By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But Zorn didn't lay blame for the nightmare that his first game became at the feet of the commissioner or his assistant coaches or the team's executive vice president, Vinny Cerrato, who put together a roster that some around the NFL say is too old and too thin at critical places and too young in others.
Instead, Zorn walked into his first postgame news conference as head coach with an interest in what it would be like. He did not sound angry, he did not scoff at questions or show the signs of despair so many other men in his position might have displayed. Instead, he said he now knows what is wrong with his team, he knows what needs to be fixed. He has seen the holes, all they need is a little filling.
"We saw where we are at," he said. "If trying to see the glass half full."
Then he paused and smiled slightly.
"I don't know if the cup's got water in it," he added.
Few Redskins teams have probably looked as miserable as this one did for the first 26 minutes on opening night. The offensive line -- a worry given a mix of players considered to be too old or, in the case of Heyer, too young -- was helpless against the surging Giants defense. Whatever hope Zorn had of weaving imaginative pass plays with the predictable runs of the past few years was gone. Washington was simply trying to survive.
And barely doing that.
Several times in the first few minutes the Redskins were lucky they didn't fumble the ball, given the way New York's defensive players swarmed all over them. The idea of attempting a pass became laughable in the face of the ferocious Giants pass rush.
Meanwhile, New York chopped through Washington's defense to build a 16-0 lead late in the first half that would have been much larger were it not for the ineffectiveness of Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who found his receivers wide open but often lobbed the passes in such a way that they had to stop and wait for the ball to land in their hands. This led to New York having to settle for three field goals and kept the Redskins close enough to have hope.
Even after the Redskins scored a touchdown just before halftime to cut the lead to 16-7, it seemed Zorn was tentative, not daring to try anything too much lest it backfire. He wound up calling many of the same plays to star running back Clinton Portis that Gibbs called the last few years.
That was all he had left to do.
Afterward, when the news conference was done, he chuckled dryly.
"Sorry guys," he said. "I'll try to have a better game for you next time."