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He's Always Scheming

Packer Defensive Coordinator Shurmur Can't Resist Adding a Wrinkle or Two to Each Game Plan He Devises

January 20, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His voice still booms loud enough to be heard in the next room. His hair is thin and white as smoke but, at 65, Fritz Shurmur still grins like a kid.

"Hey," he said, "it's never boring."

Especially now, days before Super Bowl XXXII, as the Green Bay Packer defensive coordinator tries to outsmart John Elway and the NFL's top-ranked offense. After 23 years as an NFL assistant, much of that time spent in Los Angeles with the Rams, Shurmur is known as a tinkerer, a man who delights in creating odd schemes and unexpected blitzes.

"He's tremendous at coming up with a new wrinkle," San Francisco 49er Coach Steve Mariucci said. "He's not narrow-minded in terms of running a particular defense."

Or, as Packer defensive tackle Santana Dotson said, "There's no telling what horse he'll ride in on."

In fact, there might be only one thing predictable about Shurmur: Each year he is rumored to be in line for a head-coaching job and, each year, he is passed over.

"I've had one of those interesting careers," he said. "I went through those phases where I was too young for the jobs and now I'm too old."

A chuckle bursts out, fast and loud.

"I just wonder where the hell the 'just right' years went."

They were spent in NFL cities, from Detroit to Phoenix, Anaheim to Foxboro, Shurmur collecting tricks along the way.

He threw almost all of them at Steve Young in the NFC title game, blitzing from the 3-4, mixing man-to-man coverage with nickel and dime schemes. Green Bay won, 23-10, and San Francisco scored its only touchdown on a kickoff return.

Denver runs a similar West Coast offense, but Elway likes to operate from the shotgun, which figures to offer him a better look at the primary receiver when the Packers blitz. The Broncos also have a marquee running back in Terrell Davis.

"He's hard to put on the ground," Shurmur said. "And when they can run the ball, John Elway is magnificent."

That pair might require a few new tricks.

"When I came into the league, defense had always been a reactive thing," Shurmur said. "But it became apparent to me that there was a way for the defense to make the offense react to them. It became apparent that you had to do the unpredictable."

This philosophy was born of necessity. It emerged during his time with the Rams in the 1980s.

Shurmur preferred a traditional and patient approach then. Lots of zone pass coverage, a little blitzing. But in 1989, injuries prompted him to devise an unusual scheme that used two down lineman and five linebackers. The "2-5 Eagle" became the NFC's fifth-ranked defense.

In a wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia, Shurmur's soft zone frustrated red-hot Randall Cunningham and the Rams won, 21-7, in what was hailed as a coaching masterpiece.

But that same defense got Shurmur fired the following season when the Rams fell to 5-11 and then-coach John Robinson wanted a man-to-man, blitzing attack.

"I didn't think we had the personnel outside for man coverage, nor did I think we had the highly skilled pass rushers," Shurmur said. "I encouraged the split."

At the time, it seemed likely that someone would hire him as a head coach. He was a finalist in Cleveland. Same thing in Arizona, but the Cardinals offered only an assistant's job.

"Fritz is obviously a wonderful coach," Green Bay Coach Mike Holmgren said. But, "the owners and decision-makers have something in mind when they hire somebody."

Shurmur was never the right man in the right place. With each year, age became a bigger factor.

"I don't get it," said LeRoy Butler, Green Bay's strong safety. "A lot of players feel comfortable with coaches that age because it's more of a father figure."

But maybe Shurmur's inability to land a top job had nothing to do with advancing years or soft zones. Maybe it had something to do with an incident at the University of Wyoming in 1969.

It was called "the Black 14." Fourteen African American students told Wyoming Coach Lloyd Eaton they wanted to wear black armbands against Brigham Young to protest what they believed were discriminatory doctrines of the Mormon Church. Eaton refused and most of the players quit the team.

The program fell into ruin. Eaton left and Shurmur, an assistant, took over.

From 1971 to 1974, he struggled through losing seasons and arduous recruiting trips, trying to woo high school players, especially African American players, scared away by the incident.

Eventually, Shurmur was fired. He learned a valuable lesson, though, a lesson that had nothing to do with Xs and O's.

"Those four years at Wyoming, I never felt like a coach," he said. "There was fund-raising and trying to heal the wounds. You're doing so many other things. I got hired by the Detroit Lions and it let me go back and coach again."

Now, with older men such as Dick Vermeil and Jim Mora returning to coaching, Holmgren has been teasing his defensive coordinator: "There's still hope, big fella."

Shurmur laughs and waves his hands, trying to explain that he has never tried very hard to be a head coach in the NFL.

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