Or was it the man that failed?
I vote the latter. Yet, the story to this day, as reflected in some of the (very thoughtful) comments to my recent NFL Offense piece, is that Spurrier's offense failed in the NFL and that this is a significant data point in the storyline that "college offenses don't work there." But I find very little to support the broad form of this statement, and certainly I don't find it very generalizable to what people usually think of when they talk about "college offenses."
First, a modest defense of the efficacy of Spurrier's offense in the pros. He did not set any records in his two years in the NFL. His teams went 7-9 in 2002 and 5-11 in 2003, at which point he quit. His vaunted offense consistently finished in the bottom third of the league in every major category, usually ranked between 20th and 25th in categories like points, total yards per game, passing efficiency and yards per attempt, rushing yards per attempt, and so on. (Source: Pro-Football Reference.) Yet does that make his offense a complete failure? Or just merely weak? And what of the players he used?
Consider two teams whose offenses finished in this same territory in this past 2008 season, with offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league: the Pittsburgh Steelers and, lo', Washington Redskins. The Steelers were 20th in points, 22nd in total yards, and 24th in yards per play; the Redskins finished 28th in points, 19th in yards, and 23rd in yards per play. Now neither offense is considered elite, but neither offensive coordinator has been filed with the epitaph that "their system does not and will never work in this league." They just need to get better, no? (The Steelers' offensive weakness was obviously offset by a great defense, and some of it too was caused by an unexpected in the running game.)
Moreover, the NFL puts a premium on players, who did Spurrier have running his schemes in the Pros? Try these names:
Quarterback: 2002 - Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, and Patrick Ramsey (rookie); 2003 - Patrick Ramsey and Tim Hasselbeck (yeah, the other Hasselbeck).
Runningback: 2002 - Stephen Davis (who missed four games) and Kenny Watson; 2003 - Trung Canidate and Rock Cartwright.
Receiver: 2002 - Rod Gardner, Derrius Thompson, Darnerian McCants, and Chris Doering; 2003 - Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner, Darnerian McCants.
Seeing this list, wouldn't the bigger surprise be that the offense did in fact finish higher than bottom third of the league? Indeed, NFL films, in its typical chicken-salad-out-of-chicken-scraps season review tried to turn Gardner and Thompson into some kind of modern day Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, as the video below shows:
But a more realistic appraisal -- and a bit of history (Thompson was out of the league by 2004, and the other leading receiver besides Coles, Darnerian McCants, was out of it by 2005 -- reveals something altogether different. See the below "highlight" video of some of Gardner's best dropped passes:
Of course both Stephen Davis and Coles were legitimate players and did not help much (and Davis apparently felt unwanted or incorrectly used), but without a quarterback the rest is moot, and you're not going to win many games with a combinations of Matthews, Wuerffel, Ramsey, and Hasselbeck at the helm. Indeed, no one else has won with them. The problem was that Spurrier tried to.
The second point is that, even if you call Spurrier's time in the NFL a total bust, offense and all, it's just not a great example to use in the general argument about "college offenses" not working in the pros. When people have that discussion they are usually talking about why an option-based or a spread offense won't or can't work there. But what is Spurrier's offense if not pro-style? He relies exclusively on a dropback passer, he frequently uses a fullback, and the routes he uses came from the NFL. Insofar as his offense had some kind of unique element (at least for its time), it was that he let his receivers read coverages on the fly and adjust their routes accordingly -- a technique more complicated and thus more appropriate to the advanced NFL. See the below diagram of Spurrier's variation on "smash," whereby the receiver can run a curl underneath the cornerback against cover three, or will break for the corner if the cornerback stays close to the line.
Moreover, his offense was largely based on a very pro-style dichotomy: his base run play was the lead-draw, which allowed his linemen to largely pass set and his QB to get a look at the defense. The basic diagram of the play is below.
And if the defense came up on him he went to play-action off of a lead-draw look. This was ingenious, because he could both show a run play yet his linemen could pass-set and his quarterback could get a look at the defense downfield. See one of his most common plays below, where combined with the lead-draw were routes where the receivers also adjusted their patterns on the fly based on the coverage.
Focusing so heavily on the lead-draw and fake lead-draw also gave him the advantage of setting up his normal dropback plays as well. Check out the highlight video from the 1996 SEC Championship for some good examples.
And compare all this with what Urban Meyer does at Florida now. That is what people mean when they say "college offense." And if they don't mean that they mean the option of a Nebraska or what Paul Johnson does at Georgia Tech. Regardless whether you buy those arguments, the success or failure of Spurrier's drop-back and play-action pass-based offense seems wholly irrelevant to the discussion.
Then why did he fail? As I indicated at the beginning, to me, it was not the offense, it was the man as head coach. Being an NFL head coach is about many things, but calling the plays is a very small part of it, and it is a part that can be (and maybe should be) delegated to someone competent. As stated above, the talent situation was a huge mess and was in total flux, with a bunch of Florida cast-offs (I loved Chris Doering and Wuerffel in college but come on), several high-priced busts (Chad Morton?), and no quarterback to speak of. These are faults that reflect on the man, but not necessarily on the schemes. And really, the narrative is that the schemes probably got too much hype all along, as is common. (And keep in mind that Joe Gibbs won only six games in 2004 and only five in 2006.)
They were ingenious but that is different from him being a genius, and of course he had the talent at Florida to make it go. He also, it must be said, arrived at the right time in history when the spread and pro-style offenses had really just begun to supplant an older, earlier way of thinking, especially in the SEC. But in addition to the lack of institutional advantages for Spurrier in the Pros as opposed to his time at Florida, he also lacked the preparation to make it go. I don't know about discipline and all that, but there were enough stories of the franchise's disorganization to affirm that he did not have a handle on the bundle of intense personalities that makes up any NFL team, and certainly did and continues to make up the Washington Redskins in particular.
Yet there was one scheme criticism that got much play that was in fact true: his inability to gameplan pass protection. Spurrier won his first NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals where his offense scored 31 points, but in his second, against the Philadelphia Eagles and blitz-happy defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, he was fundamentally outcoached on the way to a 37-7 blowout. And that was the beginning of the end.
But he was not outcoached in some fundamental "college offense won't work in pros so there" way, but instead he fell victim to the 80/20 principle I talked about: Spurrier ran a pro-style system, and if you're going to do that in the pros you better be ready for the meat grinder that is their film study. Johnson, a wily guy who has been around the block a few times, devised one blitz after another that got to the core of Spurrier's protections and never let him out. (Incidentally, this gets to one of the common criticisms of my NFL bit, which was that I couldn't be serious saying that the NFL wasn't complex. But I never said that; I said it was bland yet, within that blandness was incredible complexity on the micro scale. A lot of college guys have said if you introduced more macro variation you could reduce the micro complexity -- i.e. a million blitzes you have to gameplan for -- but that's something for later.)
So what's the verdict? Spurrier failed, but it was not his "college offense" that let him down, it was the man, his overall lack of control of players, his roster management, and his own coaches, and in no small part the inadequate planning that went into his "pro-style attack."