It was compared to "The Greatest Show on Turf."
A flashy running back making big promises for the upcoming season, a tested quarterback with a cannon arm, and a corps of practiced receivers who could catch the long ball consistently. A perfect formula for a dynamic offense.
As the final whistle sounded at the St. Louis Rams' 48-19 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, St. Louis capped an extremely disappointing 3-13 season (dead last in the NFC West) marred by a battered and bruised offense that could not produce consistently.
Head coach Scott Linehan, however, wasted no time in searching for some help. The Rams reeled in highly touted offensive coach Al Saunders from the Washington Redskins to head a turnaround of an offense that finished 24th in the league this season in total yards and 28th in scoring.
Saunders spent many of his early years as wide receivers coach with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. In 1999-2000, he served under head coach Dick Vermeil as the wide receivers coach of a Rams team that went all the way to win Super Bowl XXXIV.
When Vermeil came out of retirement to coach the Chiefs in 2001, Saunders followed and had tremendous success as the team's offensive coordinator, helping build the No. 1 offense in the league from 2002-05. Saunders was then lured to Washington before the 2006 season by its offensive receiving weapons, and the prospect of being the second-highest paid assistant coach in the league. After a disappointing 5-11 campaign in 2006, the Redskins finished 9-7 in a highly competitive division this past season, finishing 15th in the league in offensive yardage. However, following the retirement of head coach Joe Gibbs, Saunders was summarily dismissed by owner Daniel Snyder.
In a recent interview, Saunders revealed that Linehan had "assured me that I'll have the ability to do the things that I felt were necessary for us to move forward as an offensive football team." This means that Saunders should have the chance to make all changes he sees fit, call plays, and implement his own scheme upon his arrival.
Great. What is Saunders' coaching philosophy?
One of Saunders' key tenets as a coach is to stay active and be physically involved with his offensive players. He loves to run down the sidelines to offer advice to his wide receivers right after a play, and players tend to find his animation refreshing from a coach. Some offensive coordinators prefer to watch the field from above, but don't be surprised to find Saunders among the linemen on the sideline.
Saunders' offensive playbook also reportedly has more than 700 pages of various plays, something criticized but more often ridiculed. But more importantly, Saunders employs an Air Coryell offense, something similar to a West Coast offense. There is more of an emphasis on shorter to mid-range passes, with occasional shots down the field, than on pounding the ball on the ground. Saunders' schemes very much depend on the perfected timing between a quarterback and his receivers, which requires much practice, players with an acute sense of timing, and then more practice. There is a theory that Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell did not perform well in Saunders' system during the 2006 season for this reason. Conversely, backup quarterback Todd Collins was able to win four straight games in relief of injured quarterback Jason Campbell down the stretch as Collins had studied under Saunders for quite some time both with the Chiefs and Redskins.
More Promises to Fulfill
Fortunately, Saunders has a powerful arsenal to work with in St. Louis - a dynamic group with potential to recreate "The Greatest Show on Turf." Running back Steven Jackson is arguably one of the best in the league, with a naturally unnatural balance of power and agility. The new scheme might take away a few opportunities here or there from Jackson, but Saunders has already compared Jackson to retired running back Marshall Faulk from the golden years and has commented on utilizing Jackson's unique talent to his full advantage. Saunders also worked well in Kansas City with the duo of running backs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, helping to develop LJ into the forceful threat that he is regarded as today. As a result, Jackson, if not plagued by injuries again, could see the same, or even better, numbers than he posted during an amazing 2006 season.
The scheme is good news, moreover, for quarterback Marc Bulger and receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Drew Bennett. Bulger is an experienced quarterback who has the skills and necessary timing to complement the system; his fantasy production should rise as a result of the increased opportunities. Saunders has also expressed his excitement at the prospect of being reunited with Holt and Bruce, both of whom he worked with in his years in St. Louis; he mentored Holt in his first two years in the league and developed close coach-player relationships with both players. The planned offensive turnaround would almost certainly bear more fantasy production from both of these receivers. Overall, fans and fantasy owners alike can expect a more consistent and potent passing offense from St. Louis in 2008 as this passing unit has worked together for quite some time and is skilled enough to make things work.
In his preliminary analysis of the Rams personnel, Saunders suggested that the offensive line might need a few tweaks during the offseason. A unit that allowed the sixth-most sacks in the NFL this season could really be the cork hindering an explosion from this Rams offense. The injury bug hit the offensive line the hardest, taking out four starters early and all line players for a combined 44 games. Even with these players undergoing surgery or healing, look for the front office to make significant moves in free agency or the draft to bolster the line, protecting the quarterback and giving Jackson more room to run.