By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008
On the floor of the great, sweltering stadium Jim Zorn took congratulations. Wide receiver Santana Moss reached over and shook his hand. Others offered backslaps and for a moment the Washington Redskins coach looked bewildered. What to do after earning your first win as a head coach? Then as the scoreboard clock wound down yesterday, a mass of burgundy-helmeted players and cap-wearing coaches pushed him to the middle of the field, toward the man he had just beaten, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, who enveloped him in a half embrace, leaving Zorn's hair disheveled and a silly smile on his face.
"I don't really know how to act," Zorn said later, laughing as he faced reporters and used words such as "cool" and "tremendous" and "unbelievable" to describe key moments of Washington's 29-24 victory over New Orleans at FedEx Field.
There is something boyish about the Redskins' 55-year-old coach that is vastly different from his predecessor -- the more stately Joe Gibbs -- who seemed to know exactly what do to after every one of his victories and would never fill his news conferences with words such as "cool" and "tremendous" and "unbelievable." But for all the stylistic differences between the two men there seems to be a similarity to the kinds of games they are going to win: long and ugly affairs that appear for much of the day to be certain defeats, only to turn into wins at the final moment.
The team that last season pulled itself from a 5-7 disaster and the death of its best player, Sean Taylor, to win its last four games and crawl into the playoffs won a game that it looked destined to lose. With 10 1/2 minutes remaining and New Orleans holding a 24-15 lead all seemed lost for the Redskins. They had missed two field goals, showed little offensive cohesion in the critical area near the end zone, where touchdowns are a necessity, and looked unable to stop the Saints offense.
But much like last year, the Redskins came to life. It was 90 degrees at kickoff at FedEx Field and felt like 95 under sun. The Saints, in their black jerseys, appeared to wear down and it showed as Washington slowly moved downfield to score a touchdown that cut the New Orleans lead to 24-22. Then, with 3:38 left, quarterback Jason Campbell heaved a long pass toward Moss, who caught the ball on a full run and raced into the end zone untouched for the winning 67-yard score. The play, Moss said, "worked out for the best."
He wasn't kidding. Things had been dreadful for the Redskins in the days after their first game -- a 16-7 loss to the New York Giants 10 days ago that was much more lopsided than the score indicated. Zorn did not impress many fans with his game-management skills against New York, running plays without any sense of desperation late in the game when Washington needed two scores to win. Campbell also took a significant share of the blame for his seeming inability to grasp the new offense that Zorn installed this spring.
And yet despite the scorn, Zorn's upbeat, youthful front did not change last week. Players laughed and told jokes. The practices were crisp and sharp. Save for running back Clinton Portis's complaints that the Redskins' offense and its offensive line were putting undue stress on his body, it was as if Washington had won its first game instead of losing as miserably as it did.
Then came yesterday, and against the Saints the Redskins again struggled. While the offense looked better in the first half than it did in the opener there were too many missed opportunities, too many missed passes and the two missed field goals. The Redskins left the field at halftime to boos, trailing 10-9, a deficit that only got wider in the third quarter.
Until everything changed.
"The game's not over and the season's not over until it is really over," guard Pete Kendall said. "If we didn't learn that last year we won't ever learn that."
His point was echoed by defensive end Jason Taylor, who joined the team in a trade on the first day of training camp.
"It's very difficult to win the game in the first quarter or the second quarter or the third quarter," Taylor said. "That's the way this league is made."
NFL games often settle themselves in the final minutes. Much like yesterday's.
Of course the fourth quarter might have been a mirage for the Redskins. Perhaps the struggles of the Giants game and the first three quarters against the Saints are closer to Washington's reality than the final quarter yesterday. That will take weeks to determine.
But for a quarter the promise of Zorn's offense -- which emphasizes short, quick passes to control the ball -- came to life. Campbell, the quarterback many wanted replaced after the first loss, completed 24 of 36 passes for 321 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Redskins finished with 455 total yards.
"I think he grew this whole week," Zorn said. "He just continued what he was doing from the first half to the second. He didn't hit every throw that was there and I was frustrated because I want him to hit 100 percent of his throws, right?"
Yet even more significant than the growth of the quarterback was the growth of the coach who seemed so much more comfortable yesterday than he did the first night. Afterward he admitted that one of the most important plays of the day -- a fourth-down completion from Campbell to Moss that preserved the victory, was suggested by offensive assistant Chris Meidt shouting in his headset.
Meidt had spent the last six years coaching St. Olaf College in Minnesota, not in the NFL.
Just one of the many things that worked right for the Redskins in the game's final quarter. One that left Zorn gazing admiringly at the 88,246 fans as they cheered for him.
A moment he likely would have thought as "cool."