- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

This is Al Saunders’ idea of a good time in the offseason: Go to the office on the weekend and watch hours of game tape.

Some assistant coaches in the NFL play golf. Some take trips. Some just relax with their families.

Saunders watches tape. Lots of tape.

It is that drive that has helped make Saunders one of the most successful offensive coaches in football. And that success is why coach Joe Gibbs last week took the unprecedented step of ceding control of the Washington Redskins offense to Saunders.

“For Al, it’s a 12-month job,” says Saunders’ former boss, Dick Vermeil, whose own maniacal work habits famously caused him to take a 14-year sabbatical from coaching. “A short weekend for him in the offseason is to come in and work five or six hours on Saturday and then do the same thing on Sunday. That’s what Al does for fun. He’s totally consumed by the job.”

Saunders’ fierce drive is reflected in his past. His parents, Bob and Phyllis, left postwar England with their two young children in 1952 in search of a better life in the United States.

The family eventually settled in Oakland, Calif., where Saunders contracted polio as a sixth-grader. He was bed-ridden for months.

Bob Saunders, on strike from his job as a lithographer/printer, found work as a custodian at the YMCA, which gave young Al access to a pool and allowed him to get the hydrotherapy necessary to restore life to his legs.

In doing so, Al Saunders discovered his passion for teaching and working with young people.

“I remember being real scared,” says Saunders, 58. “But what having polio did for me was it made me feel like anything was possible. If you have people who have strong faith and are very motivational — and my father was that way — you don’t have to be what you are. You can be anything that you want to be. That had a big impact on me.

“Through my indoctrination into swimming at the YMCA under a guy named Gus McKinnon, I became a teacher of the younger kids. I hung around the YMCA all the time. Working with kids just became part of me.”

Marty Schottenheimer, the coach of the San Diego Chargers, saw Saunders’ teaching ability up close when he served as Saunders’ boss with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1989 to 1998.

“Day-in and day-out in practice, game-in and game-out every week, Al’s guys were always ready,” Schottenheimer says. “They played hard, and they played well. The key to Al’s success is his ability to communicate with his players.”

Saunders is such a competitor that he set national swimming records as a teenager and was a national champion 5K runner in his 50s. He still runs for an hour five to seven days a week as a release from the pressures of the job.

Saunders says he coaches because he likes working with players, not because he wants the glory that comes with winning or being in charge. And he has done both of those things: He coached the Chargers from 1986 to 1988, and he won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams after the 1999 season.

“I want to teach,” says Saunders, who has a master’s in education from Stanford and got started in coaching as a doctoral student at Southern Cal on a staff that included Gibbs. “I want to coach. I enjoy helping people get better at what they do. That’s the excitement for me.

“When [Chiefs quarterback] Trent Green went to the Pro Bowl, I can’t tell you how fulfilled I felt as someone who might have helped him achieve that. [My hours] are an obligation to do everything I can do to help the guys I’m coaching. It’s not a job. It’s a passion. There’s a real difference.”

As a receivers coach, Saunders used to sprint downfield with his players during practice, yelling, “Finish the play!” As the man who runs the offense, he can no longer do that because he has to make the next call.

But Saunders remains a passionate teacher. He recently was asked about the challenge of learning the staggering number of plays in his offense. Saunders grabbed his questioner’s pen and pad and spent more than five minutes diagramming and explaining his system.

“In 30 minutes I can teach you enough that I could put you at the X receiver position and you could run any number of routes,” Saunders says. “The perimeter players just have to know one number on each play. The quarterback doesn’t have to think, ‘X-Scissors-Dragon, what happens on Dragon?’ If you tell him 940, that’s a clear picture. We can run 940 out of a bunch of different formations, a different bunch of movements, but it’s always 940.

“It becomes an easier system than probably any system in football.”

The transition for the Redskins to Saunders’ system from that of Gibbs shouldn’t be too daunting. Both coaches were groomed in Don Coryell’s offense: Gibbs at San Diego State and with the Chargers and Saunders with the Chargers.

At 39, Saunders suddenly was promoted from receivers coach to the top job, succeeding his mentor.

Saunders posted a 17-22 record in the next 2½ seasons before being fired. He went to work for Schottenheimer and hasn’t been a head coach again, although he interviewed for several head coaching jobs, including with the Chiefs when Vermeil retired four weeks ago. He didn’t run an offense again until he rejoined Vermeil in Kansas City in 2001.

“When I got the job in San Diego, I was in no way prepared to be a head coach in the NFL,” Saunders says. “I had been in the league for 3½ years. I hadn’t been a coordinator in the league. What I knew how to do was coach, and I was taken away from that to deal with all those things I hadn’t had to deal with before.

“When I went to Kansas City [in 1989], I had three young children and I made the decision that they would finish their schooling in Kansas City. That probably affected my upward mobility. I passed up several opportunities to be a coordinator. I had been a head coach. I didn’t want to be a head coach just to be a head coach, and I still feel that way.”

Schottenheimer says that preparing to face a Saunders offense — the most prolific in the NFL in the past four seasons — can cause defensive coaches to feel uneasy because they rarely will see the same play twice.

“Part of our whole approach is to keep teams off balance,” Saunders says. “Hopefully [opponents] in practice on Wednesday and Thursday will be practicing looks at plays that they won’t see on Sunday.”

Green got to know then-receivers coach Saunders with the Rams in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but their relationship blossomed in Kansas City.

“Al made me a better quarterback,” Green says. “He really helped me in learning how to spread the ball around. It was still the big-play offense that Norv [Turner] and Mike [Martz] liked to utilize, but it was better for us to do it a different way because of the personnel we had. The terminology was the same, but Al taught me that there are different ways to attack defenses.”

Which comes back to the four words Saunders uses to describe his scheme: versatility, flexibility, volume and imagination.

“Our quarterbacks who come from different teams look at our game plans and they’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is twice the size of the game plans we had with team X,’ ” Green says. “You may not rep a play for weeks and all of a sudden based on something the defense is doing, that play is going to come in from the sideline and you better know how to run it. It’s all about the best way to attack the defense.”

And about Saunders helping players be the best they can be.

“I would like to be thought of as someone who’s able to adjust to the people that he has available,” Saunders says. “Don Coryell said, ‘Don’t ever make a player do what he can’t do. Find out what he can do and put him in a place to do it.’ ”

And Saunders says there is no place he would rather be than in Washington running the offense for Gibbs.

“[Succeding Vermeil] would have been wonderful, but I couldn’t be in a better situation than I am here,” Saunders says. “I’m working for someone whom I respect and admire. I have an opportunity to coach offense, which is what I do best, and I can focus on that. When Joe made this proposal, it was the right fit for me.”

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