By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 10, 2008
After Tom Flores won his first of two Super Bowls with the Raiders, Bart Starr, the former Packers great, approached the coach and said, "I really want to thank you."
"I was a little surprised," Flores said by telephone last night. "I think I said, 'For what?' "
"You finally destroyed the myth," Flores recalled Starr saying.
"The myth that quarterbacks don't make good coaches."
This story is related on the night Jim Zorn strode purposefully through the FexEd Field tunnel for the first time in his career as coach of Washington's pro football team last night, stopping only to shake the hands of assistants Joe Bugel and Stump Mitchell before his home preseason debut ended with a 17-14 pileup of a victory over Buffalo.
They're 2-0 when it doesn't count. But Jason Campbell looks sharp. And whether there are starters or practice-squad kids out there, they have a knack of hanging in there.
Still, based strictly on the past, Zorn has his work cut out for him. Go ahead. Look long and hard through the annals of the game, and it becomes clear why the newbie is moving on, employing his own methods, finding his Zorn identity, anything to separate him from those who coached before him.
We're not talking about Joe Gibbs; he's obvious. (And besides, Zorn has already demonstrated an unguarded candor -- a truth-telling serum apparently unavailable to any other full-of-subterfuge NFL coach, a distinct difference from his tight-lipped Redskins' predecessor.)
No, it's a positional problem Zorn must overcome. Of the 439 coaches in NFL history, just 25 have been quarterbacks of some notable measure. And many have not been very good. Just one, Flores, has won a Super Bowl, while Sam Wyche got to the big game but never sealed the deal.
Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker and Redskins radio analyst, took a roll call of great quarterbacks who didn't work out as coaches.
"Bart Starr? Fired," Huff said. "Norm Van Brocklin? Fired. Otto Graham. Fired here. Hall of Famers. Steve Spurrier. It doesn't matter. For some reason they don't work out. They all want their own people, 'Well, look who I drafted.' " Huff paused and, speaking of Zorn, added: "But this guy. . . . I think this guy could break the mold."
Zorn, asked about the issue, said he hadn't "thought about that."
"I just know that for me, I've been around some very sound coaches in Bobby Ross and Mike Holmgren, especially, and they have come from some very sound teams themselves and come from outstanding backgrounds," he said.
"The history of quarterbacks that became coaches?" Zorn asked rhetorically. "I'm not going to think about that too much. That would worry me."
No one has a concrete theory on why everyone from Allie Sherman to Frankie Albert couldn't cut it on the sideline, or why Gary Kubiak and Sean Payton are hanging in there at the moment. Beyond the NFL -- from Ted Williams to Magic Johnson -- former greats throughout history have had lousy patience. Or at least zero tolerance for players not of their ilk.
Van Brocklin once coached Sonny Jurgensen. For about a week.
"They got rid of him before the season began," Jurgensen said. "He started firing people in the front office. He wanted to fire the PR guy, everybody.
"I don't know why quarterbacks aren't better coaches, because I know how smart they are."
Flores believes it has something to do with the ability to take and give instruction.
"I don't really have a theory on why Otto Graham or Bart Starr didn't work out, why I was the only one successful in that way as a former quarterback," he said. "I'm as mystified as you are. Coaches have to lead and quarterbacks are good leaders. But I do know that some weren't as good as teachers as some other coaches. You have to be a teacher to be a coach."
Coincidentally enough, Flores helped make Zorn a teacher. After former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox told Zorn after his playing days that he should try to look outside his former organization for a coaching job, Flores backed up Knox and told Zorn essentially the same thing while he was president and general manager of the Seahawks before Paul Allen owned the team.
"He came in for advice and told me he wanted to get into coaching and I told him I didn't have room for him, so I said, 'You ought to start out at any level and find out whether you like it or not before you get into it,' " Flores said.
Zorn started small, taking his first job coaching quarterbacks at Boise State in 1988, before working his way back to the NFL.
He's clearly got a learning curve to overcome, and the schedule-makers did not do Zorn any favors. His first three games on the road are against NFC East opponents. Washington opens with Ring Night at the Meadowlands against Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champions.
But he seems undaunted and convinced that in time he will adapt to the job. He's a little bit corny, which this franchise needs. When nearly 30,000 fans showed up to watch the Redskins scrimmage in Ashburn, Zorn told the players it would be "a happening."
"I have a great foundation here, I'm keeping it simple and I'm trying not to get ahead of myself," Zorn said. "That part is important. As for other quarterbacks who didn't become great coaches, well, I can't do anything about that. Except not worry about it."
For what it's worth, Huff told Zorn he reminds him of Tom Landry, his former defensive coordinator in New York, who was about decency in Dallas and life. "Just the way he treats people, " Huff said. "He actually told me he appreciated me coming out one day."
Zorn thanked him, mentioning he also played for Landry, before he threw for more than 21,000 yards and 111 touchdowns in Seattle. In 1975, before catching on in 1976 with the Seahawks, Zorn almost became the Cowboys' third-string quarterback, behind Roger Staubach and Clint Longley.
"Isn't that something?" Huff said.
It's good trivia, like the fact that Landry, a Pro Bowl defensive back as a player, also moonlighted at quarterback.
Probably portending his Hall of Fame coaching career, he completed 11 passes in 47 attempts for one touchdown and seven interceptions with the Giants in 1952. Tony Dungy was equally awful as an emergency quarterback in 1977, throwing two interceptions in eight attempts.
But they exuded class, dignity and won titles, something no bona fide NFL quarterback has done as a coach before or after Flores.
So Jim Zorn has a 1-in-25 shot. Not bad, no?