One to Rally Around

Redskins Coach Jim Zorn has a word with Drew Brees after the game.
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn has a word with Drew Brees after the game. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 15, 2008

As the clock ticked toward zero and victory became a formality, Jim Zorn looked for people to thank even as players pushed toward him to give congratulations. The new Redskins head coach saw craggy offensive line coach Joe Bugel and threw an arm around him for a hug, the new regime and the last best vestige of the old embracing.

Then Zorn, who threw 111 touchdown passes in his NFL days, took off his cool sunglasses and embraced Santana Moss, who caught the 67-yard bomb with 3 minutes 29 seconds to play that gave Washington a 29-24 win over New Orleans. Finally, he wandered, happily, off the steamy field, his first head coaching win at any level of football in the books at age 55.

"Tremendous. I don't really know how to act, but I'm very excited," Zorn said. "I wish I could enjoy it for the next four or five days as much as I had to endure the last week" after an opening night loss to the Giants. At one point, Zorn just summed his feelings as, "Wow!" But perhaps even he doesn't grasp what impact this one game, and the way in which it was won, may have on his tenure here.

New Redskins coaches can get buried in a hurry. Once they do, their task of digging out, regaining credibility and getting everybody off their back can be doubly difficult. In fact, for the last 15 seasons, it has proved to be impossible.

Since Joe Gibbs's first departure after the 1992 season, the repeating story has been one new coach after another arriving in a tough town, then finding his abilities doubted instantly. Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Gibbs himself, in his second tour of duty, all got off to abysmal beginnings -- 1-6, 1-6, 0-5, 2-4 and 1-4.

All except Gibbs took multiple early-season drubbings by huge, unnerving margins. With confidence cracked early, not one of these coaches (including Gibbs II) ever had a single day when his career Redskins record was over .500.

That's why Zorn's first win was so important. In one Sunday at FedEx Field, he answered numerous questions that bedevil every rookie coach, but which might have haunted him even more since he was an unexpected choice.

Could his team come from behind to win or, like so many Redskins teams in recent years, would he be nagged with narrow near-miss defeats? Gibbs had a spirit-rending 14 losses in overtime or by three points or less.

Trailing by nine points with 10:36 to play, Zorn's Redskins yesterday marched 82 yards for a touchdown, then hit that Jason Campbell to Moss bomb to go ahead. They converted a gambling fourth-and-two pass with 1:58 to play to ice the game. In other words, that's just about everything that recent teams could seldom do with the game at stake.

Perhaps because of all his years as the Seahawks' quarterback, Zorn seemed comfortable with the speed of decision-making in the fourth quarter -- a Gibbs flaw. "As a coach, I get the full hurricane force of the winds -- up and down and up again," said Zorn, who calls the plays. "I told myself, 'Just continue to concentrate on the next play.' "

Zorn waited all game for the situation to call the bomb to Moss against a Saints blitz. The coach explained the thought process then laughed. "I'm patting myself on the back but it's all bogus," he said. "They made the play."

Everyone in town, especially the Redskins themselves, wondered if Zorn's version of the West Coast offense could pile up yards -- against anybody. After two lopsided losses to end the preseason, followed by a dismal opening loss to the Giants, could the new attack function effectively with Campbell in charge? Silly us, for doubting.

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