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.
The Redskins amassed 455 yards, more than in any game in 2007 under Gibbs, while Campbell completed 24 of 36 passes for 321 yards and a 104.1 quarterback rating, a mark he only topped twice last season. All week, Zorn and Campbell reinforced to each other that they had to trust each other more, not wait so long to believe that they had installed their attack enough to let it rip.
And Zorn piled on the information. "At timeouts I'd say, 'Jason, remember, you've got this [play] and you've got this.' One time I got on the headset and said, 'I know I'm being a nervous Nellie but don't forget this play, too.' "
In the end, the biggest play of the game was a combination of Campbell's talent and, perhaps, Zorn's months of hounding the quarterback to learn that, when pressured, he must instinctively "avoid, reset and throw."
Trailing 24-15 with 9:57 to play, the Redskins faced second and 22 from their 6-yard line after a sack of Campbell. The Redskins looked dead. Almost. Instead, Campbell, who had consistent success from the shotgun, took a normal drop back from center, evaded pressure near his own goal line and rifled a 23-yard rope to Chris Cooley. The rest of the drive was child's play.
"The West Coast offense is about working all the way across the field if the first and second reads aren't open," said Campbell, who had plenty of time all day, perhaps because the Saints were without three starters on defense.
Throughout his brief, 22-start career, Campbell's trademark, if he has one yet, has been the near-miss comeback. "We've had games where we fought and fought and came up short -- like the [losses] at Dallas and Tampa last year," said Campbell, who threw late interceptions in both games. "In all the games I've started, I've probably lost all but one [against New England] by five or less."
Has that pattern changed? And, if it does, will Zorn get the benefit of the doubt as being a key factor?
One final, and perhaps most important question, needed an answer in this game. On the hottest day in Washington for the Redskins since 1996, would Zorn's team be better conditioned, the tougher bunch, in the second half? Would they stick beside him when his coaching did not look great?
That answer was resounding. The Redskins had plenty of reason to wilt. They outplayed the Saints in the first half, yet trailed 10-9. When Reggie Bush broke a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown with two seconds left in the third quarter, that score might have broken the Redskins' will. Especially since Zorn's unsuccessful decision to go for a two-point conversion with 20 minutes to play backfired, leaving the Redskins two scores (nine points) behind.
Instead, the Redskins stepped up, not back. "We left a lot of points on the field" in the first half, said Clinton Portis. "During halftime, Coach Zorn told us to keep fighting."
Every new coach asks for fight and every team gives it -- for a while. But early results can determine where a team keeps fighting all season and how confidently it battles in the close games. Now, the Redskins not only have a victory but a first-rate comeback, even in the face of booing from their own fans at times.
On his first home game as head coach, Zorn presented a complete contrast to Gibbs, who loved to delegate. Zorn was so excited he wanted to do everything himself, even telling the guys who held the shades over players on the sideline to get ice on their elbows at halftime so they wouldn't be too tired to keep his players out of the sun.
All too soon the first win fades and the next one must be added. "It's just one win against a good team. We defended our house," said defensive end Jason Taylor. "Now, we have 14 more."
Somehow, against the backdrop of the last 15 years and amid the doubt and curiosity that has surrounded Zorn, this victory seemed to count for more than just one win.