FIRST and LONG
Friday, September 5, 2008
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Sept. 4 -- Weeks before the season began so wretchedly Thursday night, Jim Zorn took great care in designing the first play he would call as coach of the Washington Redskins. It was, after all, a significant moment for a man known for offensive innovation, a signature on a painting that has been months in his imagination.
What he loved about this play was its simplicity, designed not for its potential to be spectacular but for its ease and efficiency: a way for his young quarterback, Jason Campbell, to build a rhythm as 79,742 fans screamed in the Giants Stadium stands. All Campbell had to do was step to his right, spot wide receiver Santana Moss, throw an easy pass into Moss's hands and watch Moss scamper downfield as the roar turned to stunned silence.
But in a series of unfortunate occurrences that would come to mark this 16-7 loss to the New York Giants, in a score that should have been much more lopsided, Moss turned out to be covered by a Giants player. And as Campbell looked around for the other receivers he was supposed to throw the ball to, he couldn't see any of them. Right at that moment, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck came rumbling into his view. Campbell panicked. He squeezed the ball close to his chest and let Tuck slam him to the ground as the crowd howled its approval and Zorn stared forlornly at the field.
So much for first plays.
Or first quarters or first halves or even first games, at that.
"That one play didn't ruin the game," Campbell said in his defense after the defeat.
Still it was a harbinger of the calamity to come, one in which the Redskins only had 11 first downs, 1 touchdown and 133 passing yards with an offense that was supposed to make everyone forget previous coach Joe Gibbs and his conservative, run-first game plans that had grown stale to many Redskins fans.
Instead, Gibbs was in St. Paul, Minn., speaking at the Republican National Convention as his successor watched his beautiful first play and subsequent offensive possessions end in a hail of missed receivers, blown blocks and other assorted failures that short-circuited the whole game plan -- the first 15 plays of which had been scripted in advance.
Later, when someone asked him about the team's second-year tackle, Stephon Heyer, a former Maryland player who didn't block Tuck on the first play, Zorn shook his head.
"That was due to the quarterback not throwing the ball, 100 percent," Zorn said.
Maybe this whole thing was doomed from the beginning. Earlier in the week, Zorn joked about the schedule that had his team playing the most prominent game of the season -- the special Thursday night opener -- on NBC against the world champion Giants on an evening when their Super Bowl victory in February would be celebrated with the rolling of a replica of the Lombardi Trophy onto the center of the field minutes before the opening kickoff.
"Thank you, Mr. Goodell," Zorn said in a teasing reference to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.