When Hue Jackson was hired as the head coach of the Raiders earlier this week, he brought with him 25 years of coaching experience. And in that 25 years, he has had a great deal of success. But that pales in comparison to the 45 years of coaching success that new offensive coordinator Al Saunders has had over his career. And the two of them should maximize the potential of this Raiders offense while making Oakland a popular destination for some free agents.
Saunders comes from the “Air Coryell” style of offense. In fact, he was learning under Don Coryell even before the “Air” was attached to his name. He joined Coryell’s staff when the legendary coach was still at San Diego State. Saunders remained on Coryell’s staff when he went on to become the head coach of the Chargers in 1978. Saunders became the Chargers’ wide receivers coach in 1983 and spent three seasons in the position before taking over as interim head coach of the Chargers in 1986. He would remain the head coach of the Chargers for two full seasons in ’87 and ’88.
After his years under Coryell and with the Chargers, he moved on to another AFC West team when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1989. He would serve as assistant head coach and wide receivers coach for the entire ten years (’89-’98) that Marty Schottenheimer was the coach of the Chiefs. The first nine of those years, the Chiefs finished with a winning record. Six of those years, the Chiefs were in the top ten in either yards, points scored, or both.
When Schottenheimer’s tenure with the Chiefs ended, Saunders would move on as well. He joined the St Louis Rams in 1999 and just a year later, the Rams won the Super Bowl with “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Dick Vermeil retired from the Rams after the Super Bowl only to come out of retirement a year later to coach the Chiefs. Saunders re-joined him there for his second stint in ketchup and mustard. This time, without the conservative play calling of Schottenheimer to castrate the vertical game, the Chiefs would fly high. With Saunders as the offensive coordinator under Vermeil in Kansas City, the Chiefs were the top ranked offense in the NFL every year, four straight years from 2002 to 2005.
In that second stint under Vermeil and later under Joe Gibbs in Washington, Saunders was the primary play caller. At the press conference announcing Hue Jackson as the new head coach, Jackson made it clear he will remain the Raiders’ play caller. So Saunders knows coming in that, despite being the offensive coordinator, it will be only coordinating, not making the decisions. He is apparently just fine with that. And with Saunders’ famous 700+ page playbook, his knowledge and expertise could be an invaluable source for Jackson to tap, both in practice and in games. The two coaches worked with each other while both were on the Ravens’ staff in 2009. Jackson was the quarterbacks coach and Saunders held the title of offensive consultant.
The two of them combine for 70 years of coaching. Jackson has been in the NFL coaching ranks for ten years and has been to the playoffs three times. In Saunders’ 32 years of NFL coaching experience, all but one of the teams he coached have had winning records. In 17 of those years, the team made the playoffs. His best years were his run as offensive coordinator of the Chiefs in the 90’s. Over those ten years, the Chiefs won twice as many games as they lost, with a 101-52 record and seven playoff appearances. He followed that up with a 23-9 record with the Rams, capped off by a Super Bowl victory.
I suspect that the combo of Jackson and Saunders will make Oakland a popular destination for free agent wide receivers. Chad Ochocinco, who is set to leave the Bengals, has expressed on several different occasions that Hue Jackson was the best wide receivers coach he has ever had. Saunders has had similar comments made in regards to his abilities both as a wide receivers coach and as an offensive coordinator.
Under Jackson, Ochocinco and teammate TJ Houshmandzadeh had the best seasons of their careers in Cincinnati. While Saunders had Tony Gonzalez put together the better part of his Hall of Fame career in Kansas City and before that, Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt had the best years of their careers.
That just leaves the questions surrounding the level of talent the Raiders may or may not have on the team. Potential free agent acquisitions aside, the Raiders have Darrius Heyward-Bey who can run fast but can’t run a route and can’t catch anything that doesn’t get stuck in his facemask. There is Louis Murphy who is a gamer but inconsistent. There is Chaz Schilens who is great for the two games each season he is healthy while taking up a roster spot the rest of the time. And then there is the young stud Jacoby Ford who makes up for every height disadvantage he may have with blazing speed and fantastic hands.
That is not the kind of group that has anyone rubbing their hands together in euphoric anticipation. But it could be enough. Tony Gonzalez was enough for the Chiefs and the Raiders have a Pro Bowl tight end in Zach Miller. Marshall Faulk was a threat out of the backfield for the Rams as well as a receiver in much the same way Darren McFadden was this past season.
With these pieces and a possible additional piece, Jackson and Saunders can institute a gameplan that is a combined 70 years in the making, with branches off some of the most legendary coaching trees in the business and success that has followed them throughout.