It Doesn't Take Long for Zorn to Look the Part

By Jason La Canfora
Monday, August 4, 2008


Jim Zorn was surrounded by the men who will ultimately decide his future, a coterie of billionaires forming a crescent around the rookie coach on the 32-yard line, 75 minutes before kickoff of his first preseason game. For five minutes Zorn was the hub of the impromptu confab, laughing and joking animatedly, telling stories, shaking hands before this nationally televised Hall of Fame game.

Majority owner Daniel Snyder stood directly across from Zorn, rocking on the balls of his feet, beaming at his new charge from behind his fancy shades, eventually giving him a big hug before he and minority owners Dwight Schar and Robert Rothman turned their attention elsewhere. Another saga in the coaching history of the Washington Redskins was nearly under way, and if the longtime quarterbacks coach was out of his element at Fawcett Stadium on Sunday night, there was no way to know it.

Zorn was in the big time now, plucked from the angst-free existence of a relatively nondescript assistant coach, back in the spotlight at age 55 for the first time in 25 years, since his days as the iconoclastic starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. This will become his new routine -- hobnobbing with the rich and elite during warmups (former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw was among those to wish Zorn well Sunday night), addressing amped-up athletes before kickoff, then carrying the hopes and expectations of a rabid fan base on his shoulders during a three-hour maze of rapid-fire decisions.

For the record, Zorn came out of this exhibition contest a 30-16 winner over the Indianapolis Colts. The result will mean nothing come September, though this evening served as an opportunity to exorcise some first-game jitters if nothing else.

"I felt like it was a big win for me, because it was my first time out," Zorn said, still gripping a game ball 15 minutes after the contest.

Through his six months on the job, Zorn has maintained a demeanor of cool confidence, disavowing any notion that his unveiling might trigger a bout of anxiety. His lack of head coaching experience -- never once feeling the follicle-raising pressure of opting to go for it on fourth down -- is of no concern to him now. Replacing a local demigod, Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, and opting to tread where so many have failed -- Zorn is Snyder's sixth coach since 2000 -- will not shake him, Zorn says.

"I'm not a nervous sort of guy," Zorn said entering the weekend, "and I've been in a lot of games. I don't think I should feel any differently."

Yet there is so much to debut, so much to digest, so much to master.

There's Jim Zorn: The Quarterback Guru, the man responsible for developing Jason Campbell into a standout passer. There's Jim Zorn: The Offensive Mind, the man leading the creation of a game plan each week. There's Jim Zorn: The Playcaller, responsible for constantly shifting players into matchups and formations while juggling the multifold responsibilities that come with managing the game at the macro level as well. (Jim Zorn, The Sideline Entity, already looked the part, assuming the time-tested posture of covering his mouth with his play sheet as he wired in calls to his quarterbacks.)

Zorn will be judged on all of the above (sideline antics, not so much), by all who wondered what exactly Snyder and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato were doing when they hired him to be head coach two weeks after hiring him as offensive coordinator.

For all of Zorn's hats, however, this game is born of a division of labor, with the interplay between the coach and his assistants of great consequence. The quarterbacks are undoubtedly Zorn's, but the game plan is born of a collective arrangement among the staff, and Zorn's longtime pal and new offensive coordinator, Sherman Smith, will be his sounding board while calling plays.

"I have my job to take care of -- when to throw the red flag [for replays], when to call timeouts, what plays to call at the right time, how to put our players in the best possible position to be successful," Zorn said. "We all have a job to do, and I'm going to also pay attention to how we do it on the sidelines.

"It's not just, 'Hey, everybody do your job and let me go out and concentrate on my little world.' I'm responsible for everybody doing it the way I want it done on the sidelines as well."

Zorn plans to script the Redskins' first 15 plays of each game (at halftime the staff will establish 15 plays for the third quarter as well), a tenet of many coaches from the West Coast offense. Zorn and Smith have a headset cadence to hone, determining when to communicate, and how quickly they must work in tandem.

"You just talk when you need to, you don't talk to talk," said Smith, stationed in the press box for the first time after years on the sidelines. "We'll have our game plan, I'll look at what Jim hasn't called, and I'll start planning the first 15 [plays] for the second half and bring up things like, 'We have to get to this, these plays are there.' "

Sunday night's script was stellar early.

After three plays the Redskins had a 7-0 lead, with Campbell finding Antwaan Randle El for a 20-yard touchdown on a crossing route, a duo of linebackers chasing hopelessly after the defense rolled coverage to decoy receiver Santana Moss on a post route.

"It was a wonderful play," Randle El said.

Campbell completed all five attempts for 61 yards, with spotty pass protection the only offensive blemish (all of the quarterbacks were highly effective, a combined 19 of 22 for 216 yards and three touchdowns). Then the starters made way for the rookies and undrafted free agents and Zorn did his best to ensure no one got hurt with four dress rehearsals still to come.

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