In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on August 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

It was probably the trade with the Broncos that brought wide receiver Jabar Gaffney to the Redskins last month that first sent my mind reeling back to the summer of ’02. The ‘Summer of Love’ for Dan Snyder and Steve Spurrier and the infamous “Fun-n-Gun.”  (I’m guessing the flashback was courtesy of the fact that Gaffney actually played for the “ol’ ball coach” at Florida back in the day). The re-signing of Rex Grossman (another former Gator under Spurrier) has had a similar effect on me.

It was all good for the ‘Skins at the beginning of August nine summers ago. Spurrier was a college offensive genius, and he and Dan were sure his system would work in the NFL. So sure, in fact, that Snyder gave Spurrier the richest contract in NFL history; 5 years, $25 million. So sure, in fact, that nobody seemed to care that Spurrier was stockpiling the Redskins roster with ex-Gator quarterbacks and receivers whose only claim to fame was that they “knew the Spurrier system.”

Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Jacquez Green, Chris Doering, Willie Jackson, Taylor Jacobs….

Names that today garner a collective yawn from ‘Skins fans. Assuming, of course, that those names even trigger the slightest glimmer of activity in any synapse on any fan’s “recollection meter.” In reality, the ex-Gators didn’t trigger much in the way of any offense after their flashy pre-season debut when they beat the 49ers, 38-7, in Osaka, Japan.  On this side of the planet, they were a mediocre 7 and 9 team in year one, and by the end of a 5 and 11 campaign in ’03, Spurrier’s “Fun-n-Gun” was “Done-n-Gone.”

So, you’re asking yourself, just where is this guy heading with this tale of seasons preferably forgotten?

And, the answer is, “I just can’t seem to shake this feeling that Mike Shanahan could be heading down the same path as Spurrier.”

Say what? Shanahan is Spurrier II? Maybe… Kinda… Sorta… Hopefully not…

Maybe it’s the “father-son thing.”

Spurrier had Steve Jr. along for the ride in ’02-’03 as the ‘Skins’ receivers’ coach. Mike Shanahan has Kyle as his Offensive Coordinator, a much more critical role than the one the young Spurrier played. I always feel like those “dad-offspring” coaching combinations tend not to work well. At what point would a father be willing to fire his son? How quickly the Redskins offense improves in ’11 (or fails to do so) will tell us much about the Mike-Kyle bond, and its future in D.C. Last year, father and son played blame the quarterback and ultimately benched Donovan McNabb. This year, both John Beck and Rex Grossman are “Shanahan’s guys.” Sooooooo… the fault-line might be a little more blurry if things don’t go well this go-round.

Maybe it’s the concept of “the system.”

Both Spurrier and Shanahan have employed sophisticated offensive schemes that were successful someplace else. Granted, Mike’s a Super Bowl champ from his days in Denver, but the knock is he’s never really proved he could do it without John Elway. Both Shanahan and Spurrier loaded up with “their guys” at quarterback. Matthews and Wuerffel then. Beck and Grossman now. But, it remains to be seen if “knowing the system” can be fully translated into “executing the system successfully” over 16 games. So far, the on-field performance comparison is remarkably similar. Shanahan’s 6 and 10 in ’10 virtually mirrors Spurrier’s first year in charge of the ‘Skins.

Maybe it’s the quarterbacks themselves.

Back in ’02, nobody, and I mean nobody, was hot for Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel (Heisman winner ’96) except for Spurrier. Shane and Danny knew the “Fun-n-Gun.” They ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner in their days in Gainesville. Today, the connection to the Shanahan system is not quite as inbred for John Beck or Rex Grossman (Heisman runner-up ’01). Rex was a back-up QB under Kyle in Houston. Beck was somebody that Mike liked from John’s college days at BYU. But, just like the Spurrier Gator QB combo, Beck and Grossman are not exactly in high demand anywhere other than Redskins Park. Heck, Grossman delayed re-signing with the ‘Skins in hopes of landing a better deal somewhere else, but nobody other Shanahan was even remotely interested in giving Rex a shot at starting. This despite the fact that Rex took the Bears to the Super Bowl five years ago. Sure, Grossman had a couple of 300-yard games after replacing McNabb last season, but it hardly translated into success as the ‘Skins lost both; including one to a Dallas team that did everything it could to blow the game. Grossman’s lone win was in overtime and featured a “middling” performance against Jacksonville. Oddly, the key for Grossman might be watching video of himself from the second half of the loss to Dallas. If he could simply bottle that 23 point performance and repeat it for about two dozen halves this fall, the Redskins could easily find themselves atop the NFC East.

The comparisons between Spurrier and Shanahan do diverge a bit when you look at the rest of the offense from a personnel standpoint. In 2002, Spurrier had the likes of Stephen Davis in the backfield with Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels at the tackle slots. Shanahan, meantime, is dishing up his first season without the oft-injured Clinton Portis, and he does have a rep for finding diamonds in the “running back rough.”  But is either Ryan Torain or Tim Hightower the answer?  (It’s pretty much a rookie parade beyond those two and third-down back, Keiland Williams.) Torain showed flashes of potential last year, but he injured his hand and will likely miss a couple of weeks of practice. So now, it’s Hightower, a local product who was picked up in a trade with Arizona that figures to have the upper hand. He’s started 36 NFL games in the past three seasons and has the ability to both catch passes out of the backfield and block. And blocking (a Portis specialty) might be the real reason the ‘Skins are high on dressing Hightower in burgundy and gold this season.

If there is an area that was NOT improved this off-season, it’s the O-line. Other than releasing veteran center Casey Rabach, there’s not much “change” here. Sure, Jammal Brown, Trent Williams, Kory Lichstensteiger, etc. have been immersed in the “system” for over a year now, but this is where the damage from the lockout might really be evident. Mini-camps and OTA’s are the perfect time to help quarterbacks and their blockers get in synch. This is where the experience of a Grossman gains an advantage over a Beck in a battle for starting QB, but three starts in the Shanahan-system behind this line is hardly the foundation of a playoff contender.

There is further divergence between Spurrier and Shanahan on the “coaching experience” front. College players want to play for Spurrier, but pro players want to play for Shanahan. My memories of Spurrier as Redskins head coach are of a deer in the headlights; a man whose bumper sticker read, “I’d rather be golfing.” Shanahan has more of a reputation as a hardworking coach who takes care of his players. His system also has the benefit of being truly “NFL-tested;” even if it is a few years removed from its greatest successes.

On the bright side for Shanahan and the Redskins in 2011, the guaranteed locker-room headaches are gone. Albert Haynesworth is in New England and Donovan McNabb is in Minnesota, but we’ll see both of them this December courtesy of the NFL schedule.

Shanahan also added to the experience level at wide receiver which could be a big plus for both Beck and Grossman. Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth are solid acquisitions in light of health concerns revolving around Malcolm Kelly and Brandon Banks. And, they still have the reliable Santana Moss in the slot. This will give the passing game a fighting chance to get going while the running game and the O-line get their acts together.

Best of all, the ‘Skins avoided unnecessarily splashy free agent signings. (Is Favre still retired?) Former Giant, Barry Cofield, was probably the biggest fish to be reeled-in, and he fills a critical need at nose tackle in place of Haynesworth. And this new “substance over flash” thought process could help Shanahan and the ‘Skins in the long run as they begin to build from within instead of gambling (and frequently losing) on quick fixes in the free agent market.

So, how does Shanahan avoid becoming Spurrier II (or Zorn)?

First, he hopes that either Beck or Grossman emerges as a leader and does it quickly. Then he hopes that a running attack and a line with less “name” talent than nine years ago gels into a unit that can control the ball and actually find the end zone four or five times a game. But, it might come down to Shanahan simply proving that he, in fact, is a better coach than Spurrier was at the NFL-level. He’ll certainly prove it if he wins with his current crop of players, an unproven lot to say the least.

The most realistic goal for Shanahan in 2011 is to show that the Redskins are evolving from the team that always “wins the off-season” into the team that “wins when it really matters.”

The way it used to be.

NOTE: The Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and Redskins Alumni Association will host the 50th annual Redskins Welcome Home Luncheon on Wednesday, August 24th from 11am to 2pm at the Marriott Wardman Park in DC.  A limited number of tickets are on sale at Tickets are $175 each and benefit youth programs.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

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