Playing Saunders's Name Game

"They will have the same responsibilities both in the passing and running game," Al Saunders said of Redskins Chris Cooley, right, and Mike Sellers, back, stretching with Manuel White, Jr. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

On the surface, the change is merely new terminology, made for the sake of simplicity. The Washington Redskins, under new associate head coach Al Saunders, no longer employ H-backs, but, the staff says, those previously deemed an H-back will now carry virtually the same responsibilities as either a tight end or fullback.

For the two most prominent former H-backs on the roster, however, Chris Cooley (now a tight end) and Mike Sellers (now a fullback), the move will result in several new wrinkles. The Redskins beefed up at wide receiver in the offseason and already had a star running back, but Saunders is just as intrigued by the possibilities presented by Cooley and Sellers, whose skills can create confounding matchup problems for opposing defenses.

In Cooley, he sees visions of Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow and Kansas City Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, both of whom shined in this system, while Sellers, a wrecking ball in the trenches with a knack for catching touchdown passes, stands to get more carries in the backfield and do more lead blocking, too.

"Chris's beginning point will be as a tight end at the line of scrimmage, and from there we'll move him to a lot of different places," Saunders said. "Mike Sellers will begin in the backfield and we'll move him to a lot of positions, but ultimately the end will be they will move the same way [as before], and they will have the same responsibilities both in the passing and running game."

H-backs were a staple of Joe Gibbs's system, a hybrid position that meshed with the multiple sets and elaborate motion he favored. Saunders is of the same mind, but labels positions and duties differently in his playbook. So when Gibbs brought him on board in January, it only made sense to implement Saunders's wording.

"That's the way, personnel-wise, Al was calling it," Gibbs said. "We didn't want to have a whole bunch of new things for him to have to cope with while he's trying to call plays."

Cooley, 24, learned of the demise of the H-back in his first meeting with Saunders, shortly after the coach joined the staff.

"Last year I was listed as a halfback or H-back or whatever," said Cooley, a free-spirited individual clearly not hung up on positional designations. "And [Saunders] said on the Pro Bowl ballot I was listed as a fullback, so he said: 'You're going to be a tight end. We're going to put you as a tight end on everything and I don't want anybody to call you anything else.' That's kind of how that happened."

Of much greater importance to Cooley, who more than doubled his receiving yardage last year from his rookie season in 2005 (314 to 774) on 71 receptions including seven touchdowns, was how he would be utilized in the new offense. Saunders wanted to draft Cooley when he was a coach with the Chiefs in 2004 -- Washington traded up in the third round to select him from Utah State -- and believes he has "an uncanny ability to catch the football." Cooley's speed is also underrated, Saunders said, and he wants to get the player much more involved in the deep passing game.

Cooley (6-feet-3, 250 pounds) works well with quarterback Mark Brunell in intermediate routes for the most part. This will be new for him, but he is well aware of the production Winslow and Gonzalez amassed under Saunders.

"Chris has a different size and a different stature than those two guys, but he can do the same things in our offensive scheme," Saunders said. "And it begins with throwing the ball down the field. He can still do the underneath stuff, but this will be a little bit of a change for him, and the more of that he can do, the more we'll ask him to do."

Cooley said: "Last year it was a lot of quick type of stuff, and this year it's all speed routes. It's no head fakes or weird steps, it's all speed routes: Get there as fast as you can and the quarterback is going to put the ball there. I never really ran routes like that, so that's the big change for me. But I feel like I'm coming along, and I feel like I can do it."

Saunders has already called a running play for Cooley in training camp practice, and promises more surprises to come. "There's a couple of secret things we may have coming up," he said. Sellers, meantime, has been begging for some carries since signing as a free agent in 2004.

Last year, Gibbs relented and gave him one carry (he scored from a yard out but nearly fumbled), and Saunders said he plans to run him more frequently. Saunders relies on more two-back sets, with effective lead blocking from the fullback a must. Current Minnesota Vikings running back Tony Richardson went to consecutive Pro Bowls as Saunders's fullback in Kansas City, and Sellers became so excited explaining his expanded role in this offense that he stopped mid-sentence to point out the goosebumps on his right forearm despite the 100-degree heat.

"My job in this offense has been a lot more extensive than it has been in the previous two years," said Sellers, 6-3, 277 pounds. "I couldn't be anywhere better than where I am right now. They're taking full advantage of everything I can do."

Sellers, 31, emerged as a red-zone force in 2005, catching seven touchdown passes after scoring just six times in five previous NFL seasons, and plans to build off that. He altered his diet this offseason, turning 10 pounds of fat into muscle, and after years of struggling in the NFL and getting his life straightened out in the Canadian Football League, he's finally found a home.

"I fit here perfectly," Sellers said. "Hopefully, I can get another five or six years."

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