Saunders Wrote the Playbook, but Is He on the Same Page as Gibbs?

Quarterback Jason Campbell, right, and the Redskins may be looking to run more this season.
Quarterback Jason Campbell, right, and the Redskins may be looking to run more this season. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Wise
Saturday, August 11, 2007

Jason Campbell recently got out of the front seat of a car between two-a-day practices in Ashburn. When a passenger seated in the back handed him Campbell's weighty backpack of more than 30 pounds, he facetiously asked the Redskins quarterback whether he had a body inside.

"Nope," Campbell said, chuckling. "It's the playbook."

"Seven-hundred pages of Al Saunders?"

"Seven-hundred fifty this year."

It's happening again. Or at least it's tempting for the team's legions to feel that way.

Inaccurate or not, the perception of why last season went wrong for Joe Gibbs began with Saunders. He is being paid $2 million per season over three years to upgrade Washington's predictable, woebegone offense. Weeks into the regular season, however, the creativity and precision that came to define Saunders's brilliant career in St. Louis and Kansas City translated to "soft." He became viewed as the guy who confused everyone so much with his schemes -- and his pass-happy gadgetry -- that Gibbs finally ran a counter trey and mowed down his own associate head coach-offense.

That's what some players and coaches felt when Gibbs made his now-famous, impassioned plea to return to "Redskin football" last November after his team had fallen to 3-7. He wanted his players to be the tough, nasty, ornery hombres who used to bump helmets in the NFC East -- not girlie men thinking about where they should be rather than instinctually hitting someone.

Modernization? Naw. Not at 3-7. Gibbs was said to have gone back to what he knew: an up-the-gut, physical running game to set up the passing attack. Not vice versa.

That's the perception.

But Gibbs and Saunders say that's wrong. Going into the first preseason game tonight in Tennessee -- the first genuine look this season at Campbell's grasp of Saunders's playbook -- the coach and his innovative play-caller have made it a point to debunk a central theme from last season: That Gibbs professionally emasculated Saunders, seized that bulky playbook and went back to retro-Hog football.

"There was a conscious decision, but it wasn't the one you're thinkin'," Gibbs said last week in an interview. "We kind of drew a line in the sand. We looked at the three games we won, especially the early games with the Jaguars and Houston, and we thought there was some things there about us where we said, 'That's really us.' Look, we want to take those good things and we want to magnify those things in practice. That was it."

Gibbs said he never usurped Saunders's authority or tinkered with his play-calling. "I did not," he said. "We looked at ourselves, strategy-wise, and decided we needed to be a lot better in these areas. Then we put our mind to coaching it and then going after it. It was Al and all of us in there together. It certainly wasn't me saying, 'Hey, we're going to do this or that.' It was all of us working through a process."

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