By Les Carpenter
Saturday, May 3, 2008
From the moment Jim Zorn leapt out of bed at 5:45 a.m. yesterday, an imaginary clock loomed over Redskins Park, the numbers ticking away, counting down time.
The Redskins' new coach is a man of a million ideas, always scheming, always trying to invent a new wrinkle for an old system. Despite the fact he is just a few years younger than Mike Holmgren, who was his boss in Seattle, he drove the Seahawks' coach mad with his childlike enthusiasm -- forever presenting gimmick plays drawn up in his office. Never did Zorn want anything more than to call a few plays of his own, to clutch the controls of the Seahawks' offensive machine for a series so he could throw out his tricks and dazzle the world.
Rarely, though, did Holmgren allow him to touch the family car, leaving Zorn's mind to burst with all the wonderful ideas he was longing to try.
Then yesterday morning came and finally a team of his own sat before him and the new offense -- his offense -- was typed into a playbook that rested in the players' hands. Contained inside were two decades of Zorn's greatest offensive ideas waiting to come to life.
But as much as Zorn longs to cut loose with every new and amazing thought he has scribbled his notebooks, he has a teacher's conscientiousness. The man of such boundless enthusiasm can't leave a play until it is right. Even if it takes all day to accomplish this.
Such patience hasn't always been a virtue around here. If anyone needed a reminder, it came at the first morning minicamp session in the form of owner Daniel Snyder, seated comfortably in a chaise lounge set up between both practice fields at Redskins Park. The chair pointed toward the offense's field, where Zorn was spending most of his time with the quarterbacks and receivers. It served as an ever-present warning of the clock ticking down on forbearance. Those who do not produce glorious results tend not to stay long.
So as the Redskins start over again with another new offense, another new vision, another new direction that's supposed to end in the elusive Super Bowl for Snyder, Zorn will not push too hard too fast. This isn't his nature. When he arrived in Seattle in 2001 as the quarterbacks coach, he spent weeks rebuilding the throwing motion of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had been in the league for two seasons and was deemed ready enough to be a starter that Holmgren moved down seven places in the first round of the 2001 draft to acquire him from Green Bay. And it took Hasselbeck two years before he developed into an elite quarterback.
Now he is doing the same with Jason Campbell, slowly tearing apart every facet of Campbell's game, from the way Campbell takes the ball from center to his posture in the pocket. By the time he is done deconstructing the Redskins quarterback and building him back up, we could be in the middle of summer. And that's before he's even gotten into the finer points of the West Coast offense.
"I am going to assume myself that he has learned nothing," Zorn said of Campbell. "So we are starting at square one and just making sure we cover everything. It's a very sequential game. You can't go one, two, five, nine, 10. You have to go through the sequence of events."
As Zorn walked back into the building after the first minicamp practice, he stopped on the first step of a staircase leading to the coaches' offices. Just then, fullback Mike Sellers stopped to say hello and Zorn made a point of telling him how well he had done on the initial day. Sellers shook his head.
"I'm going to have to learn those cuts on the swing passes," he said, adding he was used to cutting a different direction in the old offense.
Zorn smiled and launched into a detailed explanation of how Sellers probably was cutting the wrong way even in those old plays. Sellers listened for a few moments until it was clear he was losing his new coach's logic. He nodded and said he would keep working until he got it right.
"See what I mean?" Zorn said as Sellers headed up the stairs. He will not move forward with the offense until he is sure everyone can follow right along.
Then he said this:
"I would rather run 10 plays really well than rush through everything and throw out a bunch of plays and fill [the press] with a bunch of fluff and say, '90 percent of the offense has been installed.' "
A great mistake of many NFL coaches is to shove the entire playbook at the players in a two-week period in the spring and expect them to execute those plays precisely once the season starts. They express shock and dismay when suddenly those plays don't work and complain that the players never could grasp their offense.
There seems little doubt Campbell and the Redskins' offense will be better for Zorn's patience.
But does he have time to make everything perfect? To do it the right way? He has only this minicamp and a few organized team activities to accomplish what he wants, choosing not to take advantage of an NFL rule allowing an extra minicamp for teams with new coaches. With the Redskins in the Hall of Fame game this year, they will be burdened with an extra exhibition game. He wants to keep them fresh for the season.
On Friday he began the long, arduous process of building the Redskins right.
Above him the imaginary clock kept ticking. Will he get the time to make it work?