Commentary

Saunders' task: Revive 'Greatest Show on Turf'

New coordinator Al Saunders has a plan to revive the Rams' offense. Step 1 is bringing back the same terminology and principles the team used during its heyday, writes Seth Wickersham.

Originally Published: March 6, 2008
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

It's no secret what the Rams want new offensive coordinator Al Saunders to do. They want him to turn back the pages to the "Greatest Show on Turf."

Now that may be impossible, but Saunders was literally doing just that a few weeks ago during a break at the scouting combine. He sat alone in a hotel conference room, nibbling on chocolate candies and flipping through his playbook to make sure every play that St. Louis runs this season is in the exact terminology used during the team's turn-of-the-century heyday.

"I want it be as familiar as possible," he said.

So do the Rams, who have watched their offense, once record-setting under former coach Mike Martz, become -- not to put too fine a point on it -- pretty lame in two years under current coach Scott Linehan. A brutal run of injuries contributed to St. Louis' 24th-ranked offense last season, but the players' reactions to Linehan's scheming were more indicative of how far this unit has fallen.

Once admirably cocky, St. Louis' Pro Bowl offensive stars were visibly frustrated as Linehan suffered well-documented sideline slights from QB Marc Bulger (eye roll), RB Steven Jackson (tirade) and WR Torry Holt (bigger tirade). Former Steelers guard Alan Faneca didn't even take up the 3-13 Rams on their offer to host him during free agency, electing instead to sign with the 4-12 Jets. Being a Rams offensive player is not as fashionable as it used to be.

[+] EnlargeAl Saunders
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariAfter two years in Washington, Al Saunders is now in charge of fixing the Rams' once-feared offense.

And so it's a good thing Linehan, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January that he "needed help," fired himself as the Rams' playcaller. Enter Saunders, a Rams assistant for part of their Super Bowl years. As offensive coordinator for the Chiefs (2001 to 2005) and Redskins (2006 to 2007), Saunders has employed the same Air Coryell theory as Martz, but often scraps the four-receiver looks for two tight ends and a power ground game.

While Kurt Warner and Bulger were filling St. Louis with aerial shells, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson were grinding away career years on the ground in Kansas City. Two teams bookending one state scared defenses by pulling different pages from the same playbook.

The result in Kansas City was a Greatest Show Lite. Trading flash for balance didn't hurt; Saunders' offenses twice led the NFL in total yards.

"We'll probably look more like Kansas City did than the four-wide looks they used here," he says.

Saunders' primary goal is keeping his quarterback upright, which is welcomed news to Bulger, who has been sacked an NFL-high 190 times since 2003. Last season, injuries forced the Rams into 18 offensive line combinations. Bulger played with a bruised knee, the lingering effects of a midseason concussion and two broken ribs, courtesy of a wicked hit from 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

But keeping Bulger clean won't be easy. St. Louis will be counting on right guard Richie Incognito returning from knee surgery, 32-year-old left tackle Orlando Pace being well-rested after playing in only nine games the past two years, and new left guard Jacob Bell -- signed from Tennessee to a six-year, $36 million contract -- to be able to handle the 20 pass protections that a typical Saunders game plan carries.

Even if the Rams end up drafting Michigan tackle Jake Long with the second overall pick, Saunders admits, "It's my job to keep Marc from any unnecessary punishment."

The Rams won't run as many vertical routes as they did under Martz -- Holt will be 32 this season, and Drew Bennett isn't a burner -- but Saunders' offense will have the signature presnap shifting and quirky formations. His 700-page playbook that was ridiculed in Washington for being too complicated is now a welcomed sight.

In fact, after meeting with Saunders in early February, Bulger said, "I love the freedom in this offense."

And he loves having it back even more.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.