By Sally Jenkins
Friday, September 5, 2008
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
The trouble with the Washington Redskins' new identity is that they don't have a discernable one. After all of the offseason hiring and reshuffling, what showed up on the field in the season opener against the New York Giants was a shapeless and indistinct mess, recognizable only by the logos.
The situation the Redskins are in has been years in the making, literally, and it has been engineered by a world-class amateur of an owner. So it can't be laid off on rookie head coach Jim Zorn, who has some personality and dash, in his pleasant, frank-spoken, oh-gosh way. The fact is that Zorn is quite clearly just another underling who is working with what he has been so hastily given. As he stood on the field at Giants Stadium, watching the Redskins commit assorted miscues on their way to a lamentably bad 16-7 loss to the Giants, he at times barely seemed to be part of the organization, much less in charge of it. He followed the action on the field 10 yards away from any of his coaches and players, his arms crossed contemplatively, checking a clipboard occasionally, identifiable as a head coach only by the red challenge flag sticking out of his back pocket.
Zorn was brought in ostensibly as the hand-picked find of owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, his executive vice president of football operations, to tutor fourth-year quarterback Jason Campbell, and to install the West Coast offense, of which he is a whiz-bang expert. There were flashes here and there of possibility -- mainly Campbell's 12-yard scoring pass to Santana Moss on some nifty misdirection with 13 seconds left in the first half that was their only score. But the overall reality was that the Redskins have problems far beyond any head coach's ability to cure them in time for the season opener. They are a good distance away from Snyder's goal of winning an NFC East title and making a playoff run, judging by their performance against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, who played as badly as a team can and still win.
"I was disappointed we just looked so poor ourselves," said Zorn, who is admirably honest. "I didn't feel it was domination. It was what we were doing."
The Giants played lousy -- they never scored after the first half either, and quarterback Eli Manning tried to throw at least four interceptions, three of which were dropped. But the Redskins were so very, very lousy that it didn't matter in the slightest. "We sputtered from the very first play," Zorn said, mildly, almost agreeably. "We sputtered around for too many minutes, and too many plays."
In fact, their first play from scrimmage was an eight-yard sack when Campbell looked for Moss for too long, and was pile-driven into the turf by the Giants' Justin Tuck, who bounced off not one but two Redskins, Stephon Heyer and Randy Thomas, to get to him. That set the tone for the night.
The Giants were wasteful and mistake-ridden on offense, squandered opportunities, made seven egregiously dumb penalties, and generally let the Redskins hang around late into the evening. Yet the Redskins were never even close to winning this game. In fact, they were clearly overmatched by halftime. The statistics reflected a landslide that could and should have been much worse. The Redskins gained just four first downs to 14, and gave up 241 yards while gaining just 51 themselves. The Giants did not punt in the entire half -- every possession ended in a score. It was just that three of those four possessions ended in John Carney field goals.
Zorn's newly installed West Coast offense? It consisted of exactly one effectual drive in 60 minutes of play. And that came under the two-minute mark in the first half, aided by Rock Cartwright's 50-yard kick return, and a face mask penalty by Giants tackle Jay Alford. That gave them first down at the 11, and two plays later Campbell completed a nice crossing route to Moss. That was really it for the night.
By halftime it was apparent that the Redskins will have to claw mightily to be better than a .500 team, but then, every season seems to go like this. The Redskins manage to remain viable, barely, thanks to the dedicated efforts of a handful of players, a few game-changing runs by a Clinton Portis (a lone spot of optimism with 84 yards rushing), or defensive stops by a London Fletcher. If only such players had a professional organization to back up their professionalism.
It's an inescapable fact that no matter how well Jim Zorn coaches, or how well he develops the as yet unproven Campbell, it's going to be difficult for him to have a breakout season so long as the core of the team, the offensive and defensive lines, remain works in progress. The Redskins' offensive front is aging and has not been known in recent seasons for its enthusiastic pass blocking. Pete Kendall is starting his 13th NFL season, Thomas his 10th, Chris Samuels his ninth. Facing them across the line was a young and spring-legged Giants defense with eight of 11 players who have played fewer than four seasons.
This is not Zorn's fault -- he wasn't the guy who decided to address the Redskins' glaring needs in a lineman-rich draft by taking two wide receivers and a tight end with their first three picks. That bold move was the work of Cerrato. It's equally obvious that with no pass rush to speak of, the Redskins' cornerbacks and safeties are hung out to dry. Manning had enough time to barbecue steaks in his backfield. This was clearly not Zorn's affair, either.
What could be laid on Zorn was the way the Redskins finished a game they were still in. There was a lack of urgency, of quick striking ability. They assumed possession of the ball at their 10 with 6 minutes 12 seconds left, needing not one but two scores to pull out a victory. They ran 10 nondescript plays, netting a grand total of 58 yards, before the drive was stifled on fourth and 13 at the Giants 43, when Campbell scrambled and checked down on a pass to Ladell Betts for 11 yards, which would have been a very nice play except that it was two yards shy. Zorn said later he felt in control of the clock and the ball. "We'll try to get something better going there," Zorn said.
Zorn tried to see some good in the loss, which seems to be an emerging aspect of his personality. "I feel like we learned where we need to improve tonight," he said. "If there's anything positive, it's that. We saw where we are at. I'm trying to see the glass half full."
He paused, and then another emerging quality showed itself, that knee-jerk frankness. "I don't know if the cup's got water in it," he said, only half-joking.