Quarterback Marc Bulger is one of the few Rams who have had first-hand experience under offensive coordinator Al Saunders.
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/03/2008

MEQUON, WIS. As a rookie wide receiver in 2000, Dane Looker remembers being, uh, startled by Al Saunders during Rams training camp at Western Illinois University.

"You catch the ball 30 yards downfield, he's all of a sudden right there trying to strip it out," Looker recalled.

Eight years later, not much has changed. Now 61 years young, Saunders still jogs an hour a day before practice. And he's still likely to show up at the end of a route to praise a receiver for a nice catch, or to try to pop the ball out.

"Not quite as much as I used to because when you're calling every play, it's hard to run down the field and get back, because you're holding things up," Saunders said, smiling.

His first stint in St. Louis in 1999-2000 was as associate head coach-wide receivers coach. This time around, he's offensive coordinator. Coach Scott Linehan has handed him the keys to the offense. Saunders will devise game plans during the week and call plays on game day, with input, of course, from Linehan and the rest of the offensive staff.

As expected, Saunders has approached his new assignment in full-throttle fashion.

"I was definitely excited when Al got hired because I knew the expectations offensively was going to go here," wide receiver Torry Holt said, raising his right hand from chest level to above his head. "From meetings to walk-throughs, all that stuff will pick up. Because his thing is the way you practice is the way you're going to play.

"Unlike that '99 (Super Bowl championship) team, we're not good enough to just line up on Sunday and 'let's go.' We have to practice those habits to get to that point where we're dominant. It's almost like he's nursing a new baby."

Saunders demands intensity, nonstop effort and attention to detail. That means finishing routes. Running full speed. Looking for someone to block if the ball's not in your hands.

"You have to make sure you come to practice focused and ready to go every day," Looker said. "He doesn't let off the gas pedal."

And that's mentally as well as physically.

"We have a new protection, new formations, new plays every day," Looker said. "And you've got to keep up."

Those Rams who have had some exposure to Saunders, such as Looker, Holt and quarterbacks Marc Bulger and Trent Green, know what to expect. Like Mike Martz before him in St. Louis, Saunders runs a variation of the "Air Coryell" offense. Like Martz, Saunders was exposed to coaching legend Don Coryell at an early age.

"My first coaching job was sophomore football coach at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif.," Saunders said. "I heard Coryell speak at a clinic ... about his offense. And I thought, 'Gosh, this is really great stuff. It's real simple. Anyone can understand it.'"

Coryell, the former San Diego State, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers coach, popularized the numbering system for calling pass routes. Saunders was part of Coryell's staff with the Chargers in the 1980s and succeeded him as head coach there.

"We tell the receivers what to do by numbers, and the backs what to do by words, and the offensive linemen what to do by schemes," Saunders said. "As part of that, on every play, every player is told what to do, either in digit form or in word form. And because of that, you have a tremendous ability to expand exponentially the number of things that you do."

For that reason, the Saunders playbook is voluminous. He calls it his "toolbox," and he has something in there for all types of situations during a game. Yet despite its seeming complexity, it can be a fairly simple offense for most skill position players.

"If a receiver can count from one to nine, it doesn't matter what everybody else is doing, he knows the route tree," Saunders said.

Then, Saunders turned to a reporter and added, "Really, I could teach you. In 15 minutes, you could come out here as the 'X' receiver and you could probably run 90 percent of the pass plays and end up in the right spot."

The complexities of running the offense fall on the quarterback.

"He has to be a real bright guy in terms of analyzing the progressions, and the system, and the protections, and all the things he has to learn," Saunders said.

But the way plays are called, with some tweaks along the way, is the same way Martz called them in St. Louis earlier this decade, Norv Turner called them with the Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s and Coryell called them in the '80s with the Chargers.

"Dan Fouts could come in here today and take 'team' work," Saunders said, referring to the Hall of Fame Chargers quarterback.

The difference, of course, is in philosophy. At Washington, Joe Gibbs took much of the "Air" out of "Coryell" he loved to pound the football. In St. Louis, "Mad Mike" Martz could be relentless with the passing game.

"Mike is very, very creative," Saunders said. "He probably is at one end of Don's offense. Joe Gibbs is probably at the other end."

And Saunders?

"I'm probably right in the middle," he said.

Which still means motion and shifting, plenty of deep shots in the passing game, with some trick plays Saunders prefers to call them "special" plays sprinkled in. But it also means maintaining a balance between the run and the pass, and with the Rams, making good use of Steven Jackson in the backfield.

"We like to say we're only limited by our own creativity," Saunders said.