Quarterback Sneak

Jim Zorn's tenure as the Washington Redskins' coach included unexpected highs and crushing lows.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

The first time they met, Jim Zorn drove. It was 2001 and Zorn, new as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterbacks coach but familiar with the city as a player, was introducing himself to Matt Hasselbeck, the team's new quarterback, by driving. Around town they went for hours: to the exclusive enclave of Mercer Island; past Canlis, his favorite restaurant downtown, and eventually to a steakhouse called Daniel's next to the city's Lake Union, where they ate as seaplanes buzzed overhead.

The whole time, Zorn talked about family, about children, about what Hasselbeck, with a young daughter, should know about raising girls. And as Zorn talked -- and Zorn can talk -- Hasselbeck stared, smiling, wondering just what any of this had to do with football.

"Then it hit me: He was trying to create a bond," Hasselbeck said. "That was really important to him. It wasn't going to be just about football, he wanted to get to know you."

In the Washington Redskins' seemingly interminable search to find the replacement for Joe Gibbs, they may well have found, well, another Joe Gibbs. Just like his predecessor, Zorn -- born in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier -- was a college quarterback in Southern California (Cal-Poly Pomona), became deeply religious and possesses an innate ability to stay calm through chaos. Like Gibbs, he is a family man. He and his wife Joy have four children, and in Seattle they would do things as a group when they had time -- even something as mundane as a shopping trip to REI.

As the Seahawks' first quarterback in 1976, he led the team through its troubled early years. Later. as its quarterbacks coach, he pulled Hasselbeck through the bitter disappointment of losing the job as the team's starter, rebuilding the player's confidence until he became a star. Yet each time his reputation remained the same. He was patient. Nothing ever disturbed him.

"He's very much like a Joe Gibbs," said Trent Dilfer, who played under Zorn for four seasons in Seattle. "He's wise beyond his years. His faith is at the front of his life. And he he's aware of the global perspective. I think what happens in the course of a football season when you are not one of the top-echelon teams -- one of the top five or six teams -- and you are in a fight to try and make the playoffs, one of the biggest things the head coach needs is to create a calmness about the team. What Gibbs and the best coaches can do is put things in perspective for the football team. That's what he was able to do as a quarterback coach.

"When there are team dramas, there will be a lot of dialogue there between players and coach. He will handle those dramas."

In 2003, when Dilfer returned to the team after his 5-year-old son, Trevin, died because a virus attacked his heart, Zorn opened the next several quarterback meetings by asking Dilfer to tell a story about the boy. Maybe with different players on a different team, this would have been dangerous but to Hasselbeck, with where they were, it was the perfect thing to say.

"Jim was just being honest and upfront in talking about something we all were dealing with," Hasselbeck said. "It helped the relationship with our quarterback group."

In a world where football coaches always are climbers, forever reaching for the next rung of an endless ladder, Zorn has been an odd outside presence. At 54, he is not a hot young name, but he never positioned himself to be one. He calmly worked his way through college football as a quarterbacks coach at Boise State, offensive coordinator at Utah State and quarterbacks coach at the University of Minnesota, until moving back to Seattle and asking then-Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson if he could work as an offensive assistant without a position. After two years as the quarterbacks coach with the Detroit Lions, he returned to the Seahawks in 2001, with whom he stayed for the next seven years until Washington owner Daniel Snyder finally pried him away with a three-year deal.

Those who know Zorn say he is honest, almost to a fault. From Hawaii, where he was sitting poolside before his third Pro Bowl, Hasselbeck laughed when asked about Zorn's legendary forthrightness, calling him "the worst liar I've ever seen in my life," adding that it wasn't always the best thing for his confidence as a still-struggling quarterback that first year in Seattle, often making the mistake of asking, "Hey, Jim, how do you think I played?"

"Well, uh, well, you weren't very good," Hasselbeck recalls Zorn often saying.

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