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

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."

Said Saunders: "When Joe [spoke last November], it was an address to the football team, not to the offense in particular. It was: 'We need to be more physical. We need to play Redskin football. We need a new attitude.' We didn't like where we were."

Asked if he felt his talents and ideas were hamstrung by Gibbs, Saunders added: "We've never not been on the same page. Perception and reality is oftentimes different. People perceive Joe as a grind-it-out, run-offensive coach and they perceive me as a wizard who does all kinds of different things. In reality, we both believe, A-number one, that you have to be an effective running football team to win in the National Football League.

"When I came here, I came here because I trusted and believed in Joe Gibbs. He hired me because he trusted and believed in me. And there's never been a day when we haven't been on the same page in terms of what we're doing."

Gibbs said Saunders called every play, as he will this season. Any hint of a cultural divide, how the Hall of Famer who won with the run was having a hard time meshing with the offensive coordinator who choreographed the "Greatest Show on Turf," was squashed by both men. Never happened.

Whether you buy that wholeheartedly or not, there still are a few unavoidable perceptions that the Redskins will take into this season because of what happened on their way to 5-11.

The latter part of the season looked more like a Gibbs-of-old, move-the-chains team instead of a Saunders symphony. Before Gibbs's speech, the Redskins rushed 27.9 times per game. In the final six games, they ran the ball an average of 35 times per game. What does that mean for this season?

Is Saunders essentially calling plays for an offense that isn't really his? Or will their philosophies meld well after an adjustment that actually netted some nice numbers on the ground: 2,216 rushing yards (fourth in the NFL).

And what of Campbell? Saunders didn't pick him to execute his plays; Campbell was Gibbs's choice all along. Will Saunders trust the young quarterback enough to go downfield after the run is established, or will the Redskins as a staff try to minimize his mistakes by relying on the run even more? Saunders gave a glimpse of what to expect, sounding very much in concert with Gibbs:

"We believe you need to run the football to win," he said. "And that's where we start. Our offense is built around the running back. And how much you can do offensively is predicated on what the quarterback can do."

Either way, those notions and questions are out there. And, for Saunders, the only way to hush the masses is for the same players who were confounded by all the shifting and moving a year ago to fully comprehend the system this season. The grace period is over. The learning curve just got steeper.

"As a coach, you're a teacher," Saunders said. "And we happen to be teaching analytic geometry and not arithmetic. There are some intricacies to what we do. And I think, like anything else, the second time through something the more comfortable you feel. It's like learning a foreign language."

He uses an analogy of an American looking over the menu at a Milan restaurant and wanting to order burgers and fries but not being able to understand Italian and, therefore, communicate with the waiter.

"You know what it looks like," Saunders said. "You know what it tastes like. You can go back in the kitchen and prepare it. But you can't order it. Because you can't speak the language.

"So the first year, guys are really thinking about what they're doing rather than just performing at the level they're capable of performing. All of a sudden, the second time around, you're not learning where to line up, what your assignment is. Now you're improving on the techniques."

The idea is for the Redskins to get out of their own heads, to stop thinking and start reacting on offense. That's the goal. And whether it's achieved or not will have everything to do with how Al Saunders is perceived in January.

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