By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007
A few days after his offense shut down against the New England Patriots, Al Saunders leaned wearily against a wall at Redskins Park. Gone was the smooth cheer to his voice and the optimistic glint in his eyes. Instead, his shoulders seemed to sag, a droop that ran through his Redskins windbreaker and down the rest of his body. He sighed. He looked tired.
Somebody said people have been wondering what happened to Al Saunders, once the swashbuckling master of an offense that flew all over the field in Kansas City, running up points on the scoreboard like numbers on a gas pump. The Redskins' associate head coach-offense gave a dry laugh and stared shyly at the floor.
"He's still here," Saunders said. "He's working hard."
Friends of the coach say he does not question his decision to come to Washington before last season despite the damage it has done to his legacy as an offensive virtuoso. Once unchallenged in his standing as a brilliant game tactician, his offense is ranked 28th in the NFL with an average of 293 yards a game going into the Meadowlands today to face the New York Jets -- 111 yards a game off the average of his last two seasons in Kansas City, when he ran the league's top offense. It is widely believed around the NFL that Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs took the aggressiveness out of Saunders's playbook, replacing it with a more conservative attack.
And yet, if Saunders has severe restrictions placed upon his play-calling he won't admit it, optimistically delivering weekly game plans that don't resemble the wide-open directives of his previous stops in Kansas City and St. Louis. He says they represent the Redskins' best chance to win, especially now that the team's defense has become a strength. And if he resents Gibbs for insisting upon a more deliberate approach, he hides it well.
"I know he has tremendous respect for Joe Gibbs," said former Eagles, Rams and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil who hired Saunders as a receivers coach in St. Louis and offensive coordinator in Kansas City. "Al is a very, very loyal soldier, believe me."
Or as one longtime friend who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because he worried about talking on Saunders's behalf said: "I think Al is as excited as he can be. He's loved his experiences in Washington. He really does. I've never heard him issue a regret -- ever."
Much has been made of the perceived philosophical split between Gibbs and Saunders. Last year, when Saunders ran the offense with lots of four-wide-receiver sets, people around the league noticed Gibbs still seemed to have influence over everything Saunders did.
One AFC defensive coach who studied several tapes of Redskins games last year joked that even when the team was running Saunders's offense, you could keep a list of Gibbs's favorite plays and then scratch them off as Saunders squeezed them into the game plan.
"You could almost imagine him going, 'Okay, I ran the reverse,' " the coach said. "And what is that other play Gibbs likes so much? The counter trey? You could imagine Saunders going, 'Okay, good, there's the counter trey' and crossing it off the list, too."
At the end of last year, in a now famous team meeting, Gibbs announced the Redskins were going back to the style with which he is more comfortable. Many saw this as a repudiation of Saunders's methods. After all, in Kansas City, Vermeil gave great leeway to Saunders to run the Chiefs' offense. Suddenly that freedom, despite Saunders's $2 million salary, was gone.
Still, Vermeil said, Saunders understands his role with Gibbs.
"That is dictated by Joe," Vermeil said. "He's the boss. Nobody's going to question Joe. I think Al Saunders adjusts to Joe Gibbs because Joe Gibbs is the head coach. He has the last word just like I had the last word.
"Remember," Vermeil continued. "It's not his offense. It's the Redskins' offense. Just like it was the Chiefs' offense. It's a reflection of everything Al and I had worked on in St. Louis. The foundation of my old offense is the same thing they run today [in Washington]. It's just got more variations now."
The same friend of Saunders who didn't want to speak on his behalf said the presence of Saunders and Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, presents an unusual situation in that both coordinators have been head coaches (Saunders in San Diego and Williams in Buffalo). This makes them less likely to criticize Gibbs or even challenge him.
"They know what it's like to sit in that chair," the friend said. "They feel his pain."
Saunders is well aware that the Redskins' offense is not as spectacular as the one in St. Louis and Kansas City. But he has always resented the implication that he is a pass-first coach simply because the offense he ran with the Rams and Chiefs had so many potential pass-catchers. There are variations, he said. And since this team has an excellent chance to be 5-3 by the end of this weekend, maybe it doesn't need to be explosive.
"Joe is a wonderful head coach and his success is very well-documented," Saunders said. "And Joe has a very strong idea of what he wants his offense to be. That's our identity. That's Redskins football."
He went on to say that the terminology of this offense is the same as those in St. Louis and Kansas City but that it takes different shapes. Because the Redskins have proven to be a solid defensive team so far this season, the offense should be more conservative.
"In St. Louis we were on the high side, extreme side of creativity, the high side of the passing game," Saunders said. "Here we are much more oriented to the running game. In Kansas City we were in the middle."
He would like to run something more like the Kansas City offense, friends say. But they add that a series of factors have kept that from happening.
Back in early August, Vermeil met Saunders on the field before the Redskins' scrimmage with the Ravens at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. And as they stood there, watching Washington's offense warm up, Vermeil can still remember the joy in Saunders's voice.
"Al was really excited because of the offensive line he had," Vermeil said. "He thought it had a chance to be really good."
Lost in the glamour of the Rams and Chiefs offenses -- with stars such as Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes was the fact that both of Vermeil's and Saunders's teams had some of the top lines in the league. Orlando Pace helped keep Warner safe to pick apart defenses in St. Louis, just as Will Shields and William Roaf opened huge holes for Holmes and Johnson.
Saunders thought he might have a chance for something similar with the Redskins, especially since the core of the line -- Chris Samuels, Casey Rabach, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen -- had spent a year learning his system.
"And then three guys got hurt," Vermeil said.
While Saunders has refused to blame the pieced-together lines for the offense's problems, a source close to him said he is frustrated. He believes he has to put on a bright face and enthusiastically tell his linemen they can do everything the original line could do even when he has to scale back his vision, the source said.
When asked if he thinks the line, no matter what form it takes, can eventually blossom by season's end, Saunders said: "I still think it can. In this league it's a game of attrition. Someone goes down and he has to be replaced."
Those who know him say Saunders remains enthused about the potential of quarterback Jason Campbell. They say Saunders loves Campbell's poise and his ability to throw long, but developing a quarterback takes time and Campbell has just 14 starts in the NFL.
"What I think Al thinks is that they are going through a transition at the quarterback position," one friend said. "He believes the quarterback will be a great quarterback. But that takes time."
The same friend said the line's problems have kept Campbell from developing as quickly as possible mainly because he has been left running for his life as pass rushers pour in.
In part because of the chaos, Campbell has thrown three fewer passes in seven games this season than in the seven games last season when Gibbs decided to emphasize the run,
"Is [this year's offense] what Al would want do when he has a more experienced quarterback and experienced offense and making it all hum?" Vermeil asked. "Probably not."