By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Yesterday at Redskins Park, Joe Gibbs took a long time introducing Al Saunders, beating around the bush. It's hard to come right out and say that you have, for the good of your team, hired another man to do the very tasks -- design an offense and call plays during games -- that were your calling card to the Hall of Fame.
Instead of getting to the heart of the matter, Gibbs praised Saunders for his history of helping to build various record-breaking offenses, including the high-octane Super Bowl XXXIV champion Rams and the current Chiefs. In Kansas City, Saunders took charge of the offense almost entirely, allowing coach Dick Vermeil, who just retired at 69, to devote his time and expertise to almost every aspect of the franchise.
Gibbs explained how he went back with Saunders to their days on the same staff at Southern California, where the players were so much more talented than their opponents that "we had to coach them how to lose." He and Saunders "came out of the same coaching tree," Gibbs explained, both pups trained by Don Coryell, Ernie Zampese and a few other "West Coast guys" from long ago. They even used the same terminology and numbering system in their offenses. What a clean fit.
Finally, however, hints began to appear that Gibbs had made a huge decision, and an unselfish one, demoting himself from the very offensive duties that were the most celebrated aspect of his first dozen years in Washington. Was Gibbs, after 11 years of learning the joys of delegating in Joe Gibbs Racing, turning the Redskins into Joe Gibbs Football?
"If there is any way to make the Redskins better, I have no ego from that standpoint," he said. "Al will oversee and direct the offense. That will free me up." To do what? "Help with the special teams. Tell more old stories," Gibbs half-joked.
Oversee and direct! Not just assist? Not just add wrinkles? Not just augment what Gibbs, Joe Bugel and Don Breaux now have in place? Saunders was going to be the boss of the whole thing? In my notes, I wrote, "Joe Gibbs just replaced himself!"
Since Thursday, when Saunders was hired at the zany price for an assistant coach of $6 million for three years, the main question has been whose duties would be most severely trimmed: Bugel, Breaux or both. The correct answer is Gibbs.
He hasn't fired himself. But, at times, he must feel like it. Other coaches may have sacrificed their vanity more for the sake of their team than Gibbs just has. But none comes to mind. Especially since he could have avoided any changes at all. After all, he just won a playoff game. Joe is "back." Yet it was Gibbs who cooked up the idea to pursue Saunders. Over the years Gibbs has asked his players to be Redskins above all else. Has he, in turn, swallowed the same medicine he prescribed for so many others?
"The part of you that was always called an offensive genius, have you had to 'check that at the door?' " I said.
"There's probably some of that," he said. "We could have stood pat. But if there is a way to improve, I'm going to do it. You look at everything. I need to look at myself [too]. My focus is different this time around. I feel an obligation to the fans, to the owner. When people met us at the airport [after losing to Seattle], they'd been waiting so long their hands felt frozen when they touched you. Everywhere I go, at the beach, getting my coffee, they're hugging me. There is a big obligation.
"Some people wouldn't have taken this step" said Gibbs, not finishing.
"How could you not want to work for this guy?" said Saunders, standing behind Gibbs.
Gradually, the pair loosened up and discussed their partnership, in which Gibbs still has all the theoretical prerogatives of a boss but, in actuality, will probably hand the offense over to Saunders just as much as Vermeil did. This season the Chiefs faced a first and goal at the 1-yard line with five seconds left to play against the Oakland Raiders. Should they kick a field goal to tie? Or gamble and go for the win? Vermeil made the decision to try for a touchdown. But Saunders called the play. At least at the start, that'll be the model.
"I'm going to do the same thing I did for Vermeil. At one time, Dick was the poster boy for burnout. When he came back into the league, he [still] tried to do everything. He was an offensive guy [like Gibbs]. But with free agents and personnel and everything else, he saw it was too much [for one person]," said Saunders. "I think he'd tell you he became a better coach.
"It would be ludicrous not to consult Joe Gibbs. He'll sit in meetings. He'll have some ideas. He's the boss."
Still, it will be Saunders's offense.
"My ego needs to take a back seat to a lot of the things that go on around here. It would be selfish of me if I didn't [hire Saunders]. We all have got egos. I'm probably the worst," Gibbs said. "In a way, you selfishly put the team first, because you're the head coach."
Gibbs knows 100 times more football than he'll ever know NASCAR. He and his staffs created plenty of the pieces of the modern NFL. But auto racing taught him the lesson that, at 65, he's more valuable as a CEO than a 4 a.m. workaholic, even though he's still a fear-of-failure perfectionist who'll never be able to abandon his precious hair-shirt marathon days.
"I'll be here every bit the same hours and minutes. I'll be pounding it. It's always going to be the same," said Gibbs, who already knows there'll be times when he could get in Saunders's way. "I'm sure I'll be in meetings [making suggestions] and Al will want to say, 'Shut up. Get over it. We don't do that anymore.' "
Since his return, Gibbs has shown an even more precise ability to evaluate people, build team morale and evaluate the skills of players than he had between '81 and '92. He's also maintained a higher level of game-to-game motivation, and used praise better as a motivating tool than he did when he was younger, edgier and not the least avuncular.
However, Gibbs may never have recovered all his in-game skills as an offensive coach -- his feel for flow, the knack for surprise and the ability to keep countless factors in mind simultaneously. Once he was ahead of everybody. Now he's one of them. By the second half of this season, he was delegating much of the play-calling to others in the booth. Though the Redskins improved their offensive rank from 30th to 11th this season, Gibbs's attack has not felt cutting-edge, disorienting or downright frightening to foes. Those qualities apply only to Gregg Williams's defenses.
It is Saunders's offenses, especially in Kansas City, that have felt like the natural 21st-century evolution of Gibbs's motion-crazed, multi-formation attacks of the '80s. Saunders balances power running and deep passing, inundates opponents with what Gibbs calls a "volume" of sensory overload. "Al comes out of the same concepts and foundations as we do," Gibbs said. "You admire what he's done. . . . We'd break down the Chiefs film and say, 'Man, this stuff is good.' "
In a sense, Saunders carried on the Coryell- Zampese-Gibbs quest while Gibbs worked a second career for 11 years. Now Saunders may be the next stage on what Gibbs calls the "Coryell coaching tree," rather than Gibbs himself.
So why not let Saunders run the Redskins' offense? While Joe was at the races, Al earned it in the pits.