished with a rating of 102.6. Only Spurrier could have envisioned Wuerffel outdueling two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner, who completed his first 15 passes in returning from an injury to his right pinkie.
"I've seen him play just like he played today," said Spurrier, who coached Wuerffel when he won the Heisman trophy and Spurrier's only national championship at Florida.
Wuerffel was remarkably sharp despite missing five consecutive games after spraining his right (throwing) shoulder in his only start on Oct. 6 against the Tennessee Titans. But Spurrier's expectations of Wuerffel are so high that the coach quibbled with two long incompletions, including one that could have been a touchdown.
Spurrier's belief in Wuerffel had become the butt of jokes in the media and across the NFL. The player and coach claimed to be almost oblivious to the ridicule. Wuerffel's teammates vouched for the quarterback, describing his outlook as the same -- quiet confidence -- even when it appeared he might not play again this season.
"His demeanor has been the same since preseason," said wide receiver Derrius Thompson. "He's a pretty calm guy. He didn't get worked up by the criticism. He just kept going out there and working, waiting for his opportunity."
Wide receiver Chris Doering said, "Staying positive is the biggest compliment I can give him."
Wuerffel hadn't received much of a chance to play in the NFL after being selected by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round of the 1997 draft. He had started only seven times in his peripatetic NFL career, in which the Redskins are his fourth team.
Wuerffel flourished for most of preseason, evoking memories of his heyday at Florida. But after Wuerffel's three fumbles and five sacks in the exhibition finale against the New England Patriots on Aug. 29, Spurrier named Shane Matthews his starter.
"This was really about his first opportunity," Spurrier said, "other than the Tennessee Titan game."
Against the Titans, Wuerffel lasted six plays, spraining his right shoulder on a three-yard scramble and not getting the chance to dispel the popular notion that he's a journeyman quarterback whose arm is too weak for the NFL. Wuerffel entered the game with quarterback rating of 34.5.
When Wuerffel was asked what Spurrier did leading to the career game yesterday, the 28-year-old replied, only half-jokingly, "Well, he played me today."
Wuerffel was acquired in an offseason trade with the Houston Texans for defensive tackle Jerry DeLoach because of his familiarity with Spurrier's offense. "He's had every scenario for every play in his head," Doering said.
Yesterday, Wuerffel called plenty of audibles, changing pass plays to runs to keep the Rams off-balance as Stephen Davis carried 31 times for 88 yards (an average of 2.8). Wuerffel's grasp of the offense should help make up for whatever physical talent he lacks. But Wuerffel actually has the most mobility among the Redskins' three quarterbacks.
On third and eight, the Redskins had the ball on the Rams 29-yard line shortly before the fourth quarter when defensive end Grant Wistrom burst past tackle Chris Samuels toward Wuerffel. The quarterback sensed the rush, and immediately tucked the ball before showing surprising footwork to dart 11 yards for the first down.
The spectators were forced to cheer -- loudly -- for the quarterback Spurrier remembered from Florida.