Joe Gibbs found himself being pulled all over the place, taking his attention away from what mattered most: running the offense. So he made a decision. He wanted someone to help.
And he only wanted one person. Problem was, Al Saunders was a wanted man by other NFL teams – and they wanted him as a coach.
But Gibbs took a chance, flew to Kansas City, met with him for 10 hours and signed him to become an associate head coach for offense with the Redskins.
Both men called it a perfect fit. But, for Gibbs, it's also a concession to his position as team president. In an era where coaches with dual roles are often asked to cut down on the administrative aspects, Gibbs wanted more help with coaching. Perhaps, some wondered, if it weren't a nod toward his health as well. He's 65 and has diabetes and coaching takes a toll, even on those who think they're controlling their diet. He even admitted to Saunders that the 20-hour days have taken a toll.
Instead of overseeing the offense, Gibbs will now sit in more on special teams meetings and maybe even an occasional defensive one. And he didn't want to shortchange the offense because of his other duties. Having Saunders run the offense allows him more flexibility to focus on whatever other matters arise. Like personnel issues.
‘'I have no ego,'' Gibbs said. ‘'When it became obvious Al might be available, I started thinking about it. … I'm trying to find a smoother and better way to use our people to get the job done, to do a better job. If there's any single thing I can do, my commitment is to help the Redskins any way I can.''
It helps greatly that Saunders worked with Gibbs' good friend Dick Vermeil, who brought up his name in a recent conversation with the Redskins' coach. And Saunders comes from the Don Coryell system, as did Gibbs. Saunders and Gibbs both coached at USC in 1970 and '71.
With Saunders, the Redskins don't have to change the terminology of the offense, meaning the players won't be adjusting to a new system at all. It'll be a marriage of the Chiefs' and Redskins' offenses. But there are similarities: both rely on motion, formations, a deep passing game and power runs.
For Saunders, it was a chance to coach with someone he considers a role model. He's also used to being with a coach in a so-called transitional mode. That's how he ended up running the offense for Vermeil in Kansas City. He served as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator from 2001-05; they had the NFL's top-ranked offense the past two years.
He's an attack-oriented coach; is known to sleep in his office during the season; and, NFL sources say, is creative with formations and motions.
‘'I'm an offensive coach and that's what I want to do,'' Saunders said. ‘'I want to coach the offense and be part of orchestrating an offense that's successful in the NFL.''