The Al Saunders Playbook
This item appeared in Sunday's paper. Due to an odd quirk, however, it never appeared anywhere on my blog. Go figure. Here it is, in slightly elongated form.
One of the enduring punch lines of last year's 5-1 Redskins campaign centered on Al Saunders and his fabled 700-page playbook, the "War and Peace" of the NFL, minus the Russian winters. So after the coach's 40-minute media briefing ended Saturday afternoon, Saunders was asked just how many pages were in this year's book. Simple question, right?
What followed was a 30-minute discourse, ranging from offensive philosophy, route-running and trickery to the nature of learning and the meaning of language. The meaty playbook, Saunders initially explained, may contain about 1,800 plays, but it is less a strict dictionary than a guide to the art of offensive football.
"It's like a textbook," he began. "Remember when you had an algebra textbook and it had all the tests in it, and how to figure out all the equations, and how to figure out all the formulas? Well, that's what the text of the [playbook] is."
Saunders further explained that using playbook thickness as a guide to offensive complexity was a false pursuit. The numerical system assigned to each wide receiver's routes, for example, allows for 999 different pass patterns to be understood within a matter of minutes. Each number corresponds to one of the three wide receivers.
"I could teach any one of you in 20 minutes," he told a group of seven reporters, few of whom resembled a typical NFL wide receiver, possibly excluding Wes Welker. "If you can count from zero to nine, you can be a wide receiver in our offense."
The numbers, you see, are a stand-in for language. Instead of memorizing "blue car shampoo," a receiver can be guided by this football-for-dummies code. And Saunders proceeded to tutor David Elfin of the The Washington Times, running through the basics of a dozen potential routes by their numbers and directions. He then proclaimed Elfin ready to take the field.
"If you're signing him, I'm holding out of camp," Triple X ESPN Radio's Bram Weinstein said.
"I'm more reliable," Elfin protested.
"Yeah, you might be, but I'm a gamebreaker," Weinstein countered.
"This is why it just cracks me up when all you guys make fun of that playbook, okay?" Saunders said. "Kurt Warner could come and stand in there today and call every play that we run, and know -- on probably 90 percent of them -- what to do. You know, '844' is always '844.' People talk about the 700-page playbook all the time; in actuality, it could be 8,000 pages, you know? What it is, it's a reference for those guys. It's a teaching tool. After the preseason, they don't have that any more. It's done...."
"It's like English," Saunders continued. "You think it's a pretty simple language -- unless you have a grammar teacher like I did -- but if you go to France and you have to sit down in a restaurant and order a hamburger and fries and ketchup. You can go back in the kitchen and you can make it. But you can't order it if you don't know how to say it, and therein lies the problem." He paused. "Whether you're allergic to shellfish or not, that's something else."
Finally, Joe Gibbs emerged onto a Redskins Park balcony.
"I need to ask you one question," he called down to Saunders. Gibbs looked at the media crowd. "I'll ask you a question that makes sense," he promised.
Anyhow, Saunders's serious argument was that, outside of the quarterback position, the complexity of his offense results neither from encyclopedic length nor tomfoolery, but instead from taking proper advantage of formations and shifts and matchups. Opponents "think it's difficult," Saunders said; "we think it's easy."
So easy, evidently, that a blogger could employ this information to great damage. After the talk ended, a team spokesman pulled me aside and asked me not to give away the state secrets. Meanwhile, I was just thinking about how if I ran a football team, we would call nothing but "187" and "911."
(And yes, I did ask again just how many pages are actually in the playbook. "I don't know," Saunders said. "I don't count 'em.")
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