Saunders Tries to Adjust to a Plan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007; Page D01

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 believes the quarterback [Jason Campbell, right] will be a great quarterback. But that takes time," a friend said of Redskins assistant Al Saunders. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

"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.

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