Questions Remain About Saunders

By Mike Wise
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Al Saunders is a smart man. He's got a pedigree, a Super Bowl ring and a fond respect for his profession. He rarely says "NFL." It's usually a clear enunciation of "National Football League," as in, "We're right in the middle of the pack of the National Football League in terms of production on offense. We'd like to get better."

Beyond his creativity as an offensive coordinator, Saunders has been alternately portrayed as a genuinely nice fellow and a political animal who knows how to curry favor. Whether he is either or a little of both does not matter. Saunders has sold his act wherever he's gone, and people have bought it.

One of his pupils, Kurt Warner, is coming to town with Arizona today. Warner spent time as a grocery bagger before Saunders helped coach him into the NFL most valuable player in St. Louis. Whoever wound up in Kansas City's backfield while Saunders was calling the plays wound up in the Pro Bowl.

It's sometimes hard to square that Saunders with the guy entrusted to run Joe Gibbs's offense the past 21 games, the coach who called a reverse on a wet field in Green Bay last week with his team leading. The play went to Santana Moss, a wide receiver nursing a hamstring injury, who was having a career-worst day trying to hold onto the football. Moss fumbled, the Packers took it to the house and the Redskins lost a game in which they were very much in control.

"I think if Santana had that to do over again, he'd want the same call," Saunders said.

Sure he would. He's a player; players always want a do-over. But at that juncture in the game, was that the right call?

"It was a way to get his hands on the ball," Saunders said. "We were trying to get him involved after he missed a couple of balls. The best way to do it if you can't throw it to him is to hand it to him. We had it set up perfectly. If you look at it on video, it looked like a punt return. He had two big offensive linemen and a quarterback in front of him. He just slipped on the turf and the guy got his hand in there and knocked the ball out."

It's fair for Saunders to laugh at those questioning his gadgetry last Sunday; these were the same fickle souls who have been begging for him to open up the offense, to thumb through that gargantuan, 750-page playbook -- a playbook heavy enough to kill any small animal it was dropped upon -- and let it breathe. Let it go, like the Redskins did in a 34-3 rout of Detroit the prior Sunday, when everything Saunders came up with -- direct snaps to Clinton Portis, play action rollouts at the goal line -- worked.

It's also fair to wonder -- almost a year and a half into his job here -- when this offense is going to come around for more than a week or two. As much as their cult following is worried about whether the Redskins can score enough points to keep pace with Gregg Williams's defense, how long before the people on the other side of the ball start grumbling -- if they haven't already?

If there were, say, some defensive-position coaches who wondered about Saunders's play-calling in certain situations, would they be guilty of treason? No, because there are people much higher up in the organization waiting for Saunders to justify his $2 million-plus-per-year paycheck.

Williams said he knows of no such dissension in the ranks, and the man knows dissension between the offense and defense. On Jan. 2, 1994, as the special teams coach for the Houston Oilers, he can be seen in the television footage foreground, squatting down, as Buddy Ryan took a swing at Kevin Gilbride. Ryan thought Gilbride's run-and-shoot offense was ineffective, once calling it the "chuck and duck." Gilbride took exception and told Ryan so, at which point Ryan grabbed him with one hand around the neck.

"Now that's dissatisfaction with the offense," Williams said, laughing. "We don't have any of the sort here."

Asked whether any of the defensive coaches took umbrage with the Moss call, Williams answered, "To my knowledge, no."

"I haven't seen the play, but I can't fault trying to get the ball in Santana Moss's hands," he said. "He's one of our playmakers. And if there is a way to get a slick ball into a receiver's hands by handing it off instead of throwing it to him, I'm looking for any way in the world to get [the ball] into Santana's hands."

Saunders has alibis, starting with a decimated offensive line and moving on to gimpy No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. Also, the free agent money went to the defense this offseason. And let's be clear: If Brandon Lloyd hauls in that too-long bomb from Jason Campbell last Sunday or Moss holds onto any one of several deep balls, the emerging downfield passing game is lauded and the masses feel much better about a 4-1 team than they do a 3-2 team.

"You'd like to score a lot more points, obviously," he said. "You'd like to be more productive. But Jason is improving every week. Our offensive line, we're trying to glue together with a lot of players we don't know yet. And Clinton's coming along. For him, this was training camp. It's the fifth week of the season so his training camp is over. He's ready to go."

Five games in, though, and Saunders's offense is the major question mark with this team. Whether the Redskins can fill the gaping holes on the offensive line and how Saunders adapts to those changes in his play-calling will take Washington as far as it can go. Reaching further, it may come down to whether Gibbs remains as coach after the season.

Think about it: The defense is tough as nails so far, capable of almost pitching a shutout. Campbell has alternated between above average and very good. One of his only problems is that he sometimes throws the football too far, which still beats not being able to throw it far enough.

Over the next 11 weeks, this is very much about Saunders, whether his act can still sell, whether this is ultimately the right place for him. For what it's worth, he believes it is.

"We have a head football coach that's won three Super Bowls and is in the Hall of Fame, we've got an owner who will do anything he can to help us win and we've got players who work hard and coaches who work extremely hard, so you couldn't ask for any better environment to be in to have success," Saunders said. "We just have to keep working hard and keep going in the same direction and I think the fruits of the hard labor will show up."

"It'll come," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company