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Just Remember: One Game Does Not a Coach Make

By Mike Wise
Thursday, September 4, 2008

I'm worried for Jim Zorn, and it has nothing to do with the baptism-by-fire start piled on the rookie head coach. Yes, three of his first five games are on the road against NFC East opponents, a rugged beginning to a season even Joe Gibbs or the late Tom Landry might interpret as punitive by the NFL.

But what's more arresting is Daniel Snyder, in a televised interview with Comcast SportsNet's Kelli Johnson to be aired this week, saying he considers a "successful season" winning the division and making a playoff run.

Win the NFC East, probably the toughest division in pro football? Washington hasn't won the division since 1999, which means Gibbs hasn't won the division since 1991, and no one debates the success of Gibbs's late-season runs in 2005 and 2007, especially after the monstrous holes from which his teams emerged.

That's an awful lot of expectation for Zorn, a guy relying on someone else's coaching staff, a man who catapulted from NFL position coach to head coach without a game as a coordinator. Zorn took the job only after Snyder and Vinny Cerrato soured on Gregg Williams, put out feelers for Bill Cowher, spoke to Pete Carroll, nearly gave the job to Jim Fassel and had dalliances with defensive coordinators from New York, Indianapolis and Tennessee. (Steve Spagnuolo got a Giant raise, Ron Meeks stayed with the Colts and Jim Schwartz stayed with the Titans.)

Which cuts to the truth, no? From the moment he was hired, Zorn was viewed outside Ashburn as a stopgap, merely a space holder for Cowher or the next "It" coach to make a very involved owner salivate. Without an agent, he signed a lousy contract that doesn't even permit him to renegotiate if he wins the Super Bowl the next few years. (Not that Snyder wouldn't hook him up if that came to pass, but still.)

He's been perceived as Everybody's Fifth or Sixth Choice After Gibbs Re-Retired. He awaits the same kind of knee-jerk referendum on his coaching ability tonight at the Meadowlands.

Just watch. If Jason Campbell throws for 300 yards and Clinton Portis gallops for three touchdowns, or both, Zorn will be portrayed as the earnest California kid whose newfangled approach to the job (remember "Z Shades" from training camp?) marks a welcome contrast to stodgy, serious old Joe.

If the Redskins start fast and his carefree demeanor ends up as a stylish feature on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown," the Zen of Zorn begins. Z Shades will sell like hotcakes. News directors and editors will clamor for an exposé.

If the team goes down hard tonight and putters toward 1-4 in October, Zorn becomes the deer in the headlights, a nice family man who just wasn't cut out to be a leader of men like the Great Coach Gibbs.

We've already seen some incarnations of this swinging pendulum. When Portis and LaRon Landry emerged from practice woofing at each other in June, a match race ensued, which almost was a dead heat and begat more woofing afterward.

Some people in Ashburn remarked that Gibbs never would have let such foolishness transpire, given the risks of injury. Others viewed the event as a refreshing, in-the-moment competition fostered by a coach who reminds his players they get to play a child's game for a king's ransom.

With Zorn, it seems no one wants to see the gray area.

Look, Jim Zorn may turn out to be a very fine coach who just needs experience. But -- and this will infuriate the need-to-know-now crowd -- we might not know until the end of the season and maybe beyond.

As he takes the field tonight opposite Tom Coughlin, give the man room to learn and grow before he is prematurely judged for the job.

Beyond the schedule and the expectations of the owner and fans, history also is against Zorn.

With rare exceptions, former NFL quarterbacks who had solid careers don't cut it as NFL head coaches. Just one, former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores, has won a Super Bowl; the majority usually get fired.

Bart Starr (52-76-3, two playoff games in nine seasons) and Otto Graham (17-22-3 in three inglorious seasons in Washington) found out the hard way. Need we really say more than Steve Spurrier?

Old signal-callers usually find more comfort in headsets belonging to networks instead of teams. Terry Bradshaw. Dan Marino. Ron Jaworski. Boomer Esiason. Troy Aikman. Phil Simms. Steve Young. Sonny Jurgensen. Established broadcasters, all of them, who were smart enough not to dabble in a less-stable profession after their playing careers ended.

In a way, Snyder got the best of both worlds when Zorn emerged from a bizarre hiring process last February. If he wins big early, Snyder is the prescient owner who saw talent in the womb. If Zorn falls hard and fast, Snyder could justify going after the big name, and no one could say he didn't give the unproven commodity a shot.

But Zorn deserves better. He might not deserve the complete 6-10 mulligan Gibbs got when he came back in 2004. But barring 3-13 or some such disaster in which the players lose confidence in him, Zorn deserves at least two years to prove his competence and worth.

Anything less makes him the space holder many people already perceive him to be.

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