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.
"The guy just doesn't know how to lie, but as a player you respect that. You want to know your coach is there with you," Hasselbeck added.
Dilfer remembers Zorn being the only man on the Seahawks' coaching staff who would challenge the iron rule of Holmgren, who often stood as an intimidating presence to other coaches and players, frequently volcanic in his displeasure. Around 2001, as defenses became more extravagant and teams employed new blitz schemes, it was Zorn, along with Hasselbeck and Dilfer, who designed the Seahawks' responses to those changes, Dilfer said. Then Zorn would take the new plays to Holmgren, mining the dangerous waters of a coach who did not like his system to be questioned.
"He pretty much deserves more credit for Seattle's evolution as an offense than anyone on that staff," Dilfer said.
Dilfer called Zorn "a man of great conviction" who has a very good mind for the passing offense.
Zorn also is credited by many with having the ability to teach. Hasselbeck came to the Seahawks with so much unrestrained enthusiasm that he would become flustered when things didn't go right. Zorn had the task of reeling all this in. It didn't help that Hasselbeck had learned the West Coast offense the Seahawks employed in Green Bay under Brett Favre, who is not known for either great fundamentals or his care in protecting the football.
After calming Hasselbeck in those early years with the Seahawks, he refined the passer's technique, educating him on the nuances of the position, combing out bad habits. And Hasselbeck, who had been the backup to and good friend of Favre, had developed more than his share of bad habits.
For months after Hasselbeck arrived in Seattle, Zorn tore apart his throwing motion, his mechanics, the very way he approached the game, and rebuilt it. Sometimes to Hasselbeck it felt as if he rebuilt it completely. But eventually the results came. In 2002, Hasselbeck's career took off and he became a top quarterback.
One of Zorn's great traits is his ability to explain things. Former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, who lives in Seattle and works for a sports-talk radio station, remembers talking to Zorn a couple of years ago about the Chicago Bears' defense, which was considered one of the most dominant in the league. Zorn told Millen the defense was like an accordion, expanding as the play unfolded and then collapsing back in just as the quarterback thought he had read the play correctly.
"It impressed me on two levels," Millen said. "One, it was an apt description, and two, to use a descriptive metaphor of an accordion was a great way of explaining it. And it made me think that if he's describing it that way to me then he's probably using it with the players, too. And I bet they understood it as well. Matt probably pictured it perfectly."
Now, Zorn will have to transfer those skills to being a head coach. Much like Philadelphia's Andy Reid, who went from being Holmgren's quarterback coach in Green Bay to a head coaching job in the NFL, he will do so without having called plays, which always was a task Holmgren relished.
Not that it should matter.
"I think in Jim's mind, he's been calling plays the last three or four years," Lewis said. "I'm sure he'll be fine."