By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs handed control of his offense to Al Saunders yesterday, naming him associate head coach for offense and giving him play-calling responsibilities.
Saunders served in a similar capacity under Dick Vermeil in St. Louis and Kansas City, and Gibbs said the switch will allow him to focus on other facets of his job, which includes the title of team president.
While Gibbs, who returned from an 11-season retirement in January 2004, said he was pleased with the offense's improvement -- up to 11th overall in the NFL from 30th in 2004 -- concerns arose over the lack of productivity during the playoffs. Gibbs acknowledged that giving Saunders so much authority marked a significant departure from his previous years as a Redskins coach, and was done only after considerable reflection on his part.
"My commitment should be that I need to really look at myself long and hard and say, 'Is there anything I can do to help the Redskins win,' and there's probably some of that" ego checking, Gibbs said. "I'm committed to try and do whatever is best for the Redskins, and I think right now this is the way for us to be set up."
Gibbs said he believed that Saunders, who directed a Chiefs offense that ranked first in the NFL the last two years, would land a head coaching position this month after interviewing for several jobs. But Gibbs said he scheduled a meeting with Saunders when he remained available after the Redskins were eliminated from the playoffs Jan. 14. He said the Redskins would not have hired another offensive coordinator if Saunders had taken a head coaching job.
"I had no feeling that we needed to fill this role. It was specific to Al," Gibbs said. "I can honestly say to you there was nobody else out there."
Gibbs spent nearly 12 hours at Saunders's home near Kansas City, Mo., last Wednesday, discussing personnel, offensive formations and even where to live in the Washington area. By Thursday afternoon, Saunders agreed to a three-year contract with the Redskins worth about $6 million, one of the largest deals for an assistant in the league. The agreement came just weeks after the Redskins signed Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach for defense, to a contract extension worth $2.6 million per season.
Saunders, who turns 59 on Feb. 1, said he leapt at the opportunity to work with Gibbs, a Hall of Fame coach with three Super Bowl titles. Saunders was a graduate assistant with the University of Southern California in 1970 when Gibbs was a member of the offensive staff, and Don Coryell was a mentor to them over their careers. Saunders likened this opportunity to his years spent with Vermeil, with whom he won a Super Bowl in St. Louis after the 1999 season.
"He's been one of my real role models and heroes in this business," Saunders said of Gibbs. "You don't often have an opportunity to work side-by-side with someone who's already in the Hall of Fame. What Joe has given me the opportunity to do is to do the same thing I did for Dick Vermeil: work side-by-side in trying to orchestrate an offense that will bring a championship to the Redskins. I'm just real excited to be here."
Saunders's arrival changes the Redskins' coaching hierarchy. He replaces Joe Bugel as the top offensive coach, and assumes play-calling duties previously juggled by Gibbs, offensive coordinator Don Breaux and offensive assistant Jack Burns. Bugel said he supported the pursuit of Saunders and watched the press conference at Redskins Park.
"Al Saunders has a tremendous background," Bugel said. "He's very demanding, which we like, and he's a great communicator with the players. It's like Joe says, he was the perfect fit. I'm happy as a lark, and I know talking to Don Breaux over the weekend that we're all really excited. When Joe Gibbs puts a staff together and you ever feel slighted or feel bad, it's time to get out, because we're here to win and if we have 50 coaches who can add something, why not?"
According to Gibbs, the terminology, formations and motion used by Saunders and the Redskins are nearly identical and adjustments for players should be minimal. Although Saunders said he sees many similarities between the Washington and Kansas City offenses, the Redskins ranked 13th in scoring (22 points per game) during the regular season and the offense scored only two touchdowns in two postseason games. Saunders said he aims to "tweak and add" some things to make this "a more-point productive offense."
Gibbs will maintain his near round-the-clock hours in meeting rooms at Redskins Park and will not totally abandon the offense. On game days, he said he still will offer input about how to handle late-game situations, when to go for it on fourth down, attempt a two-point conversion, challenge a referee's call and other strategy, but Saunders will call the plays. Details of the working relationship remain to be worked out, they said, but Gibbs said he now has the freedom to break out of offensive meetings to help with special teams, personnel matters or overseeing other matters in his capacity as president.
"I want to stay involved in all of it as best I can," he said.
Saunders led one of the NFL's premier offenses for five years in Kansas City and helped oversee an outstanding offense with Vermeil in St. Louis for two years before that. Saunders was head coach in San Diego from 1986 to 1988 after replacing Coryell midway through the 1986 season.
"He's a bright mind of the NFL, and I'm sure he can help in some areas, especially play-calling and whatnot," Redskins center Casey Rabach said. "We'll see how much latitude the other coaches give to him and what Coach Gibbs gives to him, but I'm excited to work with him."
Redskins Notes: Gibbs said he and Saunders have briefly discussed having Saunders's son, Bob, join the staff, and could make such a move this offseason. Bob Saunders served as an offensive assistant in Kansas City. . . . Gibbs called quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell to inform them of Saunders's hiring but said he has not talked to Patrick Ramsey, who almost certainly will be traded or released. Saunders referred to Brunell and Campbell when quickly discussing offensive personnel yesterday, but did not mention Ramsey, a former first-round pick.