Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Oct 2006

The Saunders Shuffle

For this week's edition of Too Deep Zone, I broke down game tape of teams that use a lot of two-tight end formations. I focused on the Patriots and Cowboys, but I also analyzed two Redskins games to see how they were using Chris Cooley and Christian "I'll Tumble" Fauria.

I wound up with a splitting headache. All of the Redskins' pre-snap motion had me talking to myself. On a typical play, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, and Chris Cooley might start out in a wishbone formation in the backfield, with Mike Sellers as a tight end and Antwaan Randle El as a receiver. Then, before anyone drops into his stance, everyone does the Saunders shuffle. Sellers drops back to fullback. Moss splits wide. Cooley moves to tight end. Then, once everyone is set, Cooley goes in motion across the formation. All of this to disguise a Portis sweep. When you are trying to diagram plays on your couch, all of the motion can drive you batty.

Of course, that's what Saunders and the Redskins' League of Extraordinary Gentlemen coaching staff are trying to do: they want opposing coaches and players scratching their heads before each snap. Saunders' 700-page playbook is filled with dozens of formations and motion schemes. Joe Gibbs was an innovator of pre-snap motion in the early 1980s, when most teams just moved one back or receiver before the snap. The old Redskins would perform wild pre-snap shifts that moved their H-backs all over the formation. Confused defenders spent more time pointing, yelling, and revising their assignments then attacking.

Unfortunately, times have changed. The Giants appeared to shrug their shoulders at all of the trickery. They didn't react to the initial Redskins formation. They waited until the offensive line set, then took their positions on the field. If anyone appeared confused, it was the Redskins players themselves. All of them are in their first year under Saunders, and key players like Randle El, Fauria, and Brandon Lloyd are in their first year with the team. Several times, Mark Brunell had to re-set players before the snap or burn a timeout. Against the Titans, the Redskins scaled back a lot of the motion, either because their own players were baffled or the Redskins figured they could beat the Titans with more straight-ahead tactics.

Saunders' scheme was extremely successful in Kansas City and St. Louis. But for years, Chiefs observers noted that all of the excess motion looked like wasted energy. Modern defenses are now trained to adapt to dozens of different offensive formations. Saunders' greatest strength isn't his pre-snap creativity: it's his ability to adapt gameplans to fit his personnel. The Rams beat you deep and the Chiefs ran the ball down your esophagus. The Redskins should be able to do both, assuming that Brunell can still get the ball down the field (he seemed perfectly capable against Jacksonville, but he struggled in the games I examined).

Washington's need to add a dozen free agents every year only compounds the offensive problems. A 700-page playbook is no big deal when your core offensive players have been together for years. Trent Green, Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez, Eddie Kennison, and the Chiefs linemen knew the system, and Larry Johnson eventually figured it out. But the Redskins need nametags at the start of camp every year. If you are going to integrate a new second receiver, a new third receiver, and a new tight end, as well as a new coordinator, there are going to be some lapses.

It will be interesting to see how much shifting they do this week. The Colts execute a very vanilla defense. Sellers, Cooley, Moss and Portis could climb onto each other's shoulders and make a pyramid for all Tony Dungy cares; his defense will line up in a Cover-2 shell, with the corners split and the safeties deep, no matter what Saundes throws at him. The best bet for the Redskins will be to run the ball hard and pick their spots with Moss. They should have no problem grinding out yards against the Colts, but they need to focus on execution, not subterfuge.

The Redskins will eventually figure things out. But how long will that take? If the Redskins fall to 2-5, they will be three games behind the NFC East leader and all but out of contention. They may push the button and start Jason Campbell, another inexperienced player who may have a hard time spitting out three different formations in the huddle.

Sometimes, you need to simplify. The Redskins are trying to do too much, too fast. That's what happens when you have an owner who is always trying to win last year.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 20 Oct 2006