What About Al?

Warpaint Illustrated Columnist
Posted Jan 15, 2012


Many of us remember the heady days of the high flying, “Greatest Show on Turf II” that Dick Vermeil promised he was going to bring to Kansas City. The architect of that offense was none other than our old friend Al Saunders.

Vermeil was two years out from a Super Bowl win with the St. Louis Rams when he accepted the head coach post offered by Carl Peterson. Vermeil wanted to bring his original quarterback for the Rams, Trent Green, and he wanted to bring in his wide receivers coach Al Saunders to be offensive coordinator. Peterson acquired both and the race was on.

Saunders had already been a college offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and the head coach for the San Diego Chargers when Marty Schottenheimer hired him to be assistant head coach and wide receivers coach in his first stint with the Chiefs from 1989-1998. Dick Vermeil hired him at the Rams as the wide receivers coach. He worked for the Rams as assistant head coach until 2000 under Mike Martz.

When Vermeil took over at Kansas City, he wanted to bring the same vertical game he was able to develop with Kurt Warner and translate it to Chiefs skill players. He was successful for five years and it was all the work of Saunders with his voluminous playbook.

Let’s take a look at Saunders record since 2001:

In 2001, the Kansas City Chiefs went 6-10 and were 5th in total offense. The had the number 26 ranked passer in Trent Green who went 296-523 with 3,783 yards, 17 touchdowns against 24 interceptions. He compiled a completion percentage of 56.6 and passer rating 71.1. They had the number 1 running back in Priest Holmes who went 1,555 yards in 327 attempts and scored 8 touchdowns.

But for a miserable first year for “Tr-Int” Green who was a starting quarterback again after two years of infrequent play including one year on IR after suffering a torn ACL/MCL which led to the rise of Kurt Warner in St. Louis.

Al Saunders did his magic with former Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Trent Green and eventually made him a Pro Bowl Quarterback.
Getty Images

But in 2002, his offense had a breakout year in Kansas City. They only went 8-8 but they had the 4th ranked total offense along with Trent Green achieving the number 4 position in quarterback ranking. He went 287-470 with 3,690 yards passing. He had 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His completion percentage was 61.1 and a passer rating of 92.6. Priest Holmes was the 3rd ranked runner with 1,615 yards on 313 attempts and 21 touchdowns even though he missed the last two games of the season due to a hip pointer.

Green improved his passing game dramatically and has often credited both quarterbacks coach Terry Shea and Al Saunders with developing the proper technique for a vertical passing game. The next regular season was to be one of the greatest in Kansas City Chiefs history.

In 2003, Kansas City was 13-3 and won the AFC West for the first time in six years. The Chiefs were ranked number 2 in total offense. Trent Green was the 4th ranked passer going 330-523 and 4,267 yards. He threw 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He completed 63.1% of his passes and his passer rating was 92.6. Priest Holmes ran for 1,420 yards on 320 attempts and 27 touchdowns breaking the NFL single season record for rushing touchdowns by besting Marshal Faulk’s previous record of 26. I remember that season well. The Chiefs were the number two seed in the post season achieving a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs by having the best AFC record and having gone 8-0 at Arrowhead. They hosted the Indianapolis Colts at Arrowhead and in a game where no one punted, the Chiefs lost to Peyton Manning and company. The Colts went on to the AFC championship and lost to the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots.

The 2003 Greg Robinson-led defense was especially dreadful in that playoff game and they were unable to slow down Peyton Manning. The Chiefs lost 38-31. If they could’ve made one or two defensive stands…well let’s just say history might have been different.

In 2004 was a let-down year in that the Chiefs went 7-9 even though the offense was ranked number 1 in total offense. Trent Green was the 7th ranked passer even though he improved by going 369-556 and gaining 4,591 yards in the air. He had 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Green’s completion percentage was 66.4 with a passer rating of 95.2. This was the year of the quarterback with four QB’s having ratings over 100 and Peyton Manning having 121.1 passer rating. Priest Holmes ran for 892 yards on 196 carries with 14 touchdowns. Larry Johnson ran for an additional 581 yards on 120 carries with 9 touchdowns and Derrick Blaylock went for 539 yards on 118 carries with 8 scores.

This was the first year of decline for Priest Holmes as age and injuries began to catch up with him. The 2005 season began with a lot of hope but another futile regular season was in store.

The 2005 Chiefs were 10-6 and missed the playoffs. The total offense was again ranked number 1. Trent Green was ranked 8th having gone 317-507 gaining 4,014 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His completion percentage was 62.5 and a passer rating of 90.1. Priest Homes ran for 451 yards on 119 attempts and scored 6 touchdowns. He injured his neck in a tackle by San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman in the seventh game of the season and was replaced by Larry Johnson. Johnson started the remaining 9 games and ended the season with 1,750 yards on 336 attempts with 20 touchdowns. He finished the season as the number 3 rusher in the NFL in only nine starts.

This was the last year of the Vermeil era. Dick Vermeil retired after the season ended and Carl Peterson hired Herm Edwards as his replacement. It has been said that Saunders and Peterson did not have a good relationship. There had been talk that Saunders was the head coach in waiting and was promised the job when Vermeil retired, which Peterson has consistently denied. When Peterson hired Edwards, Saunders and the rest of the staff were free to explore other opportunities.

Before his injury last season Al Saunders had Jason Campbell playing his best football.
US Presswire

Saunders was subsequently hired by Joe Gibbs to be the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. The 2006 season was Gibbs third season back from retirement and needed an offensive shot in the arm after going 16-16 in the previous two seasons.

The 2006 Redskins went 5-11. The offense was ranked 13th with Mark Brunell as the 10th ranked passer. He went 162-260 gaining 1,789 yards with 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. His completion percentage was 62.3 with a passer rating of 86.5. Brunell was benched in favor of Jason Campbell after a convincing week 10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-3. Campbell finished the season going 110-207 for 1,297 yards, 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His completion percentage was 53.1 and a passer rating of 76.5. Ladell Betts was the 13th ranked rusher gaining 1,154 yards on 245 carries with 4 touchdowns. Clinton Portis gained an additional 523 yards on 127 carries with 7 scores.

This being the first year for an Al Saunders –led offense in Washington, it is understandable that most of the players needed to acclimate to his verbiage and complexity and sheer size of the playbook. The 2007 season should produce more significant results.

In 2007, the Redskins were 9-7 and placed 3rd in the NFC East. They qualified for the final NFC Wildcard slot and lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the wildcard round. The Redskins had the 15th ranked offense for the regular season. Jason Campbell was the 20th ranked passer having gone 250-417 with 2,700 yards, 12 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He had a completion percentage of 60.0 and a passer rating of 77.6. Campbell was replaced in week 14 after dislocating his kneecap. His back-up was another familiar former Chief, Todd Collins. Collins started the final three games going 67-105 gaining 888 yards. He threw 5 touchdowns and no interceptions with a completion percentage of 63.8 and a passer rating of 106.4. Clinton Portis was the 6th ranked rusher going 1,262 yards on 325 tries with 11 touchdowns. Ladell Betts added 335 yards on 93 carries with 1 score. The Redskins finished the season on a 4 game winning streak going into the playoffs.

This team was somewhat underachieving despite some superb individual efforts. Even Todd Collins played with an intensity more akin to a Trent Green effort than a Jason Campbell effort. Collins actually had a better grasp of Saunders offense due to his years backing up Green in Kansas City.

When Gibbs announced his retirement in early 2008, owner Dan Snyder decided to hire Jim Zorn as head coach. Saunders was summarily dismissed and was looking for a job once again. As luck would have it, the Rams were looking for an offensive spark themselves and they turned to Saunders.

Scott Linehan in his third season as head coach of the Rams had fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson after going 3-13 in 2007. Saunders had existing knowledge of the Rams organization and the presence of Trent Green as Marc Bulger’s back-up made the decision easy for Linehan to offer him the job and easy to accept for Saunders himself.

However, the 2008 St. Louis Rams went a dismal 2-14. They had the 27th ranked offense. Marc Bulger was the 30th ranked quarterback going 251-440 passing for 2,720 yards, 11 touchdowns to 13 picks. His completion percentage was 57.0 and his passer rating was 71.4. Steven Jackson was a bright spot carrying the rock 253 times for 1,042 yards and 7 touchdowns, even though he had sat out 5 games with a thigh injury. Antonio Pittman added 296 yard on 79 attempts in relief of Jackson.

Linehan was fired after the Rams went 0-4 to begin the season and former New Orleans Saints head coach and current defensive coordinator for the Rams, Jim Haslett finished the season. After winning 2 games, the Rams went on a 10 game losing streak. At the end of the season, owner Chip Rosenbloom and newly appointed general manager Bill Devaney dismissed Jim Haslett and most of the coaching staff including Saunders.

For the 2009 season, Saunders was hired by Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome as offensive consultant to assist head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The intent was to accelerate an already efficient offense into a powerhouse.

As an assistant in Baltimore, Saunders guided the Ravens to the playoffs a year ago.
US Presswire

Saunders assisted the Ravens through the 2009 and 2010 seasons to 9-7 and 12-4 respectively. The Ravens made the playoffs both seasons including beating the Chiefs in the wildcard round in 2010. They lost to the Steelers in the divisional round the following week.

Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders were interested in acquiring Saunders services for the 2011 season and his previous association with head coach Hue Jackson who was the quarterbacks coach at Baltimore in 2009 helped to make the decision an easy one.

The 2011 Raiders went 8-8 in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West but did not make the playoffs because of tiebreakers. Although they boasted the 9th ranked offense with a succession of quarterbacks starting with Jason Campbell followed by Kyle Boller, the Raiders went out and acquired the services of the then idle Carson Palmer. Palmer was the most successful of the three going 199-328 gaining 2,753 yards with 13 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. His completion percentage was 60.7 with a passer rating of 80.5. Palmer was the 19th ranked passer after starting only 9 games. The running game of the Raiders was ranked 7th in the NFL. Michael Bush was the 17th ranked rusher gaining 977 yards on 256 carries with 7 touchdowns. Darren McFadden had 614 yards on 113 carries and 4 touchdowns before getting injured in week 7.

It is clear to me that Al Saunders has experienced success at nearly every one of his coaching stops as the offensive coordinator or consultant. Except for the 2008 anomaly in his record with St. Louis, Saunders has always been in the top half of the league for offense and in five of the last ten seasons he had a top 5 offense including two seasons with the number one offense.

The Chiefs would do well to consider Saunders for offensive coordinator. With Carl Peterson no longer calling the shots, the path is clear for Saunders return. Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel could see the emergence of the best offense in the NFL with a clear winner in Al Saunders.


WARPAINT ILLUSTRATED MESSAGE BOARDS:
Would you like to see Al Saunders in KC again?


For all the news, notes and quotes on the Chiefs, visit WarpaintIllustrated.com




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