Saunders Has Been Known to Mix It Up
Saturday, January 21, 2006
The first thing that stood out about Al Saunders's office inside Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was the precise organization of the place. Shelves of playbooks dating from his days as an assistant under offensive innovator Don Coryell were stacked neatly on one wall. Tapes and DVDs of games were neatly lined up on a bookshelf on another.
And then there were the dry-erase boards that covered three walls. The boards were packed with small but clear handwritten notes that detailed plays, formation groupings, motions, shifts and defensive tendencies.
Over the course of the past four seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs were the top-scoring team in the NFL, had the most productive running attack in franchise history and often made good defenses look like they were playing with 10 men.
The man who ran that show was Saunders, Kansas City's offensive coordinator and sole play-caller for five seasons. Saunders did it with a talented offensive line, an accurate quarterback (Trent Green), talented running backs who could run and catch (Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson), one of the best tight ends in the game (Tony Gonzalez) and a group of average wide receivers.
From a historical perspective, the addition of Saunders to Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs's staff, a move that was announced by Washington on Thursday, makes perfect sense. Saunders and Gibbs came off the Coryell coaching tree of the 1970s and early 1980s and learned the "Air Coryell" offense, an innovative, attack-through-the- air system that has roots going back to Sid Gillman's San Diego teams of the old American Football League.
In terms of play calling, Redskins fans will recognize traits of the Saunders offense, an example being personnel groupings that feature Gibbs staples such as two-tight end sets and three-receiver formations with pass patterns coming out of bunch alignments (a combination of tight ends and/or wide receivers lined up in a "bunch" on one side of the formation).
One key difference is that while Gibbs veered toward a more conservative, ground-oriented approach when he left San Diego to take over the Redskins in 1981, Saunders's philosophy begins with aggressively pushing the ball downfield and then mixing the pass and run to keep defenses off-balance.
Gibbs sees virtue in running a play until the defense stops it, but Saunders preaches unpredictability. With that in mind, the Chiefs often ran out of the shotgun formation and passed out of traditional under-center formations, and would often run on third and five or longer and pass on second and short. Saunders almost never called the same play out of the same formation twice in the same game -- or even in a string of games.
Two other things made the Saunders offense unique:
Perhaps more than any team in football, the Chiefs used pre-snap shifting and motion by players to create mismatches, particularly for Gonzalez, who always draws extra attention from linebackers and safeties. It wasn't unusual for the Chiefs to be snapping the football as the defense still adjusted to the last shift or motion.
And Green almost never changed plays at the line of scrimmage. Saunders's philosophy is that any play he calls should work against any defense because of the options within the play. Saunders would call a play from the coaches' box, it would be relayed to Green from the sideline and Green would call it in the huddle. Like all veteran quarterbacks, Green sometimes would have liked to have had the option to change a play, but one major bonus of the system was that the Chiefs were rarely hit with delay-of-game penalties.
Saunders's unpredictable play-calling style was epitomized by a 40-34 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field during the 2003 season. On the first possession of overtime, Saunders ran Holmes nine consecutive plays and then, after the Chiefs missed a field goal but got the ball back on a fumble recovery near midfield, Green dropped back and hit wide receiver Eddie Kennison for the winning touchdown.
The intriguing thing for Washington fans has to be this: If Saunders and the Chiefs could rack up that kind of production while consistently being strapped with a lousy defense, how will Saunders's offense function when complemented by a good defense?
Ivan Carter, who covers the Washington Wizards for The Post, covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star from 2001 to 2004.