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."
The pass-oriented offense that Saunders honed under former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil is predicated on timing and rhythm. Quarterbacks throw to spots before receivers complete their routes, and then receivers, in theory, are supposed to make big gains running after catching balls in stride.
Of course, it is difficult to develop a rhythm offensively when many starters miss substantial practice time and sit out games because of injuries. The Redskins lost the starting right side of the offensive line in the first two games when tackle Jon Jansen and guard Randy Thomas went down with injuries (both are on injured reserve, ending their seasons). Top wide receiver Santana Moss has been slowed all season because of groin, hamstring and heel problems, and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El also has had a recurring hamstring injury. A sore back has bothered fullback Mike Sellers, and unless the Redskins reach the playoffs, it is unlikely Campbell will play again this season.
"This is a game of attrition in the National Football League, and you always expect that there will be some changes that are made as a result of injuries throughout the year, and you have to plan for those things," Saunders said. "But I don't think anybody could have planned for the overwhelming number that we've had. Without the receiving corps, and the continued adjustment on the offensive line, even though we've made progress in some areas, it's still a little bit away from where we'd like to be."
Saunders has received high marks from some players for his ability to adjust and move forward after numerous setbacks because of injuries throughout the season.
"Al gets it done," Randle El said. "He'll move people around and put them in the right places. Having injuries like we've had, you've got to be able to move people around."
Said Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels: "He's changing up protections a whole lot, giving us different running plays that we're throwing in there to try to make it work. It's difficult, but Al is doing an outstanding job."
Through his daily involvement with the offense, Gibbs said he knows "how hard Al works . . . and it has been one of those years of overcoming hurdles. Our whole offense, with Al's leadership, has been tested, but up here you're judged on results. In the NFL, if things don't go well offensively and defensively, that's what everybody is going to look at. Certainly, I have responsibility in that, and if you're a coordinator you're going to get some heat. Al's been around long enough to know . . . that's what happens up here."
For that reason, NFL player-personnel executives wouldn't be surprised if Saunders did not return in 2008. "To me, you've got to wonder if they bring Al back," said one NFC executive who has scouted the Redskins extensively this season. "I don't think it's his fault, I really don't think it's anybody's fault, but I wouldn't be surprised if they made a move there. 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."
Changes in personnel, however, could help, the executive said. The Redskins need another deep threat to complement Moss. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, on injured reserve after breaking his collarbone earlier in the season, was a high-priced bust in that role and is not expected to return. They also could benefit from a tall, possession-type No. 3 receiver, the executive added, to provide Campbell with a big target on third downs.
And then there's the issue of how much autonomy Saunders has to run the offense. While he worked under Vermeil in St. Louis and Kansas City, Saunders virtually had free rein because "I had such confidence in Al," Vermeil said. "I believed so deeply in the overall process of how we prepared . . . I did not put any restrictions on him."
In the process, Saunders developed a reputation as an innovative tactician, designing no-huddle plays that featured three- and four-receiver sets. For the first time in franchise history, the Chiefs led the NFL in total offense in 2004. After Kansas City accomplished the feat again in 2005, Gibbs hired Saunders to modernize the Redskins' offense. Gibbs won three Super Bowls in his first stint with Washington, but has been criticized for being behind the times offensively since returning to the sidelines in 2004.
The commitment to a power running game helped put Gibbs in the Hall of Fame and Washington, among NFC teams, is second only to the Minnesota Vikings in rushing attempts per game (30.3) despite ranking only 21st in the league in yards per carry at 3.8. The Redskins have rushed for at least 20 yards on four plays and have no running plays of 40 yards or more.
The impression is that Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, works without interference from Gibbs while Saunders hasn't been as fortunate.
"Al's not the head coach. He's the offensive coordinator," Vermeil said. "As an offensive coordinator, you always represent the head coaching philosophy and the organizational philosophy."
As long as Gibbs is at the helm, the philosophy of the Redskins will be "to run the football, be a very strong defensive-oriented football team and be led by the special teams," Saunders said. "We're all on the same page here. We're trying to build a football team and build it with a young quarterback."
Gibbs displayed a willingness to open up the offense later in the season, permitting Campbell to call no-huddle plays that included multiple-receiver sets. The Redskins have passed for 300 or more yards in two of the last four games.
"They're not far off. They're close," the NFC executive said. "That offense has definitely come a long way. If they're healthy, I think they're a playoff team. You don't see it in the standings, but if you watch what they're trying to do, I think they're close."
Collins, 36, worked with Saunders in Kansas City and impressed in relief of Campbell while leading the Redskins to a victory over the Chicago Bears in their last game. Saunders is comfortable with Collins, and Collins's extensive knowledge of the offense could help the unit's production in the last three games as Washington tries to overtake Minnesota and New Orleans for the NFC's second wild-card berth. Regardless of what happens in the remaining games, Saunders said, the Redskins' offense is moving in the right direction.
"Everybody wants to win, and everybody wants to win now, and we want to win now, too," Saunders said. "But it's a process. We're getting better. It's something that just doesn't happen overnight."
Redskins Note: The Redskins activated Sam Hollenbach, a rookie from Maryland, from the practice squad to be the third quarterback, and released wide receiver Jimmy Farris.
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.