Grading on a Steep Learning Curve, Redskins' Offense Is an Incomplete Pass

By Les Carpenter
Monday, September 18, 2006

IRVING, Tex. -- There's no place to hide. What must Al Saunders think, sitting there in the coaches' box, headset on, his dream offense sputtering and the camera zooming in?

"I'd like to believe we would be farther along at this point," he said late Sunday night, his gaze dropping to the floor of the Redskins' locker room.

This seemed so simple. The final pieces came from everywhere this offseason, providing the Redskins' new offensive mastermind with everything to make the great offense hum. All he needed was to slip Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd into the missing slots, turn on the engine and start the "Greatest Show on Turf" all over again.

But offensive genius can be such a tricky thing. And the great minds who lock themselves in football fortresses all winter and spring dreaming of those amazing schemes that send the X's and Z's dancing across chalkboards also run the great risk of outsmarting their own wizardry.

For all the brilliance of a 700-page playbook worthy of a leather cover and gilded pages, there is also the annoying little matter of making the plays actually work.

Nobody around the Redskins doubts that Saunders has delivered a wonderful offense for his price. But after four exhibition games and two regular season games, the brilliance has yet to manifest itself in a football game. Which is, of course, where the playbook matters most.

All the reverses, the curls, the slants -- the things that justify lavishing a head coach's salary on an assistant -- aren't much good if the team running them is ingrained in smash-mouth tactics.

"I imagine all it takes is one time for your offense to go 'pop' and everything will be fine," a radio reporter said, trying to comfort him last night.

Saunders frowned.

"I think it did pop," he said. "We have to get it right."

The machine never started Sunday night, just like it hasn't started all year. Perhaps it was doomed the moment Mark Brunell lobbed a pass toward Ladell Betts and Betts never turned to see the ball. All evening, the Redskins seemed mired in a bog of missed opportunities and blown assignments. At one point late in the first half, so many players were running in and running off that Brunell, bewildered by the revolving door of burgundy spinning around him, had to call a timeout.

In the end, the most damning statistic in a sea of dreary numbers was this: the team converted 14 percent of its third downs. It was not the stuff of the "Greatest Show on Turf."

The thing is the Redskins players believe in Saunders. If lifting the 700-page playbook might pull pectoral muscles, the men who must run the plays find it a thing of beauty. And when they get buried in its myriad of formations and dotted lines, all they have to do is turn to their backup quarterback Todd Collins -- the passer Saunders brought here to be a safety net -- to understand there is a mastery behind its postulates.

"It's a great offense," he tells them.

Oh, but it takes a year to learn.

If only the Redskins, with a 65-year-old coach and laden with men in the sunset of their careers, had a year to study under the guidance of Saunders. But Super Bowl dreams loom in Washington. This team was built with February and Miami in mind, not a 12-month lesson in the finer points of running a 15-yard slant, hoping the timing might come down sometime next minicamp.

Saunders shook his head.

"I don't know, Kurt Warner won the Super Bowl in his first year with it," Saunders said.

The teachings are fantastic, the Redskins say. Saunders is nothing if not a gifted lecturer with wonderful communication skills. To spend time around Saunders is to believe anything is possible. He can make the most miserable situation drip with promise. This has served him though bleak seasons in the past.

And when he comes to deliver his weekly vision to his newest players, his eyes sparkle. The players say they can't help but be as enthused as their mentor. He speaks in metaphors and paints wonderful pictures that make this all so easy to understand.

His favorite is to tell them to pretend they are remodeling a house. Just imagine what it must look like when the workmen come in with their sledgehammers to yank out the appliances and pound away at the walls. There are holes everywhere, wires sticking out, studs dangling, beams lying on the floor. How can it possibly look good someday?

This, he tells them, is what his offense looks like when first practiced. It is rough, there are flaws and big gaps. There are too many formations, too many possibilities, there seems no way it will all make sense.

But then you add a few touches. Suddenly there is a new foundation. The electricians string new wires, add a few light sockets, then comes the wall and a new floor and the dry wall and the new windows and suddenly the old, broken-down house doesn't look so hopeless anymore.

And someday his offense will come together, too. He promises the Redskins this. Even if now they are still in a stage where the walls are down and the new windows are stacked in the backyard and there are only 14 games left in the season.

Last night they still looked so far away. Brunell didn't go over 100 yards passing until there was less than six minutes left in the game. They haven't found Lloyd, and Santana Moss is all but forgotten. Sure, they don't have their best weapon -- Clinton Portis. But their best drive of the night came on two Dallas penalties. This does not deliver a team to February.

"It's obviously a proven offense," Brunell said. "We're obviously not executing it the way we're supposed to."

After all, it takes more than a week to build a house.

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