Coordinating a New Adventure

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Jim Zorn had not planned to pressure his former teammate and longtime friend, Sherman Smith, to join the Washington Redskins. But in his first week as Washington's head coach, Zorn was dissatisfied with the answer he received from Smith, so he decided to nudge him a little.

And after he initially rejected an offer to become the Redskins' offensive coordinator, Smith reconsidered and became the final member of Zorn's coaching staff. Smith had a significant role in compiling Washington's new offensive playbook for Zorn's version of the West Coast offense, which Smith is helping Zorn install.

After a successful career as a running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans, Smith, 53, left a comfortable position for the challenge of being a first-time coordinator. Zorn, who has never served as more than a quarterbacks coach in an NFL game, asked Smith to join him on "an adventure" with the Redskins, and Smith did so because Zorn refused to take no for an answer.

"I had told him, when I came on my visit [to the complex], 'My head is there, but my heart wasn't,' " Smith said after a recent practice. "I had been in Tennessee for 12 years, but [joining the Redskins] was a great opportunity to come and be a part of a good organization, go to the playoffs and to coach with a guy I have a great deal of respect for."

And someone whose persistence he knows firsthand.

Smith, an NFL running back for eight seasons, and Zorn were rookie starters together with the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976. Smith worked alongside Zorn as Zorn guided the Seahawks through their early, difficult days in the league, never losing his enthusiasm for the game and setting an example for others through his professionalism, Smith said. "He was a good leader, good player," he said. "[He was] detail-oriented, just like he is now as a head coach. [He was] a competitor and [he] demanded a lot of himself and from the people around him. That is why he was successful as a quarterback and he will be the same way as a [head] coach."

It was Zorn's competitive nature, in part, that prompted him to continue his pursuit of Smith despite what Smith told him during that phone call on Feb. 15. A day earlier, Smith had strongly leaned toward accepting the offer that Zorn made while they had dinner together at the beginning of that week, with Smith even telling a reporter that he was "really excited about the opportunity Z-man has offered me."

But Smith, who had worked under Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher since 1995, promised Fisher he would not make a decision until they spoke. After meeting with Fisher, Smith, then an assistant head coach-running backs with Tennessee, contacted Zorn to decline the offer. Out of respect for his friendship with Smith, Zorn was reluctant to push his friend, he said. Zorn wanted what was best for Smith, "and I really thought this could be a great opportunity for him," Zorn said. "If that was going to be his answer, if he decided to stay there in Tennessee, I would have accepted his no eventually. But not then."

Having made a stronger pitch to his friend -- stressing the opportunity to explore a new career challenge as a coordinator and helping to write a new chapter for the tradition-rich Redskins -- Zorn encouraged Smith to take more time. Smith's second phone call to Zorn on Feb. 15 resulted in Washington having a new offensive coordinator. "He was very comfortable there working with Coach Fisher, [who is] a great football coach," Zorn said. "He had a great football team. He was impacting lives there. I just had to put a new spin on it. I said, 'You can do the same thing here, and it is going to be an adventure for you.' "

In his previous position, Smith oversaw the Titans' running game. He contributed to the development of former Pro Bowl running back Eddie George, and more recently helped running back LenDale White, who has a reputation of being lazy, become a 1,000-yard rusher in only his second NFL season. With his background mostly in the running game, Smith will lean on Zorn as he works to become well versed in the passing game, too. And he also is learning to direct an offense for the first time at any level.

"Anytime you are doing something for the first time, the first time around the track the steps are unfamiliar," Smith said. "You just have to get familiar with the steps, the responsibility and all of that. It is just more of the organization.

"[And] the responsibility of putting a game plan together doesn't fall all on me. It is all of us together. It is interesting. I like parts of it. I like to coach guys. I had fun coaching my own position. But now just overseeing and watching the other guys, allowing the coaches to coach their players, I would never step on anyone's toes out there because I know what it was like as a position coach. You don't want that done to you. [I am] just trying to be the type of coordinator that I wanted when I was a position coach."

Smith and Stump Mitchell, Washington's new assistant head coach-running backs, are Zorn's top lieutenants on offense. Although they were heavily involved in writing the new offensive playbook (the Redskins currently are working from an abbreviated version that players received at the start of minicamp last Friday) and are helping to teach the offense to other staff members and players, Zorn will be the Redskins' play-caller in the 2008 season.

Zorn said he is eagerly anticipating being a primary play-caller for the first time in his NFL career, but Smith will have a lot to do as well. "He understands I'm going to be calling the plays," Zorn said. "He has kind of taken a step back to allow me to install [the offense] and really talk it through. As he learns it [the passing game], and it will be up to him on how fast he learns it, then I can even step back further. I have been a play-caller in the past. I can't wait to call plays. He has no problem with that."

Smith anticipates the process "is going to be smooth, there's no question about it," he said. "We all get together and put the plan in and one guy calls the game on Sunday. Jim has been looking at offense through a quarterback's eyes, so he is going to do a great job. No one is saying that is the job they want because we all understand that is the job he is going to do, but we will all put the plan together."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company