- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — Whereas the pessimists see a Washington Redskins offense that was held under 20 points in nine games, got little production from their new big-money receivers, changed quarterbacks halfway through the season and went 5-11, Al Saunders sees something else.

He sees a young quarterback who improved during his seven-game introduction, an offense that committed few turnovers and a running game that was among the NFL’s best even without its best back.

“We’re on threshold of taking that next step and being a great offensive team,” Saunders said this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Saunders, entering his second season as the Redskins’ associate head coach and play caller, will return to Northern Virginia today after evaluating offensive prospects, chiefly the skilled positions, even though the Redskins are likely to stand pat with their current personnel.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said Friday the offseason focus will be improving a defense that sunk to 31st in yards allowed.

The offense’s improvement will be a result of the holdover players getting a better grasp of Saunders’ high-volume system. Jason Campbell will be expected to handle a bigger game plan. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts will be counted on to produce 2,000 total yards. And tight end Chris Cooley and receivers Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle-El and Brandon Lloyd will need to be in sync with Campbell from the start of the season.

Last season, the Redskins ranked 13th in yards (327.7 a game), fourth in rushing (138.5), 21st in passing (189.2) and 20th in scoring (19.2).

“We would like to be in the top 5 [in yards] to be a marquee offensive team,” Saunders said.

Campbell assumed the starting role in Week 11 at Tampa Bay and finished the season with a 2-5 record, throwing for 1,297 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.

“To go in halfway through the season without the benefit of taking the first-team reps during [the offseason program], training camp and the first nine games of the season and then playing, what he did was terrific,” Saunders said. “He did a tremendous job doing what he needed to do to get a flavor of being a starter. He really gives us reason for optimism.”

Although Gibbs has given veterans the option of working out on their own this spring, Campbell will be hunkered down at Redskin Park with Saunders and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, dissecting each of Campbell’s seven starts to improve his mechanics, review his mental mistakes and review his best plays.

“Jason is a very willing learner,” Saunders said. “He’s a gifted athlete but he knows it’s more than just throwing the football. The good thing about him playing seven games last year is that it’s a lot different watching yourself in game environments than watching somebody else.”

While Campbell didn’t lead the Redskins to many victories, opposing defenses began to show respect for a developing downfield passing game. That opened up the running game for Betts, who averaged 4.7 yards a carry and reached 1,000 yards (1,154) for the first time in his career.

The Redskins signed Betts to a new contract late in the season, and it is expected he’ll remain the back up to Portis. A preseason shoulder injury and a broken hand in Game 9 ended Portis’ season after only 127 carries.

During the first half of last year, Saunders often said he was trying to get an idea of which running plays Portis preferred.

“I think I have a better feel for Clinton now,” he said. “I know watching him run up and down the field with Denver was a scary thing. If he would have had the same opportunities as Ladell, Clinton would have ended up in the Pro Bowl.”

By the time the Redskins’ running game picked up steam, Portis was on injured reserve and Betts was the beneficiary.

“We love our running back situation,” Gibbs said. “If you look around the league in the postseason, what shocked me was that most of the teams had running back tandems. Both Clinton and Ladell are great competitors and are both really good in their role.”

With the running back situation set, the offensive line — if Derrick Dockery returns — virtually intact, a young but talented quarterback and a capable tight end in Cooley, all that remains to be improved is the receiving corps.

Even though the Redskins will blame the lack of production from their receivers on the vaunted Cover 2 defense, Moss still had 55 catches for 790 yards and four touchdowns (down from 84 catches for 1,483 yards and nine scores in 2005). However, Washington’s offseason additions of Randle-El and Lloyd combined for the same number of catches (55) and only three touchdowns.

What does that mean for the Redskins’ second and third receivers next year?

“It leaves them as an integral part of our offense,” Saunders said. “In this day and age, you need to spread the ball around. Defenses are sophisticated enough and good enough to negate your marquee players. You must be flexible and get the ball to a lot of people. They’re as an important part of what we’re doing as anybody.”

Saunders and the offensive staff spent the month after the season studying the Redskins’ games, as well as the offenses of teams that ranked among the top five in rushing, passing, two-minute drill, third-down, short-yardage and goal-line situations. In his opinion, Washington’s offense isn’t that far away.

“We did some things extremely well that usually tend toward giving you an opportunity to be very successful,” Saunders said. “There are a lot of things we’re really optimistic about.”

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