Page 2 of 5   <       >

The Redskins' New Sheriff

The Visit

Al Saunders
Fifty-nine-year-old Al Saunders is now the man in charge of the mix on offense. (Gerald Herbert - AP)

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's private plane landed at Johnson County Executive Airport, five miles outside Leawood, at approximately 3 p.m. on Jan. 17, and Saunders was there to greet Gibbs. While the two met, Saunders's wife Karen, whom Saunders had met within months of meeting Gibbs at Southern Cal 36 years ago, prepared dinner.

Gibbs was direct. Over shrimp and pasta, he told Saunders he needed help. He had underestimated the demands of today's game. His offense was antiquated. Gibbs felt comfortable with Saunders, for the two, Gibbs said, "came from the same coaching tree." As offensive coordinator with the Chiefs, Saunders applied the techniques both had learned under legendary offensive coach Don Coryell in San Diego with the Chargers.

Gibbs offered total offensive control to Saunders. Saunders would call the plays. Gibbs would have input, but would not easily exercise in-game veto power, if at all. Outside of deciding whether to kick a field goal or go for it on fourth down, the game-day offense would belong to Saunders.

Around 1:30 a.m., Saunders drove Gibbs back to the airport. Driving home, Saunders called his agent, Bob LaMonte, in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and told him that, when Gibbs called, to make the deal. He was joining the Redskins.

LaMonte was perplexed. For three weeks, Saunders, widely considered one of the most innovative offensive minds in the NFL, had crisscrossed the country, interviewing only for head coaching jobs. He started in Kansas City, then interviewed in Minnesota, Houston, Oakland and Detroit. He had been a head coach once before, in San Diego, from 1986 to '88. Washington had never appeared on Saunders's radar and yet now was by far the most aggressive team pursuing him.

"Don't we still want to see if there's a head job out there?" LaMonte said he asked Saunders.

"This," he said, "is better than any head coaching job out there."

"At that point, it was over," LaMonte said. "When your client is that clear, you do what he tells you, and he told me to get it done."

Airborne, Gibbs called LaMonte. They negotiated for an hour, and the deal was complete. Saunders had not just joined the Redskins, but did so before three of the head coaching jobs he had applied for -- Houston, Oakland and Detroit -- had been officially filled.

The Kansas City Experience

Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson had expected January to be busy. Around Thanksgiving, Dick Vermeil told Peterson he would retire as Chiefs coach at the end of the season. Peterson did the math: There were 10 head coaching jobs available. The quality assistants, Peterson believed, would go to the teams that moved quickly. He needed the Chiefs' head coaching situation to be resolved.

To Vermeil, Saunders was the obvious choice. He openly campaigned for five weeks: Saunders had done the job. He had been loyal and he had been good. Over the previous five years, no team in football had amassed more total net yards, touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and first downs. During that span, only the Indianapolis Colts had scored more points than the Chiefs, and the differential was a mere 13 points.

Saunders worked for the Chiefs on two separate occasions, was popular and had the backing of some of the key players, most notably quarterback Trent Green. After a 37-3 win over Cincinnati in the season finale, Vermeil endorsed Saunders again.

<       2              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company