Busy Time Of Year for Saunders

"They've been trying to get that offense going for a long time now, and I know it's not where they want it to be," an NFC executive said of the Redskins' offense under Al Saunders, above. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Late into the evening at Redskins Park on Tuesday, Al Saunders still was going strong. The Washington Redskins spent the day preparing for tonight's matchup with the New York Giants , and Saunders, the team's associate head coach-offense, had been busy with meetings about the game plan.

Strategizing is among the duties Saunders enjoys most, and despite having utilized only a portion of the offense for much of the season because of the Redskins' inordinate number of injuries and the unfamiliarity of backup players with the system, Saunders expressed his belief in the long-term benefits of the Redskins' philosophy during a lengthy interview.

The offensive approach he brought with him from the Kansas City Chiefs before last season, and modifies at the request of Coach Joe Gibbs, has produced some positive results, Saunders said, and should lead to even bigger things in coming seasons.

"We've made some marked improvement in a lot of areas and seen growth," he said. "We're going about it in the right way."

But the Redskins have not attained the level of success offensively they have strived for since Saunders's arrival. Only a middle-of-the-pack team statistically, Washington has produced few big plays either passing or running. To be sure, injuries have played a part in the unit's shortcomings. And with the development of young quarterback Jason Campbell, who turns 26 on Dec. 31, being an organizational priority, Saunders has implemented components of the offense more slowly than he would have with a more experienced quarterback (13-year veteran Todd Collins will replace the injured Campbell as the starter tonight).

Gibbs often has praised Saunders for his preparedness and work ethic and recently said he is pleased with the entire coaching staff, but acknowledged he has been disappointed in the results offensively, stirring speculation in the league that Saunders could be out in a coaching shakeup if the Redskins (6-7) fail to qualify for the playoffs.

A 25-year coaching veteran, Saunders understands the realities of his line of work. Coaches are judged on results, and the offense has not been as productive under him as expected.

"Do I get worried or frustrated? No, not really, because every day in this business is a challenge," Saunders said. "Every opponent provides a different strategy and a different set of circumstances that you have to work through. The thing that really excites coaches about this profession is the challenge that they're presented every week. I think we're really close to turning the corner to being a very, very good offensive football team in a lot of phases of the game. I really believe that."

After 13 games, the Redskins rank 17th out of 32 teams in yards per game on offense (331.1). They are tied for 20th in scoring with an average of 19.5 points. In 2006, Saunders's first season in Washington, the Redskins were 13th at 327.7 yards and 20th in scoring at 19.2.

With the team having had a year in the system, and Campbell in his first full season as a starter, Gibbs and Saunders hoped for significant improvement in passing production. Washington averages 217.2 yards passing, 15th in the league; that's 28 yards per game more than in 2006. Again, however, more was expected, and the Redskins have not exhibited the big-play ability that was a staple of Saunders-coached offenses in St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Redskins have gained at least 20 yards on 34 passing plays. The New England Patriots lead the league with 51. The Green Bay Packers lead the league with 16 passing plays of 40-plus yards. Washington has five.

"When we look at the talent we have on the offensive side of the ball, we know what we're capable of, but the problem is all the injuries," said Campbell, who is expected to miss the final three games because of a dislocated left kneecap and strained medial collateral ligament. "With what we do as an offense, with the type of offense we have, it's tough when guys are out. It makes a big difference."

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