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Offense remains work in progress

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Al Saunders knew integrating his now famous 700-page playbook would take time. After all, a lot of it involves new passing concepts, and he agrees with Joe Gibbs' philosophy of not showing much of anything in the preseason.

But seven games into a season with big expectations, the Washington Redskins are 2-5, and the offense's failures are a big part of that. They have more punts (35) than plays of more than 20 yards (23), have gone one stretch of 21 possessions without a touchdown and have scored only 17 third-quarter points. Plus, Washington has a quarterback whose numbers suggest consistency but in actuality reveal mediocrity.

Compared to the Redskins' now-putrid defense, however, the offense is decent. The Redskins rank 14th in yards a game, eighth in rushing, 22nd in passing and 18th in scoring. Still, the "wow" factor of Saunders' offense in Kansas City has been present for only one game, a 36-30 overtime win over Jacksonville.

Standing in his customary spot after practice last week -- the Redskins' weight room -- Saunders gave an intriguing answer when asked about the state of the offense.

"Anytime you make adjustments and make changes, it takes some time," he said. "We're going through some growing pains, but we're doing some things really well. When you lose games, it makes it even more pronounced that you're not where you want to be."

That's the kind of quote that somehow is insightful and at the same time requires more description.

• "Make adjustments" -- Before Saunders' arrival, Washington was a smash-mouth running team that used its tight end for underneath routes and a franchise receiver for shots downfield and had a No. 1 running back, Clinton Portis, who had the freedom to take himself out of games. Joe Gibbs also acquired a quarterback, Mark Brunell, who had been trained that interceptions should be avoided at all costs.

Saunders' modus operandi as a play caller is about being aggressive in the passing game (even if it means some interceptions) using the tight end down the middle of the field and putting the entire running game on the shoulders of one back.

Translation: Saunders has to change the Redskins' identity and mind-set.

Trent Green had 111 touchdown passes and 76 interceptions for the Chiefs under Saunders, showing he was willing to risk an interception for a chance at a big play. And running backs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson were every-down players. Johnson rarely played when Holmes was healthy and carrying the load.

• "Growing pains" -- Based on conversations with those who know Saunders, it's not a surprise the offense has had more than a few bumps on the Redskins' journey to 2-5. But Saunders' hope, these people said, was that during the transition, the Redskins would be good enough to scratch out a few victories.

That hasn't happened. The Week 1 loss to Minnesota and the Week 6 loss to Tennessee were killers.

It's hard to teach veteran players new tricks. Brunell feels more comfortable with short passes than the big bombs Saunders is accustomed to calling. Portis feels better leaving the game for a rest. There have been "growing pains" for both the players and the play caller.

• "Doing some things really well" -- The Redskins' offense gained 495 yards at Houston and 481 the next week against Jacksonville. In their five losses, they have failed to surpass 325 yards.

The Redskins haven't been consistent. On their second drive against the Colts, the Redskins gained 7, 8, 5, 4 and 4 yards on the first five snaps, followed by plays of 1, 2 and 0 yards.

"One thing we see on video is how close we are to doing special things," Saunders said. "There are some things we're doing as well as any team in the NFL right now, and there are other areas where we're not performing well on a consistent basis."

What the Redskins are doing well: First-down production (5.64 yards, ninth in the league), 5.5 yards a snap (seventh) and 4.6 yards a rush attempt (sixth).

But the inconsistencies -- lack of a down-field passing game, a positive play followed by a negative play -- have been exacerbated by a defense that can't stop anybody right now.

• "Lose games ... more pronounced" -- Everything bad gets magnified with a 2-5 record.

So when Brunell throws it away too early on a third down -- like he did early in the Minnesota game -- people notice. When Portis can't produce on first down -- his last 13 first-down carries have netted only 14 yards -- people notice. And when big-ticket acquisition Brandon Lloyd's 11 catches rank sixth on the team, people notice.

Overall, Saunders remains undeterred. He knows what the finished product will look like and, unlike Portis, absolutely knows the identity of this offense.

"No question," he said. "What we are and would like to be is a balanced offense that can run the ball and throw the ball with equal efficiency. You would like to do everything well and have enough tools in your box that you're prepared to do everything if the situation calls for it."