Why did Steve Spurrier fail in NFL?

Originally Published: December 11, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Alabama's Nick Saban and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier are the gold standard when it comes to head coaches in the SEC.

Between them, they've won 10 SEC championships, four national championships and have had a profound impact on the way the game is played in this league.

They're also the only two current head coaches in the SEC who have made previous head-coaching stops in the NFL, and neither had much success.

[+] EnlargeSpurrier
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesSteve Spurrier suffered through two losing seasons with the Redskins in 2002 and 2003.

Saban was with the Miami Dolphins for two seasons in 2005 and 2006. He was 15-17 (9-7 in 2005 and 6-10 in 2006) with no playoff appearances. The Dolphins signed Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in 2006 and struggled mightily at the quarterback position that season before Saban bolted for Alabama and became college football's highest-paid coach.

Spurrier had even less success in the NFL, suffering through two losing seasons with the Washington Redskins. He was 7-9 in 2002 and 5-11 in 2003 before resigning and walking away from a five-year, $25 million contract that made him the highest-paid coach in the NFL.

Quarterback problems hounded both Saban and Spurrier. It was especially glaring for Spurrier, who signed two of his former Florida quarterbacks, Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, to run his Fun 'n' Gun offense.

But several games into his first season with the Redskins, Spurrier was playing rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey even though he didn't want to. Owner Daniel Snyder had pushed to draft Ramsey in the first round.

Spurrier has since said that he "knew it was over" at the start of his second season when he wasn't allowed to pick who was going to be his backup quarterback.

Sure enough, it all fell apart that season, and while some former players have pillaged the Head Ball Coach for his laissez-faire approach in certain areas, former Redskins quarterback and current ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck said there were a number of things working against Spurrier that last season.

"From an offensive standpoint, we were doing some really good things," said Hasselbeck, who stepped in for Ramsey in 2003 after Ramsey was injured. "He was very creative at getting guys open. Laveranues Coles went to the Pro Bowl that year with Patrick Ramsey and me playing quarterback, and they signed me off the street. That's unheard of.

"There was a lot we were doing well on offense, but some of the other aspects of the job was a challenge for him. I don't think anybody would dispute that."

Hasselbeck said it was a major setback for Spurrier to lose a strong personality like Marvin Lewis as defensive coordinator that second season, especially with Spurrier so uninvolved on defense.

"Because Spurrier was so hands-off on defense, it got to the point where guys on defense were doing whatever the heck they wanted to do," Hasselbeck said. "You had LaVar Arrington freelancing and Jeremiah Trotter doing his own thing. I think they even tried to bench Bruce Smith at one point because he wasn't the same player, but [Smith] went above Spurrier and started the following week.

"There were a lot of things going on, and it was a similar situation with special teams. It just wasn't a priority, and that trickles down. Everybody sees that and understands that and recognizes that, and it becomes an even bigger problem."

Ultimately, an unhealthy culture set in during that last season under Spurrier that wasn't going to change, according to Hasselbeck.

"Spurrier definitely has a reputation for being laid-back and relaxed and not having a whole bunch of rules," Hasselbeck said. "You'd have guys with their cell phones going off in the meetings, and there wouldn't be any consequences. That kind of thing permeates the whole culture being created in a bunch of different areas.

"Coaches who are successful in creating a comfortable environment also know what boundaries to set up, and I don't know that any boundaries were ever set up when I was there."

From a schematic perspective, Hasselbeck said it was obvious that Spurrier knew how to attack defenses. The challenge revolved more around making adjustments.

"Part of what happens in the NFL is that when you face a team that sends a blitz and you're not able to pick it up, then you see it every single week until you prove that you can," Hasselbeck said. "I don't know that we ever made the kind of adjustments to show people that we were going to make them pay if they started to blitz us. Our blitz reads became pretty obvious to everybody else.

"With that said, he did an amazing job of getting people open and creating ways to get open space for guys to run after the catch. He was phenomenal at that."

The other thing that hurt Spurrier, according to Hasselbeck, was that he assembled a staff that lacked a lot of NFL experience.

"It definitely seemed to be more a collection of people who'd been with him in the past, especially when you looked around at some of the other staffs and the way they were assembled and what each guy's role on that team was and what he was asked to do," Hasselbeck recalled.

The deck also might have been stacked against Spurrier a little bit when he got there, which is a big reason he threw his hands up in disgust and walked away after only two seasons in Washington.

"A lot of it is the relationship you have with the owner and general manager, the type of players you already have on your roster and do you have a quarterback who can play, all that stuff," Hasselbeck said. "If those were the three biggest things, he was striking out in all three."

Chris Low | email

College Football