By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007
For all of the discussion of the new players the Washington Redskins acquired in 2006 -- Brandon Lloyd fizzling , the Adam Archuleta debacle, Andre Carter's quiet beginning and encouraging finish and the occasional sizzle of Antwaan Randle El -- nobody else was nearly as scrutinized as associate head coach-offense Al Saunders.
Ask Saunders about how he dealt with the constant analysis of his system -- from an offensive line unsure that deviating from the muscular 2005 approach was prudent, to running back Clinton Portis declaring he and Saunders had no relationship to Coach Joe Gibbs publicly reiterating that Saunders was calling all the plays but privately restricting his offensive creativity -- and he will demur, convinced there is no time for reflection in the middle of the project of remolding Gibbs's offense.
He will say, as he did consistently during 2006 that he felt "terrible" for Gibbs that the master plan of adding one of the most successful offensive minds to a playoff team resulted in more questions than answers.
The Redskins' offense, one that ranked 20th in points, 21st in passing yards per game and 17th in pass plays over 20 yards, will be better, Saunders said, because the sharp learning curve of last season is minimized after a year of working in the system.
"Overall, there will be more opportunities for everybody," Randle El said. "Last year, we weren't able to get into a rhythm."
Also, Saunders is comforted by history. In his second year in Kansas City in 2002, the Chiefs led the league in scoring. They did so again in 2003, and in 2004 and 2005, Saunders's offense was ranked best in total offense.
As he was on Saturday when he made his first address of training camp, Saunders will be unfailingly polite, bullish on the talent he has before him and clearly committed to the offensive philosophy he has cultivated over 30 years, but he won't reveal the wounds he suffered last season.
Last year, he dealt with emotional objections individually and analytically. In his second year, Saunders is very much the same: unwavering in his belief that the Redskins' offense will be an electric one.
When he is told that it seemed the signature power running game of the Redskins had been lost under him, Saunders counters not with emotion, but with statistical evidence to the contrary. Results that can be qualified on paper are what he knows.
Saunders said that this season's ground attack -- because he now has in Portis and Ladell Betts two backs who have rushed for a 1,000 yards in a season -- will be even more potent.
"Offensively, we did some things really well last year. We ran the football as well as anybody in the National Football League. We averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which is the most productive running game in the history of this organization," Saunders said. "We've had some great teams since 1934 and only one has ever managed to average more than 4.5 yards per carry."
Saunders was close, but the 2006 Redskins had the third-best per average in team history, surpassed by the 1970 team (4.6 per rush) and the 1959 team (4.7 per rush). Overall, the Redskins were eighth in that category.
But while last year's Redskins rushing offense was statistically good, their 4.5 yards per carry average was third -- behind New York and Philadelphia -- in their four-team division. Only Dallas, at 4.1 yards per rush, was worse than the Redskins in the NFC East, proof, some would say, of the cultural difference between running the football in the backbreaking NFC East and the rest of the league.
In many ways, Saunders has corralled many of the pieces he has craved. As in Kansas City with Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, the Redskins have two runners who can move the football. The more dynamic Portis averages 4.7 yards per carry for his career. Portis chafed both that Saunders did not use him as an inside runner as he did Betts and that he was not the receiving threat he considered himself to be in the past.
But in a year where he was not completely healthy for a single game, Portis started only six games but scored seven touchdowns and averaged 10 yards per reception, the highest average since his rookie season, when he averaged 11 yards per catch. His 74-yard catch-and-run against Houston last Sept. 24 was the longest reception of his career.
It is here, the Redskins' actual production rather than the feel of how the team is performing, where Saunders sees the greatest disconnect and his greatest challenge. If he is not always comfortable, he understands that he is changing an offensive culture as much as accruing yards after the catch.
"After the third game, we were the third-most productive offense in the National Football League, but we lost two . . . we continued to get better in a lot of phases of the game. The thing is, as a football team, we didn't win," Saunders said. "And when you make a change halfway through as we did, it changes a lot of your approaches. I know what we can do. I know what this offense is capable of."
If Saunders is confident of his running game, he has also placed great faith in tight end Chris Cooley, whom he compared Saturday to Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. While quarterback Jason Campbell learns, the advantage of a big target in the middle of the field is clear, but last season Washington didn't have a wide receiver taller than six feet catch a pass.
"Chris has an ability to carry the football up the field and an excellent ability to run routes," Saunders said. "He is a much better route runner than he was at this time last year. I expect Chris Cooley to be one of the dominant forces in what we do offensively because of what he has demonstrated on the field."