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The Redskins' New Sheriff
Saunders Jumps Into Uncharted Waters With Unbridled Enthusiasm

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; E01

During the Washington Redskins' minicamp last month, change could be measured in heart rate and decibels. Reserve tailback Ladell Betts broke through a crease on the right side and raced free. Defensive teammates Sean Taylor and Pierson Prioleau tailed off, conserving energy while preparing for the next mundane repetition.

As Betts dashed near the sideline, he was joined suddenly in full sprint by 59-year-old Al Saunders, the Redskins' new associate head coach in charge of the offense. Saunders ran with Betts, his voice booming.

"That's right! We don't stop running hard until you cross that goal line! That's Redskin football! We don't stop! Way to finish! Good job, Ladell!"

Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn looked on and said after practice that day: "There are a lot of coaches who tear you down to build you up. Al builds you up to build you up higher."

The Redskins open training camp Monday on what they hope will be an upward trajectory after last season's playoff run. Big names, like LaVar Arrington and Patrick Ramsey, are gone. Big-time free agents have arrived.

And Saunders is now the man in charge of the mix on offense, the one who must find a way to make sure everyone gets the ball, the one who will help second-year quarterback Jason Campbell become either a star or a costly mistake.

Most important, though, it is through Saunders that Coach Joe Gibbs will complete his transition from offensive guru to game-day CEO, high on oversight, low on play-by-play masterminding. Gregg Williams has enjoyed autonomy running the defense since 2004, but for the first time in team history, the primary offensive footprint of a Redskins team coached by Joe Gibbs will not belong to Joe Gibbs.

The 65-year-old Hall of Fame coach sought this transfer of authority since late last season. There was a meeting Jan. 17 at the home of Al and Karen Saunders in Leawood, Kan., a rendezvous so clandestine that Saunders's silence was a condition of the meeting. Gibbs, who had not told his coaches he wanted to hire Saunders for nearly a month, had asked the Kansas City Chiefs for permission to speak to Saunders before the Redskins' first playoff game, according to sources.

Saunders, the Chiefs' offensive coordinator for five seasons, had been among those mentioned for one of numerous head coaching vacancies in the NFL as the regular season ended. But two weeks into January, the door was closing fast, as openings were being filled by other candidates.

For eight hours, Gibbs and Saunders traded offensive philosophies, and Saunders later agreed to a three-year, $6 million contract that multiple sources said was more than what he might have commanded as a head coach.

Gibbs got his man, but equally intriguing is why a coach as qualified as Saunders was available to the Redskins. How he emerged without a head coaching position from the biggest coaching market in 15 years -- one that concluded with novice candidates receiving jobs -- is not just a study in the fragile nature of relationships in professional sports, but of old-school networking, a reminder that in the tightly interconnected world of the NFL, acumen alone is rarely the final determinant.

It is a story that ended on a hot June day when the dominant voice of a Redskins practice was not that of the cool, reserved Gibbs, but of Saunders, sprinting energetically after a 26-year-old tailback young enough to be his son.

The Visit

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.

"I would love for Al to replace me," he said.

On Jan. 3, Peterson interviewed Saunders. Privately, sources said, Saunders believed the job belonged to him. He had produced the best offense in the NFL over the past five years. Green had publicly endorsed him, and Saunders had a powerful chip: Vermeil's imprimatur.

There was another consideration. Saunders had paid his dues with the team. Three years earlier, he bowed out of the running for head coaching jobs in Oakland and at the University of Nebraska -- jobs one source believed he could have had -- in a show of loyalty to both the Chiefs and Vermeil. The understanding was that when Vermeil left, Saunders would become head coach.

"He was assured to be the coach of the Chiefs," a league source said. "It was a question of loyalty. Dick must've said it a thousand times. He would become the head coach when Dick left. Al believed that."

Saunders wanted the job, but from the start, succeeding Vermeil was far from automatic. After the Saunders interview, Peterson spoke with Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants head coach and offensive coordinator in Baltimore. Over steaks at the Capital Grille in Philadelphia, he interviewed former Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis. On the suggestion of Colts Coach Tony Dungy, he flew to Indianapolis to interview Ron Meeks, the Colts' defensive coordinator. He met San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in St. Louis and intended to fly to Denver to meet with Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Meanwhile, Peterson asked New York Jets General Manager Terry Bradway if he would be willing to release Herman Edwards from his contract, a detail that LaMonte had not anticipated. Edwards, Peterson and Vermeil went back nearly 30 years to the Philadelphia Eagles. Vermeil hired Peterson as personnel director back in 1977, and Peterson signed Edwards to his first professional contract. Edwards worked with Peterson in Kansas City before being named coach of the Jets.

Three days after receiving permission to speak with Edwards, Peterson announced he had hired him, giving up a fourth-round pick as compensation.

"Al should be disappointed," Vermeil said. "When I consider that they hired me, why in the hell wouldn't they hire Al? He's got more qualifications than any coach that's been hired. If Herm hadn't been available, I think Al would've ended up in Kansas City."

On his 114-acre estate outside Philadelphia, Vermeil wasn't upset that his influence was not greater.

"I was disappointed for Al, but I understood," Vermeil said. "Carl and Herman are old friends. Carl signed Herman as a free agent in 1977. Herman worked for Carl in Kansas City. Carl deep in his heart said to himself, 'One day, Herman Edwards will be my football coach.' "

Peterson had the opportunity to hire Saunders not once, but twice.

"In no way or fashion should there be any negative connotations that he did not get the job to coach the Kansas City Chiefs," Peterson said. "I had two extraordinary opportunities to hire people I've had a longer affiliation with [Edwards] than Al Saunders. This business is one of relationships."

Peterson said no promises were ever made that Saunders would succeed Vermeil.

"That was Dick's opinion, and he's entitled to his opinion," Peterson said. "It was not his authority. It was not his decision. It was mine. In spite of the fact that Dick was quite upfront that Al was his first choice, it wasn't his choice to make. Quite frankly, once I had the chance to hire Herman Edwards, it was an easy choice to make."

The Trouble With Oakland

As January progressed, more and more of the coaching vacancies were being filled -- and Saunders was still standing. League insiders wondered if he did not interview well, a suggestion discounted by Charley Casserly, the former Texans general manager who interviewed Saunders in Houston. He said Saunders was "very professional, with a good plan for running a football team." Peterson said Saunders made for an "outstanding candidate."

But while Saunders waited, assistants were winning their first head coaching jobs. Saunders interviewed in Minnesota, but two days later the Vikings hired Brad Childress, the Philadelphia offensive coordinator. Three days after that, Peterson hired Edwards. Saunders interviewed in Houston, but 12 days had passed and he hadn't heard anything. He interviewed in Oakland, but hadn't heard from the Raiders in more than a week. Saunders hadn't been called back to Detroit for a second interview.

Vermeil called Rams President John Shaw on behalf of Saunders. Saunders coached the Rams' quarterbacks under Vermeil in 1999 when St. Louis won the Super Bowl. Shaw listened, but only as a courtesy, for the Rams never contacted Saunders. Shaw told Vermeil the Rams wanted a defensive coach, but hired Scott Linehan, the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator.

Some sources said Saunders was too polished. Another source said teams were cognizant of the demanding NFL hours and wanted younger coaches. One said Peterson was wary of Saunders, that while Peterson respected Saunders for his offensive mind, he regarded him as a "politician," and did not think the working relationship would be comfortable.

Word began to circulate that Saunders was not going to be hired in Houston or Detroit. Tampa Bay defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was the favorite with the Lions, and the Texans' first choice was Denver's Kubiak. Indeed, much of the Houston interviewing team, Dan Reeves, Bob and Cal McNair, all maintained long-held and close personal ties to Kubiak.

The only job that was left was Oakland. When Raiders owner Al Davis flew Saunders to the team headquarters during the second week of January, Saunders was one of only three candidates, along with San Diego wide receivers coach James Lofton and Marinelli, to interview with Davis directly.

Saunders was taken by the Raiders' offensive personnel. "Look at them. You have Jerry Porter, and Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan," he said. "They've definitely got some pieces."

In his interview, Al Davis told him: "When an NFL job is available, you take it. There are only 32 of them." But Saunders had also been told numerous times that the Oakland job was commonly considered a disaster.

"The Raiders is a death job," one NFL personnel man said. "You'll be there three years, not be allowed to do anything you want to do, and then get fired."

The day the Redskins called him, Saunders said he spoke to Raiders' senior personnel man Mike Lombardi about a second interview, but was leaning toward the Redskins instead of running a team with a reputation for dysfunction like the Raiders. It was a view shared by Vermeil.

"You're far better off putting your reputation on the line in a very stable situation, where you'll be backed," Vermeil said. "You have to be very careful."

Lombardi declined to be interviewed for this story.

Saunders declined to discuss the dynamics of each interview, but spoke in general terms.

"On some of the interviews, without getting into specifics, you walked out there knowing you had no chance to get the job. On another, I remember thinking: 'These guys have no chance to win. They either can't, won't or don't know how.' There were a couple I would have liked, and it didn't work out."

If it appeared that the politics of networking kept Saunders from a head coaching job, his ties with Gibbs landed him in Washington. According to LaMonte, by the Monday before Gibbs called, Saunders was running out of options. There was a possibility he could have returned to Kansas City in his old job, but that seemed to be something of a long shot. Mike Solari, the Chiefs' offensive line coach, was now the favorite to be Edwards's offensive coordinator, a fact enhanced by yet another football connection: Edwards and Solari were teammates in college, at San Diego State.

"There was no Plan B. I was astonished that Al hadn't already been hired," LaMonte said. There was the chance that he might be considered as a coordinator again, but the head coaching market had appeared to dry up.

Then, that Tuesday, Gibbs called Saunders.

"At the end of the day, this came out of nowhere," LaMonte said. "When it happened, it happened in a matter of hours, and the whole playing field changed."

Saunders's motor is intensifying. His playbook is 700 pages. He did not vacation following minicamp, choosing to formulate preliminary game-plan sketches through Week 4 of the regular season.

"Had I not been a head coach at a very young age, it would have been disappointing," Saunders said. "The most important thing is who I work with and where I work and the opportunity to win a world championship. Being a head coach just to be a head coach is not the end-all. I love coaching football and I love coaching offense.

"Joe Gibbs has three Super Bowl rings and he asked me to run his offense? Come on. I've got the best job in America."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company