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Building a champion

How 'Hawks, Steelers got there and who may be next

Posted: Monday January 23, 2006 9:54AM; Updated: Monday January 23, 2006 8:00PM
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Redskins safety Sean Taylor is a controversial player, but he can be a dominant force on the field. He is one of the reasons Washington could be a Super Bowl team in the near future.
Redskins safety Sean Taylor is a controversial player, but he can be a dominant force on the field. He is one of the reasons Washington could be a Super Bowl team in the near future.
Al Tielemans/SI
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DENVER -- For all the fans of the NFL's other 28 teams, those teams trying to get to where Pittsburgh and Seattle are going, and where Denver and Carolina tried to go this weekend, here are my shirtpocket notes from the last few, very eventful days:

1. Who do I think is off to the best start for 2006?

Clue: The owner rubs you the wrong way.

Another clue: When I finished interviewing the coach of this team last weekend, he shook my hand, wished me well and handed me a Bible tract.

Another clue: The team has a safety, a really good one, with a phlegm problem.

You've got it. The Washington Redskins. By signing ex-Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders, the choreographer of the league's highest-scoring offense over the last four years, owner Dan Snyder now has spent approximately $4.6 million on Saunders and defensive game-planner/play-caller Gregg Williams -- in 2006 salary alone. An outrageous sum? Not for a man whose team will rake in something like $325 million in 2006. Would you pay a small percent of your gross revenue for the men you believe are the best offensive and defensive play-callers in football? If you wouldn't, you're not trying to win at any cost. For all the times I've killed Snyder for his wasteful spending and jock-sniffing trophy collecting (most notably with the signing of way-past-his-prime Deion Sanders), this, as I said after the Williams signing a couple of weeks ago, is just smart business.

Now the one thing I'd throw in here as a caution -- and it's something Mike Shanahan echoed to me over the weekend -- is that there's an awful lot of bosses right now on Washington's offense. Joe Bugel used to be a head coach. Joe Gibbs has called plays forever. Quarterback coach Bill Musgrave has taught the quarterbacks his way. Now, with Saunders coming in the door, how will the day-to-day coaching work?

These guys will say all the right things about all-for-one and one-for-all, but I'm big on the chemistry thing among coaches in locker rooms. How will Bugel react to Saunders telling him he's going to do things a little differently than Bugel's been doing for 100 years? How will Gibbs react to Saunders saying, "Coach, I know you like Jason Campbell as your quarterback of the future, but for my offense, Patrick Ramsey is 10 times better"?

The point is, there's going to have to be a whole lot of ego-checking. I think it can be handled. I can't tell you how impressed I am with the reincarnation of Gibbs and his readjustment to NFL life, but it is something to be monitored.

Dick Vermeil left every facet of the offense to Saunders, and Saunders was so controlling that he never would call the same play over a four-game span. His theory was that if teams studied the Chiefs, he didn't want them ever to see anything predictable in the four previous games that Kansas City had played. "I think that's taking it a bit too far,'' Vermeil told me last year, "but you can't argue with Al's success. It works. He's done a fantastic job. And the fact is, teams do have trouble adjusting to what we do.''

It is an outrage that Saunders does not have a head-coaching job in this postseason of change. Over the last four seasons, the Colts, led by Peyton Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore, have put up 27.5 points per game. That's only second best in the NFL. The lesser lights, Kansas City's Trent Green and Saunders, have put up 28.7. I guess the consolation prize for Saunders is that he's making low-level head-coach money, but if I were him, I'd be furious. Which brings us to the second issue of the week ...