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Meet the Browns' everlasting energy source, Al Saunders

At 69 years old, Al Saunders only knows one way how to approach his job. It's been the same mindset he's carried from his first day as a graduate assistant at USC to his 46th year in the business as Browns senior offensive assistant/wide receivers coach.

It's no different whether he's inside or outside the Browns facility in Berea. In the months leading up to the Browns' first on-field practices, Saunders buzzed from office to office, cubicle to cubicle trying to inject energy -- sometimes literally pointing at a large photo of FirstEnergy Stadium -- into every team employee. On the field, he logs more miles per practice than most of the players, sprinting up and down the sidelines after each route run by one of his numerous, young wide receivers.

For Browns coach Hue Jackson, this is the same Saunders he's known for years. It's why Saunders was one of the first coaches to hear from Jackson after he landed the position with the Browns. Though Saunders was five years removed from his last, on-field coaching position, Jackson had little doubt the energy was still surging through one of the most experienced coaches in the NFL.

"Every practice that's who Al Saunders is, and our players, our receivers, you can see that there are some guys in that group that are really growing and getting better," Jackson said Wednesday. "I think it's because of his tutelage and his ability to relate and get guys to play hard and understand what they need to do. I think you see some guys emerging and getting better every day in every practice. That's good."

The list of successful players Saunders has guided from stop to stop throughout his NFL career -- whether it be as a wide receivers coach, quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach -- goes on and on and includes a handful of Pro Football Hall of Famers. Ask Saunders to single out one of the players who stood out the most or one of the coaches who influenced him the most, and you'll get double-digit answers for both.

To explain why he remains perma-energized, Saunders goes back to the beginning. The advice he received from John McKay, the legendary USC coach who gave him his first coaching opportunity back in 1970, serves as his credo today.

"If you can't bring energy to a field or energy to a building then you probably don't belong in the building or probably don't belong on the field," Saunders said. "You expect energy from the players, you expect enthusiasm and you expect enthusiasm from the people around you. Hopefully it's a little bit contagious and everybody else will feel better about what they're doing during the day."

'The greatest job in the world'

Before McKay, there was Mr. Anderson.

A native of Hendon, England, Saunders emigrated to North America as a five-year-old, first to Canada and then to the U.S. His formative years were spent in Oakland, where he fell in love with all types of sports. A Junior Olympic swimmer, Saunders was just as enthralled with team sports and spent as much time as he could playing them whenever their respective seasons arrived.

During basketball season, Saunders and his friends would go to the office of Mr. Anderson, a physical education teacher, to grab a basketball. They did the same during football and baseball season, and Anderson would often join them.

As good of an athlete Saunders was -- he went on to be a three-time academic All-American defensive back/wide receiver at San Jose State -- his true career aspirations can be traced back to the impact of Mr. Anderson.

"I always wanted to be Mr. Anderson. I thought this guy has the greatest job in the world," Saunders said. "(My father) had two jobs sometimes. Sometimes he had three. Mr. Anderson just had one job and every morning he went out on that field and played with us and that was what I wanted to do.

"Somebody teaching me, me helping younger kids, it's something I always wanted to do. I never thought I wanted to do anything else. Here I am many years later having really lived the life I've been fortunate to live with a wonderful family and a wonderful job. I wouldn't change anything from Day 1."

The Browns took to the practice fields for Day 2 of OTAs - just the second day the rookies and veterans work on field together. (All photos by John Reid)

From 'Air Coryell' to 'Greatest Show on Turf'

After 12 years of rising the ranks in college football, Saunders received his first NFL opportunity in San Diego, where he was the team's assistant head coach during the latter years of the "Air Coryell" era. Saunders worked with three future Hall of Famers -- QB Dan Fouts and WRs Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner -- under the tutelage of Don Coryell, one of the game's biggest offensive innovators.

Saunders became the Chargers interim head coach in 1986 and held the job full-time from 1987-88. From there, he moved on to Kansas City, where he worked under Marty Schottenheimer, the former Browns coach who navigated the team to back-to-back AFC Championships in 1986 and 1987.

About 25 years before he'd land in Cleveland, Saunders heard stories about Schottenheimer's unforgettable time in the city and his relationship with the Dawg Pound.

"He felt like what happened in Cleveland was an entire city coming together and having a lot of pride in what they are and what they do. They love the Browns here. The fan base is phenomenal," Saunders said. "One of the attractive things about coming here when Hue got the job and asked me to be on the staff, I thought about what Marty said. I thought about how great it would be in probably is the last stop in my career to think about maybe having a hand in bringing some pride again and some performance levels the city of Cleveland can be proud of, to unify a group of people who so desperately want their team to be successful.

"I would like to have Cleveland feel so great about the Browns like they did when the Browns were winning championships and I'd like to help Hue Jackson be the kind of football coach I believe he can be."

Saunders earned the Super Bowl ring he carries today amid similar circumstances to what he faces now as an offensive assistant on a team trying to carve out a new identity after years of losing.

In 1999, Saunders was named the assistant head coach/wide receivers coach of the St. Louis Rams, a team that was coming off a 4-12 campaign and averaged five wins per season from 1990-98 with no playoff appearances The Rams' projected starting quarterback, Trent Green, went down with a knee injury during the preseason, and the team had no other choice but to anoint Kurt Warner, a former NFL Europe and Arena Football League quarterback, as their starter.

Just a few months later, Saunders and the Rams celebrated a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans, the crowning moment of a 13-3 season that saw the Rams take the NFL by storm with their "Greatest Show on Turf" offense. His top two receivers, veteran Isaac Bruce and then-rookie Torry Holt, combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns.

"There's no greater sense of feeling of accomplishment and joy than a teacher, whether it be a math teacher or an English teacher to see your students get an A on the test," Saunders said. "It kind of reconfirms what you're doing and reconfirms you possibly have the opportunity to influence somebody and make them better than they thought they could be, and that's the excitement and joy I get out of coaching is watching a player who maybe given a couple different techniques or ideas on how to improve their game, then they do that and have some sense of success themselves.

"That's the enjoyment of coaching, the relationship with players and the ability to help them get better at what they do."

'No agenda'

Saunders and Jackson first crossed paths in 2009, when Saunders joined the Ravens staff as a senior offensive assistant. Jackson joined the team one year earlier in 2008 as a quarterbacks coach and helped the team select and develop Joe Flacco.

Two years later, when Jackson was named the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he brought Saunders back to Oakland as the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. There was no shortage of adversity, as Raiders owner Al Davis died early in the season and starting quarterback Jason Campbell was lost a few weeks later to a season-ending injury. Still, the Raiders boasted a potent offense and finished 8-8, one of their best records of the past 10 years.

Jackson was removed from his position after the season while Saunders hung with the team for three more years as a senior offensive assistant. The impression Jackson left, though, was lasting, and Saunders didn't hesitate to join forces with Jackson for a third and final time in Cleveland earlier this year.

"At this stage of my career, after 40 years of coaching, 34 in the NFL, I had an opportunity to win a world championship and coach a lot of great players and be around a lot of tremendous coaches, one of the things I really feel good about in this stage of my career is I have no agenda," Saunders said. "I'm not going to be a head coach again, I don't want to be a head coach again. What I want to do is help coaches and help players achieve what they can achieve with their God-given talent in their field. I would like nothing more than to help Hue succeed as the head football coach."

To do that in 2016, Saunders will be tasked with building up a wide receivers room that is heavy on youth and sprinkled with veterans vying to prove they're worth a spot on the 53-man roster. Cleveland used its first of 14 draft picks on a wide receiver, Baylor's Corey Coleman, and added three more on Day 3, bringing in Auburn's Ricardo Louis, UCLA's Jordan Payton and Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.

Saunders wasted little time with the group and made the most of every second he had with them on the field at last week's rookie minicamp, focusing on the finer details of route running and imploring them to make defenders miss after making a catch. At OTAs earlier this week, he did the exact same thing with the group's oldest veterans such as Brian Hartline, Marlon Moore and Andrew Hawkins.

It's a final opportunity for Saunders to impart everything he's learned, from Mr. Anderson to Marty Schottenheimer, on a group of hungry Browns receivers. For those players, it's an opportunity to simply learn and grow under one of the NFL's most decorated offensive coaches.

"He is one of the best coaches in this league that this league has ever seen," Jackson said. "I think you all know what he means to me, personally and professionally. He is as good as there is. Not only is he a motivator, he knows how to take guys all the way from Step A all the way to Step Z. He's the best I have ever been around."

The rookies took to FirstEnergy Stadium for the first time.

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