THE LOST SEASON Gibbs and Saunders
Of Two Minds On Offense
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
On Nov. 20 in the main conference room at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Joe Gibbs resolved to take back the personality of his football team. Fifty-three players, 24 coaches, plus front-office and support staff filled the auditorium-sized meeting room to capacity. Gibbs, not known among his peers as a particularly forceful speaker except in extreme cases, had on this morning reached his breaking point.
The coach's voice reverberated across the room, according to accounts provided by those who were present. The Washington Redskins had become pushovers, Gibbs said. Rivals who once feared Gibbs now ridiculed his team as soft. Those days, Gibbs said, were over.
"If we lose, we're going to lose our way," a person in the meeting recalled the Hall of Fame coach saying. "We're going to play Redskins football. Redskins football means being tough. It means if we're on the goal line, we're going to pound it at them four times. And if they stop us, then good for them. They were better than us. But this is how we're going to play."
There was one other thing: Not everybody wearing a Redskins uniform today, Gibbs said, would be wearing it in the future.
"There are going to be people who don't like the way we're going to do things, and those people may not be here," the person in the meeting quoted Gibbs as saying. "We're going to pick the guys who want to be Redskins. The next few weeks are going to decide that, who wants to be here, who wants to do things this way and who doesn't."
In the days following the meeting, Gibbs's words were met with varying interpretations. Some players wondered why it took a 3-7 record and a quarterback change -- replacing Mark Brunell with Jason Campbell -- for Gibbs to finally mobilize. Others, long frustrated by the Redskins' seeming decision to abandon their power football signature for a more wide-open offensive style, thought Gibbs's tone was long overdue.
But to some players and coaches, Gibbs's constant reiteration of the phrase "Redskins football" meant only one thing: a clear repudiation of associate head coach-offense Al Saunders, the man Gibbs handpicked in January 2006 to modernize his offense. How the Gibbs-Saunders marriage would work was the greatest unknown going into the season, and here in a conference room with the team having lost seven of its first 10 games, various players and some coaches said they thought they were witnessing the culmination of a long-simmering tension between two men who believed they shared a similar offensive vision, only to discover too late how different their systems truly were.
In interviews with both men, Gibbs and Saunders described their relationship as warm and respectful. Gibbs, 66, said that at no point during the season did he diminish Saunders's authority or take over any element of play-calling. After he hired Saunders from the Kansas City Chiefs with a three-year, $6 million contract, Gibbs said the transition from his offense to Saunders's would be minimal. He and Saunders, 59, both came from the San Diego coaching tree, having served under offensive mastermind Don Coryell. The terminology in the two offenses was the same, as were the basic philosophies.
But the central fact of 2006, numerous Redskins sources said, was that Gibbs and Saunders severely underestimated the cultural divide between the two offensive organizations they had built. The divide was not statistical, for the Redskins this season emerged as the kind of dominant running team Saunders had built with the Chiefs. It was in the passing game and in the overall mind-set that merging Saunders's Kansas City approach with Gibbs's Washington way proved too difficult to achieve in just one season.
From the start, Saunders believed he was working with a mandate from Gibbs. During a private meeting at Saunders's home in Leawood, Kan., in January 2006, when Gibbs first approached Saunders about coming to Washington, Gibbs told Saunders to use the Redskins' 17-10 playoff win at Tampa Bay that month as proof of the necessity for change: The Redskins produced just 120 yards of offense and 25 net yards passing in that game. Gibbs, after nearly a decade and a half away from the NFL, told Saunders he needed help. Armed with Gibbs's authority, Saunders would routinely respond to player resistance to his schemes during the season by mentioning the Tampa Bay playoff game as a reason for his arrival.
But as Gibbs's speech to the team on Nov. 20 demonstrated, Saunders may have overestimated his mandate as he sought to introduce a more wide-open style of play.
"It's like the difference between painting by the numbers and having a blank canvas," said a Redskins team source, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. "When you're painting by the numbers, the green paint goes on the number four. The yellow goes on the number six. That's kind of what's happening here. He thought he was getting the blank canvas, where he could create something from the ground up."