Of Two Minds On Offense
Saunders Was Hired to Run the Show, but His Philosophy Isn't as Complementary as Gibbs Might Have Believed

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

New 'Cookbook'

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."

Said a Redskins coach of Saunders: "In the end it really came down to control. He thought he was getting full control, but he doesn't have it."

Indeed, following exit interviews with players after the Redskins' 34-28 season-ending loss to the New York Giants on Saturday, Gibbs went a step further, assuring his offensive linemen that they would not stray from the power running game formula next season, perhaps further limiting Saunders's influence, according to Redskins players.

Part of the tension stemmed from a belief among some on the team that the Redskins didn't need Saunders. Gibbs brought Saunders to Washington to modernize his offense, but some members of the organization weren't convinced that the offense needed modernizing. In the 2005-06 regular season, the Redskins had 25 passing touchdowns, tied for fifth in the league; rushed for 2,183 yards, seventh in the league; and scored 359 points, 13th in the league.

"We won 11 games last year, and we had something. Was it the most innovative offense in history? No, but it worked and we liked it and we did it well. Then we went from playing to learning," said a Redskins player, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as being publicly critical of the team. "We went back to the point where we had to think through everything and we're making the same mistakes now that we made in OTAs [organized team activities in the offseason] and preseason, and it's not because we're not trying. We're a hard-working group of guys and we have plenty of talent, but everything changed on us. That was the most frustrating thing of all. It's still really frustrating. We needed to add a receiver and tweak a few things, but instead it's like starting over. It really felt like we were starting all over."

The players also thought Gibbs placed far too much emphasis on the Tampa Bay playoff game. Brunell and wide receiver Santana Moss were injured. The Buccaneers boasted one of the league's top defenses, and besides, the Redskins won. But Gibbs had been considering a change for weeks, and following the Tampa Bay game, had made up his mind.

"Look at what we did" in late 2005, another Redskins starter said, citing the last three regular season games, when Washington scored 35, 35 and 31 points against its NFC East Division rivals. "We found ourselves. Then we get to the playoffs, Santana is really hurt and we lose our first option and Mark was hurting, and we looked pretty bad in the playoffs. But we had a good offense. Don't get me wrong -- it's a good offense and it's going to be a good offense -- but now you're starting over."

To some sources, Gibbs's November speech represented a tacit admission that the coach-as-CEO structure he adopted this season -- turning over the offense to Saunders, the defense to assistant head coach Gregg Williams -- had failed. He hadn't been as engaged. He was the head coach, certainly, but these Redskins were not playing in his image.

Early in the season, a group of players attended a Redskins community affairs function and, while in the limousine, marveled and joked at just how detached Gibbs appeared. Even on game day, the coach appeared to delegate more than he led.

"What," one player said, "does he actually do anymore?"

From the start, Gibbs missed his own formula, at times believing Saunders to be too pass-oriented. Of their 112 offensive plays the first two weeks of the season, the Redskins passed or attempted to pass 67 times -- and even some of the runs were gadget plays -- an imbalance that caught Gibbs's attention.

Saunders wanted to handle running back Clinton Portis differently, and although the reluctance by some Redskins players to trust in his system frustrated Saunders, it was not lost on some of the offensive players who backed Saunders that he would only have real autonomy when he had a larger hand in acquiring personnel. In 2006 only two players -- wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and backup quarterback Todd Collins -- were chosen by Saunders. The rest of the lineup was already established.

"You see, the groceries were already here," a Redskins coach said. "We were just using his cookbook."

There were some successes. Saunders said running back Ladell Betts, a player he had watched since high school, could be a star. He said Chris Cooley could be a dangerous tight end. Both enjoyed outstanding years.

"You knew there was going to be resistance to change, and my feeling was to incorporate new elements into what the team was doing well," Saunders said. "If we were 9-5 instead of 5-9, I don't think we'd be having this conversation. But the fact is you have to have those tangible successes. Otherwise, when things don't go well, the natural tendency is to retrench, to go back to what you were doing."

Even so, it became clear from the start of training camp that neither Gibbs nor Saunders appreciated how different Saunders's offense was. No one understood this better than Brunell, who would study daily during the summer with Collins, who played under Saunders for six years in Kansas City. At times during training camp, Brunell would grow frustrated at the complexity of the new offense. Collins would tell him to relax, that it took about a year to learn.

"I don't have a year," Brunell told Collins. "I've got less than 30 days."

'Soft or Finesse'

Gibbs reinforced the November speech with muscle. Leading up to the Redskins' home game against Carolina on Nov. 26, he shortened practices but increased their intensity. November in the NFL is a time when teams rarely use pads in practice, but Gibbs ordered the opposite. The Redskins held full-contact practices on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Everything in practice was done at Sunday-level game speed.

"We had some statements made by some great players on other football teams that said, 'That's not a Joe Gibbs type of team,' because they knew who we were and what we were all about. That kind of offended us. I knew it hurt Joe," said Joe Bugel, Gibbs's longtime lieutenant and the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense. "Just playing in the NFC East made it that way, and we never wanted to be considered soft or finesse. That word doesn't go well with Joe. When we heard that, it struck a nerve. And then he laid the cards on the table."

They would emphasize the heavy running plays, the ones that demoralize defenders in the fourth quarter. They would hit their teammates as if they were Cowboys, Eagles or Giants.

"He said we're going to do it this way. No negotiation, 11-on-11, game conditions," Bugel said. "Before, you went, but you didn't try to knock people down. Now, we're trying to knock people over."

In the weeks leading up to the change, Gibbs had simmered inside, beginning with a 19-3 loss to the New York Giants at the Meadowlands on Oct. 8, and boiling over after a 20-17 loss at Tampa on Nov. 19. Losing the game was one thing, but against the Buccaneers, in Campbell's first start, Saunders called 34 passing plays against 20 rushes.

To some Redskins coaches and players, Gibbs's emphasis on running inside and off-tackle was another example of the distance between him and Saunders. Though Saunders boasted power ground attacks featuring running backs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson with the Chiefs, a feeling persists that Saunders is more interested in exotic offensive chess maneuvers than winning the psychological battle with the opponent with physical play.

"The NFC East is about brutality, about kicking someone's ass," said a high-ranking Redskins coach, who asked not to be identified. "[Bill] Parcells, [Tom] Landry, Philadelphia, Joe Gibbs. It's not about yards. When we get a two-yard run up the middle, we applaud, because we know we've taken something out of that defense, and we'll keep taking it until we've beaten them down."

'Here, We Keep Score'

In the final six games of the year, after Gibbs's speech, the Redskins returned to their traditional style, rushing 210 times, an average of 35 times per game. In the previous 10 games, the Redskins ran the ball just 279 times. The team still lost four of the final six games but finished the season fourth in the NFL in rushing.

During the last month, Saunders said the biggest change in the Redskins wasn't the blocking schemes as much as it was "attitude," but it also meant that the resistance he felt from the players in adopting some of his themes had to some degree affected his thinking.

"It was a culmination of everything that happened at that point. You're not winning games. You start out 0-6," Gibbs said, a reference to the Redskins' 0-4 preseason and 0-2 start in the regular season. "It was evolving to a point you just say, 'This is not us.' We all went through it. Generally, for me, it's the whole team. When we've been good here, it's when the defense stops the run and the offense runs. I wasn't talking to just Al. I was talking to everyone."

But after the Nov. 20 meeting, Redskins players and coaches said Saunders channeled Gibbs.

"We are running the hell out of the ball now," said a member of the Redskins' coaching staff who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the Gibbs-Saunders relationship. "I don't think Coach meant to embarrass Al, but in making it so clear that he wanted to run the football, I think Al is realizing he doesn't have the control he thought he was getting."

Saunders has always maintained that adjusting to his system was a process, but, according to numerous sources, Gibbs had difficulty adjusting both to the process and the loss of offensive authority that had been his hallmark.

"They may have come from the same tree, but they branched off in totally different directions," a Redskins coach said. "One guy wants to give you options on top of options in the passing game. The other is conservative and wants to limit what you can do because it limits the mistakes you can make. One guy wants lots of guys out in passing routes with the freedom to expand on those routes. The other wants protection and a few guys out. On top of that is the personality of how they approach it. One wants to take chances by nature. The other doesn't."

Saunders said he did not take offense at Gibbs's comments. Quite the contrary, Saunders said he was energized by the meeting. He acknowledged difficulties this season but claimed loyalty to Gibbs and the Redskins organization. Neither man says tension exists beyond the expected disappointments that come during a losing season.

"We're all assistants here. This is Joe Gibbs's team. I don't have any illusions about that," Saunders said. "The resistance to change was something I didn't quite anticipate and to be truthful, I did think we'd be further along than we are at this point."

Their personalities are worth noting. Saunders is scientific, technical, willing to de-emphasize the immediate for the long view. He is more analytical, perhaps less willing to be governed only by the end result. Gibbs is more visceral, more linear. To Gibbs, the coin only has two sides: there is winning and there is losing.

"A big part of me has always been, 'What happened?' We played 15 games, okay? What happened?" Gibbs said. "The good thing about what we do as opposed to when I was doing NBC analyst work was that [as an analyst] I didn't know. Did I do a good job? I didn't know because nobody was keeping score. How do you keep score in that environment? Here, we keep score."

'Put It on Us'

For a time, Saunders believed he could win the cultural war. After an 0-2 start this season, the Redskins won two games against the Texans and Jaguars. Washington was dominant in those games as the offense produced 976 yards. Brunell completed 42 of 57 passes for 590 yards, four touchdowns against one interception, and posted a 122.7 passer rating.

For Saunders, the victories provided vindication for the ridicule he took for creating a 700-page playbook and for utilizing so little of his offense during the winless preseason, a source of second-guessing among coaches and players. The successes against Houston and Jacksonville reminded him why he chose to come to Washington.

"Let the system work," Saunders told the players. "Trust me. It works."

One afternoon in New Jersey changed everything.

For the first time, on Oct. 8, the frustration of the players was directed at Saunders's game plan. The Redskins had rushed the ball 40 or more times against both the Texans and Jaguars, as Portis and fullback Mike Sellers set the tone with a muscular, power-game approach. Now, in a division game against the New York Giants, the Redskins ran the ball only 20 times, just six times in the second half in a 19-3 loss. On every third down with less than five yards to go, Saunders called a pass play, even on a third and one from the Giants 24-yard line with Washington down 16-3 in the third quarter.

Bugel said the Giants game represented the first real line of demarcation of the season, the first game in which Gibbs began to show a degree of uneasiness with the offensive approach he had sought to bring in. "In that game against the Giants," Bugel said, "we got embarrassed. They embarrassed us, and we knew it."

Over the next two weeks, Gibbs watched his defense get pounded in losses to Tennessee and Indianapolis, dropping the Redskins to 2-5. The offensive line was angry that off-tackle muscle had given way to such gadget plays as the end around and the reverse.

The offensive line leaned toward revolt. Against the 0-5 Titans, right guard Randy Thomas was disturbed. "Man, they were rotating the same guys in the fourth quarter as they did in the first," Thomas said of the Titans' defensive line. "They weren't tired at all. What the hell?"

After losing to Indianapolis on Oct. 22, left tackle Chris Samuels was one of the last players to leave the locker room. The Redskins weren't winning the pit fight. They had been getting pushed around since the Giants game. "When," Samuels said, "are we going to stop sissy blocking?"

Samuels yelled in frustration to Bugel, telling him to let the offensive line carry the Redskins, pounding defenses as they did in last season's final month. "Put it on us," Samuels told Bugel soon after the Gibbs speech.

Bugel obliged. "I told them, 'Okay,' " Bugel said, " 'but your mouths are writing a pretty big check. You guys better be able to cash it.' "

'We'll Get There'

Some in the Redskins organization believe Saunders wasn't the problem. The term "Redskins football," they said, is just a code word to resist Saunders's new schemes, the term "AFC-style" to describe Saunders's offense merely a way to fight change.

"Let me tell you about Al," a Redskins coach said late in the season. "His game plan is solid. His passing game is awesome, if they'd let it work. The running game isn't that different than it was. The bottom line was that those guys weren't blocking the way they're blocking now. That whole thing that the AFC isn't physical, really, is a bunch of BS. Football is football. You either hit or get hit. Those guys decided to start hitting."

Moreover, although the offensive line may have wanted to return to power football, the Saunders way had won more games than Gibbs had since his return from retirement in 2004.

"It's 2006. It's a passing league," said one league official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as being publicly critical of Gibbs. "Can anyone really play smash-mouth all the time anymore?"

When it came to Brunell, Saunders was conflicted. If Saunders was convinced the job was harder than he had anticipated, he also knew that Brunell was in a vise. Gibbs and Saunders may have originated from the same coaching tree, but Collins was right: Their offenses were completely different. Brunell would need a year to learn the Saunders offense, time he did not have.

Even in Brunell's best moment of the year, when he completed an NFL-record 22 consecutive passes in a 31-15 win at Houston on Sept. 24, Saunders offered a mixed response. Brunell had perfectly executed the game plan Saunders had built for him. But Saunders also knew that his offense was optimized for longer, downfield passes, not for the short passing game at which Brunell, 36, excelled.

During the October losing streak, change was coming, and the rough blueprint was this: If the Redskins reached six losses before Thanksgiving, Gibbs would make the switch. He would replace Brunell with Campbell.

During the Oct. 29 bye week, Collins and Campbell both took extra work but had no idea Gibbs and Saunders had a timetable for replacing Brunell. Meantime, to the Redskins' inner circle, it was clear Gibbs did not want to replace Brunell. During those weeks, even owner Daniel Snyder would periodically ask Gibbs what he planned to do at quarterback. After the Redskins lost to Indianapolis on Oct. 22, sources close to Saunders said he wanted to approach Gibbs and suggest he start Collins.

"If you want to win games now," sources said Saunders told Gibbs, "Todd is the guy."

What was the harm? The Redskins were 2-5 and in a weak conference. Perhaps Collins could keep the Redskins in the race. If Washington was still interested in winning ballgames, Saunders might have thought, Collins was the better choice. He knew the system. He had NFL experience, and the team had nothing to lose.

Gibbs announced the change Nov. 13, a day after the Redskins were creamed, 27-3, in Philadelphia. The Redskins were 3-6. The magic number had been reached. To Redskins coaches, it was an example of a coach getting too close to one of his players. Saunders floated Collins's name but did not actively lobby Gibbs to play him, sources said.

"I completely understood and agreed with the decision," Saunders said of the decision to name Campbell the starter. "They paid a lot of money for Jason. They traded in the draft to get him. They had a lot invested in him. The time was right to see what the young man could do. I feel bad for Todd because he sort of got caught in the crosswinds. Decisions were being made that affected him that he really could not control."

Saunders says he is undeterred.

In the running game, he felt vindicated this season. Under his guidance, Betts became a 1,000-yard running back. If the feeling going into the season had been that the defense would keep the Redskins in contention, it was Saunders's offense that had the better year and will enter next season with fewer questions surrounding it.

During an interview, Saunders made it clear that he is convinced that his system can work.

"All I want to do is win for Joe Gibbs. Is the job exactly what I thought it would be? I don't really want to get into that," Saunders said. "I have confidence we'll get there. In fact, I know we'll get there.

"I would be lying, though," Saunders added, "if I said I thought it was going to be this difficult."

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