By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
After yesterday's practice at Redskins Park, associate head coach Al Saunders spoke at length about his philosophy and approach, acknowledging the mounting frustration of a fan base that anticipates much from his offense but over three exhibition games has seen virtually nothing. Saunders spoke for more than 45 minutes, but his hundreds of words could be boiled down to two: Trust me.
The frustration is not limited to fans. In the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium, wide receiver David Patten dressed following Washington's 41-0 loss to the New England Patriots on Saturday night and voiced a sentiment similar to that of fellow players and even Saunders himself: The Redskins' offense may appear to be struggling, but it hasn't in the three games used any of the dynamic offensive formations and schemes it uses every day in practice.
"We'll get there," Saunders said. "I know what the end product is going to look like. We've had success over the years. We know what we do works. In preseason, it's not the end result of what you do. It's the daily progress of each individual in their techniques and their fundamentals. Sure we had some guys that probably didn't play at the level we would have liked. They know that and they know what they need to do to improve."
Saunders brought up 2002, Steve Spurrier's first year in Washington, when the Redskins went 4-1 in the preseason and averaged 33 points in those games -- only to go 7-9 in the regular season. "The last team here that went 0-4 was 1982, and their next 32 games after that, their record was 28-4," Saunders said. "So I'd like to look at the idea that preseason might not equate with success during the season. We're heading down the right path."
The result, Saunders acknowledged yesterday, is a schizophrenic football team, one that is difficult to assess and that, before the curtain opens on the regular season, requires patience. There is the Redskins team that hasn't won a football game this preseason, has been outscored 87-17 over three games and hasn't seen its high-priced regulars register a point, Saunders says, and then there is the offense he commands in practice, the high-octane, precision machine with the speed routes and mismatches, the offense that impressed Joe Gibbs so much when Saunders was in Kansas City that Gibbs brought it to Washington.
In practice, Saunders said, the real Redskins offense is being installed, fine-tuned for the Sept. 11 opener at FedEx Field against the Minnesota Vikings. But although the gap between what occurs behind the closed doors of the practice field and the dismal offensive output the Redskins have produced in three games doesn't bother Saunders, there is concern among some players of a potential danger: In keeping so much of the regular season game plan hidden from game-speed situations, the Redskins lack basic success that would allow them to build confidence for executing a new offense against regular season opponents.
"We haven't seen anything that we want to see. There's a level of frustration from that standpoint. Forget the win-loss thing. It's a matter of having some success, and we haven't seen that," Patten said of the first-team offense. "You're not seeing the plays during the game we're used to seeing in practice. But you do want to see it happen in a game and we haven't gotten to that point yet. The bottom line is, what team is really showing their cards? Forget about that. That excuse is over and done with. It's time for us to do something we can feel good about, so we can say, 'We made this happen, and we made that happen.' But we're not even doing our strengths. Right now, we're struggling."
While the starters for other teams, particularly the quarterbacks, have produced above-average preseason numbers, the Redskins have not produced. But they admittedly have hidden much of their star power. Chris Cooley, the tight end who caught 71 passes last year, has three catches in three games. Signature plays that made Santana Moss a star last season, such as the wide receiver screen, have not been attempted this preseason.
"It's not about showing things as much as it is developing a foundation in what we want to accomplish. The preseason games are another practice, but they're in a game environment where the speed of the game is quicker," Saunders said. "You're playing against different personnel, but I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't say I'd like to score every time we had the football. I'd like every pass to be complete, but that's not going to happen."
After being widely ignored in the slot this preseason, Antwaan Randle El, the big offseason free agent pickup, was given more responsibility against the Patriots. He still has not lined up to return punts, but he caught a fourth-down pass from Mark Brunell and also showed his versatility, taking a slot reverse for the first time.
"Antwaan Randle El is another great example," Saunders said. "In the preseason, we haven't done things specifically to get him the ball, and have him do the things he's capable of doing, but he sure does it all in practice."
Saunders said he was not concerned with the idea that a group of players largely unfamiliar with his offense might need more game-speed repetitions.
"I've been in this offense a long time and I know it works in game speed if you've got the right guys to do it, so I don't have any problems about that," Saunders said. "I know that we have to be very sharp when we play Minnesota. In the practice environment, we try to create as much stress as we can to put them in those situations, and we'll see what happens when we open the season. We've had too much success in this offense, in San Diego, St. Louis, Kansas City over the past 26 years to not be confident of this process."