- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

All around him, assistant coaches, personnel people and other Washington Redskins employees come and go through the narrow space that serves as a kitchen. They dig through the refrigerator, rummage through the ice bucket and use the microwave.

But Al Saunders doesn’t notice. Just a glance to the clock every few seconds to make sure he’s not late for practice. When he’s talking about offensive football and the system he has been fine-tuning for more than 35 years, Saunders is tough to distract. Coaching and talking about pass routes, blocking schemes, play calling and game planning are coded into his DNA.

“When people say, ‘Get the ball to Santana Moss,’ that’s OK, and that’s great. We’re going to put Santana in one position on the field.”

Saunders turns over a sheet of paper, takes the mechanical pencil from over his ear and draws the offensive line (O O X O O), the receivers/tight end (X Y Z), the running backs (H F) and the quarterback (O).

“Santana is going to run an ‘8’ route down the field. But, oops, look at this: The corner rolled up in coverage, and the safety has come across to cover the top of the field. Now we have to go to another receiver.”

With Moss out of the equation, Saunders draws patterns for receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Chris Cooley and backs Clinton Portis and Mike Sellers — straight lines, squiggly lines, dashed lines. There are no “primary” receivers in his offense; every player could get the ball.

“But, oops again — look at this, the linebacker jammed Chris at the line of scrimmage instead of moving back to a different depth, and he’s not allowed to cross over the middle. Now we have to throw to other guys.”

Saunders could go on and on.

This passion and desire are why Joe Gibbs has given up the play-calling duties for the first time in 15 seasons as Redskins coach. Lured by a three-year, $6 million contract and the understanding the offense would be under his watch, Saunders bypassed a chance to be Oakland’s head coach to work for Gibbs.

“I’ve never seen anybody do it like Al or any better,” says retired NFL coach Dick Vermeil, for whom Saunders worked in St. Louis and Kansas City. “He’s always the same, going full bore.”

If Bill Walsh was the “Genius” in San Francisco when Joe Montana was leading the 49ers down the field and Mike Shanahan the “Mastermind” when John Elway gave him two Super Bowl rings, Saunders deserves some kind of nickname based on his resume and his teams’ reputation for putting up loads of points and yards.

The Innovator, perhaps?

“Oh, [gosh],” Saunders said with a laugh this week at Redskin Park.

“‘Innovator’ is a good word for him,” says Bill Lazor, the Redskins’ first-year quarterbacks coach. “But if you asked him, he would say that nothing is made up. It’s all taken from somebody else.”

For Saunders, that “somebody else” is also Joe Gibbs’ “somebody else,” former San Diego State and San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell, who introduced his numbered passing route system to the precocious young coaches in the late 1960s.

“What was most appealing was Al’s philosophy,” Gibbs says. “I don’t think I would have done this with anyone else in the league. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that it would be the best for the team.”

Always thinking

Saunders, 59, runs the Redskins’ offense, but he doesn’t even have a nameplate on his office door. Probably because it’s not a real office.

Saunders’ work space at Redskin Park — about 15 paces from Gibbs’ office — is the offensive staff conference room. His desk and computer are tucked into the back left corner of the rectangular-shaped room. Stored in shelves that run the length of the room are past playbooks in 4-inch binders that date to Saunders’ time in San Diego.

During practice, Saunders will run down players after they make nice runs or catches; during meetings, Saunders constantly pops out of his chair to make a point, show a video, draw a play or use the overhead projector.

“He really does his thing, and he does a good job of running meetings and deciding what needs to be accomplished each day,” Lazor says. “His trademark is tempo, and he believes that if you go through a meeting slowly, he won’t get everything covered.”

Saunders’ work ethic was developed by necessity early in his career. His first head coaching job was a high school sophomore team.

As a young coach, Saunders used words to label pass routes. But in the late 1960s he attended a coaching clinic in Palo Alto, Calif., at which Coryell gave a crash course in his numbering system. Nearly 40 years later, combinations like 989, 940, 844 and 739 are used to describe each play. For example, on the 989 play, one receiver runs a 9 route, one runs an 8 route and the other runs a 9 route.

“I remember taking notes when [Coryell] was talking and quickly thinking, ‘This is easy,’ Saunders recalls. “I’ve used that system from then on. It told everybody what to do, and it was simple. I wrote down one of the statements and use it to this day: ‘The really good coaches make very complex things very simple, and the coaches that struggle make simple things very complex.’

Saunders coached at five colleges from 1970 to 1982 before Coryell brought him to the Chargers in 1983. Saunders’ playbook has grown to nearly 700 plays. During dinners, vacations, drives home and jogs around Ashburn, he’s always thinking about how to create mismatches.

“We’re all like that as coaches,” he says. “We’re all note takers and always jot things down. It’s constantly on your mind if you’re a creative person. But it doesn’t happen suddenly like when you want it to. It happens when it happens.”

When it happens, Saunders draws a play from the offensive line out, starting with the protection scheme. The Redskins have nearly triple the number of protections (35) this year as last year. For a play to work, Saunders says, the offensive line must keep the heat off a quarterback, who needs the arm strength to make the throw to a receiver, who needs the skill to get open — all against a defense that could throw numerous curveballs, requiring all 11 players to adjust instantly.

Proven system

Although Redskins fans didn’t see them during a 0-4 preseason, when the first-team offense scored no touchdowns, two key principles of a Saunders offense are presnap shifts and motions and the lack of a primary receiver.

Starting against Minnesota in Monday’s opener, expect to see a lot of movement before the snap.

“Al does a very good job of not letting you get a tip via the formation,” Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams says. “It’s hard to plan for. You have to find other ways to get tips on what he’s going to do.”

Saunders says over the course of a 70-snap game he hopes to get an advantage on 10 snaps with a full menu of presnap movement.

“We try to get every advantage we can before the snap,” he says. “If we just line up and everybody stays in their place, the defense can focus on what we’re doing. It’s like an iron deer deep on the lawn — you’re easier to hit. If we can get a cornerback or safety sliding one way or a get a defensive lineman lined up out of position or force the linebackers to make a new call, we’ve created an advantage.

“The advantage might be one less guy to block; it might be a receiver in man coverage instead of the safety helping. We don’t want to be defensive with our offensive philosophy.”

Saunders also loathes the term “primary receiver.” Sure, he calls each play with an idea as to who should get the ball. But if a receiver is open, he should expect the ball.

“There are no decoys,” he says. “We don’t have guys running up the field to get a defender out of the way. They better think they’re the guy getting the ball, and that’s why we’ve always been able to get guys to play fast and play hard because he knows that even though he might have only two catches one week, he better not get discouraged because he could have 10 catches the next week.”

Throwing to the tight end and running back became a hallmark for Saunders in Kansas City. Tony Gonzalez caught 78, 102, 71, 63 and 73 passes, and running back Priest Holmes — in addition to being the team’s leading rusher — led the Chiefs with 70 and 74 catches in 2002-03.

With the Redskins, Saunders has a far better receiving group than he ever had with the Chiefs.

Before a game, Saunders doesn’t script the first 10 to 20 plays. Instead, he plans “early alerts” — 10 runs, 10 passes and 10 special plays that are designed to take advantage of the opponent’s scheme or personnel.

“Part of it is to see how a defense is adjusting to our shifts and motions,” he says. “When you script, you take away flexibility. I’ve had situations where a team uses a 3-4 defense, and they line up in a 4-3 that they hadn’t shown in weeks. If you had scripted 10 plays and stay with those, you’ve eliminated the opportunity to be flexible.”

Says Vermeil: “He works on the [early alert] details a lot throughout the week with the coaches and then presents them to the squad on Saturday morning. During the game, what’s best about Al is his utilization of what he talked about all week and when he should use it.”

The worst part about Saunders’ prolific Chiefs offenses is that they couldn’t play defense, too. The Chiefs made one playoff appearance in five years. But the numbers were incredible — 26.9 points and 385.4 over the five seasons.

From 1989 to 2000, Saunders didn’t call plays, instead coaching the receivers in Kansas City and St. Louis.

“I really enjoyed coaching a position,” he says. “The fun part about coaching is taking a student and helping him get better at his craft and seeing him progress. The other thing is I wanted was to allow my kids and family to set roots. It was by design to not be an upwardly mobile coach.”

Saunders spent 15 of the last 17 seasons in Kansas City. But when general manager Carl Peterson went after Herm Edwards to replace Vermeil as coach, Saunders connected with Gibbs.

Together for the first time since 1970-71 at USC, Gibbs hired Saunders to help improve a Redskins offense that ranked 11th in yards (330.6) and 13th in scoring (22.4) last year.

“We did some good things, but after analyzing everything, I felt this was the best way to step up,” Gibbs says.

What should Redskins fans expect?

The Chiefs had three receiver formations on 51 percent of their snaps, used two tight ends 39 percent of the time and used a fullback on 60 percent of the snaps. Last year, the Redskins used fewer three receiver (42 percent) and fullback sets (44 percent) and more two tight end (47 percent) formations.

Vermeil stresses patience with the transition to Saunders. In 2001, the Chiefs were 16th in scoring and finished 6-10.

“It takes time,” Vermeil says. “Our first year, we weren’t as good as we were later, but we didn’t have the receivers the Redskins do, either.”

Saunders doesn’t have the luxury of time with the Redskins, who are always in win-this-year mode. But with the large salary and responsibility comes expectations.

“Joe appreciates the foundation of this offensive scheme,” Saunders says. “We’re just trying to put all the parts together with some excellent skill players, and hopefully we’ll have as much fun in this offense as [teams] have had in the past.”

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