By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 21, 2006
It's obvious what you're thinking, that if everything goes pretty well in the coming months, and if the team can avoid those killer injuries, the Washington Redskins won't be sitting at home a year from this weekend, they'll be playing somewhere in the conference championship game.
Of course, they're thinking the same thing in Chicago about the Bears, in New England about the Patriots, and certainly in Indianapolis about the Colts. There are a half-dozen other teams that have every reason to fantasize about next year, too. But none of the contenders that has been eliminated started the offseason in full gallop like the Redskins. That optimism, which isn't totally unfounded, is because Joe Gibbs, with the help of Daniel Snyder's checkbook, seems to have addressed the team's glaring weakness: offense.
The Redskins aren't going to mess around with tweaking the offense; the hiring of Al Saunders says they're going to overhaul it, take a jackhammer to what didn't work and start over. The salary cap may stop Snyder from becoming the George Steinbrenner of the NFL, but the cap pertains to players. Until the NFL comes up with a rule, Snyder can spend as much as he wants on assistant coaches, and apparently have as many of them as he'd like. How Snyder missed connecting with Mike Martz is anybody's guess, although there's time now that Martz has declared he's quite willing for the moment to be an assistant.
Hiring Saunders seems to be just what the Redskins need. By the numbers, his offense in Kansas City has been the best in the NFL over the last four seasons. There's nothing predictable about Saunders-coached offenses. He runs when the defense thinks it's time to throw, and throws when the defense thinks it's time to run. His offenses are successful throwing deep, throwing intermediate routes, or running. It's unthinkable that a Saunders offense featuring Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Ladell Betts and Chris Cooley would gain only 120 yards in a playoff game.
One of the truly remarkable things about Gibbs as a coach is that he's completely willing to tip his hat to another coach who does something better than he does. Snyder, of course, takes out his wallet and says, "If we can't beat that guy, make him join us."
Snyder appears to be beating his peers at a critical element of the game. Pro football, as we've seen most recently with Bill Belichick, is a coach's game more than a players' game, which is why Snyder's stockpiling of glamorous players went nowhere. The best coaches win in pro football. Just look at this weekend's championship games. Denver's Mike Shanahan has won two Super Bowls. Seattle's Mike Holmgren has been to the Super Bowl twice and won one. Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher and Carolina's John Fox have been to the Super Bowl. Coincidence? Not a chance. Three of last year's finalists -- Andy Reid, Cowher and Belichick -- have teams that are always threatening.
Snyder, true to his personality, wants all the best coaches, which is why he is able without batting an eye to spend nearly $5 million on two assistants.
Gibbs is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Saunders, one can very easily make the case, is the best offensive coordinator out there. Gregg Williams is on the short list of the best defensive coordinators.
And the Redskins retained the entire staff that coached this past season, which means the kid quarterback, Jason Campbell, ought to have his own personal coach 24/7.
Here's what you're hoping for if you're one of the Redskins' NFC rivals: that there are too many chefs in the kitchen, and not the right ones, at that.
Usually, the first thing a coordinator does is look to bring over some assistants from the previous stop. Saunders's system of offense, by all accounts, is different, very different from what Gibbs and Joe Bugel and Don Breaux and gang have been doing.
So, who's going to help Saunders teach his system to the Redskins? The Gibbs Gang that doesn't know Saunders's system? It would seem Saunders needs at least two or three of the boys in his band to teach the new music. That would mean, not that Snyder would care, having, oh, 23 or 24 assistants, instead of the 21 he has now.
And one would presume that if you're paying Saunders $2 million for his offensive expertise, he's the one who is going to call the plays on Sundays. It's fair to say after two years, the jury is back on the 2004 and 2005 offenses and they need to be scrapped. Are the assistant head coach-offense and all of the other coordinators willing to abide by that? The Redskins don't need a hybrid, they need Saunders.
It wouldn't make any sense to bring Saunders in and not allow him to be the boss of the offense, as autonomous as Williams is on defense.
If Saunders had coordinated the Redskins' offense this season, the bet here is they'd still be playing. Yes, he'll need two new productive receivers and a young backup quarterback (Campbell) pushing the incumbent (yes, Mark Brunell will start the season No. 1). But why can't Moss be used the way Carolina uses Steve Smith, who is only the best player in the postseason? Saunders isn't walking into a kitchen with bare cupboards.
Anyway, nobody in the NFC appears untouchable in the short term. The whole league is so open, in fact, that two wild-card teams could reach the Super Bowl by winning three straight playoff games on the road. Only the 1985 Patriots have done that, but it would surprise nobody if the Steelers and Panthers win on the road this weekend.
While some of the really bad teams still search for head coaches and while some of the best ones, like the Patriots, have to figure out how to replace valued assistants, the Redskins appear to have all the lieutenants an organization can need, and the right ones to keep them playing longer into January next year than they did this season.