Al Saunders is back.
Will the "Greatest Show on Turf" return with him?
Saunders, who was an offensive assistant for the St. Louis Rams in 1999 and 2000, was hired by coach Scott Linehan last week to return as the Rams' offensive coordinator, and it naturally raises the question.
When Saunders was in St. Louis before, he coached the wide receivers under Dick Vermeil as the Rams operated the league's most explosive offense. With Vermeil and Mike Martz calling the shots, the Rams led the league in scoring in 1999 and 2000. Their 540 points in 2000 are the fourth most in NFL history.
In 1999, quarterback Kurt Warner came out of nowhere to become the NFL MVP and lead the Rams to the Super Bowl. Marshall Faulk was a dual threat, becoming the second running back in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.
Saunders' wideouts—Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim—caught passes all over the field, combining for 26 touchdown receptions. Together, they all came to be known as the "Greatest Show on Turf."
Now Saunders returns to the scene of his prime. But Warner is long gone, and Marc Bulger, who has been the No. 1 QB for five years now, can't seem to stay healthy. Steven Jackson has replaced Faulk and, when healthy, can do many of the things the former great Rams did. Bruce and Holt are still around, but both are older and a bit fragile.
In other words, this is not the same offense Saunders knew in 1999 and 2000.
The Rams fell well short of expectations in 2007 because their offense was in shambles all year. Bulger and Jackson missed four games each and played injured for most of the season. Holt played with a bad knee, and the line was a mess. Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace suffered a shoulder injury in the opener and now has missed 22 games in the past two seasons.
"If Pace comes back at full speed at left tackle, then you've got a marquee player there," Saunders told reporters. But Saunders also knows the Rams need more. "I think the offensive line will need maybe some attention."
Even if he can put together a decent line to keep Bulger upright and give Jackson some running room, Saunders won't be able to replicate the "Greatest Show on Turf."
The Rams' offense is in transition. Bruce and Holt are near the endof their careers, Bulger and Jackson can't stay healthy and the line needs at least two new starters.
The Rams' 2007 offense ranked 24th in yards and 28th in points—a far cry from what Saunders experienced in his last stay in St. Louis. But the 60-year-old assistant has been around long enough to know what he might be able to do with the Rams.
The line needs work, he admitted, "But I think the pieces are in position, and the success depends on how you utilize them on a weekly basis and what kind of framework you have against the defense that you face."
Linehan plans to let Saunders call the plays, a task Linehan had performed over most of his first two seasons.
"It's a collective thing for all of us," Saunders said. "Scott has given me the assurances I can run the offense—both in preparation and play-calling—and that was important to me. But it's still a group dynamic."
He'll soon find out his offensive group is not nearly as dynamic as the "Greatest Show on Turf" once was.