By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Jim Zorn was only weeks into his first training camp as an NFL head coach, walking off the practice field at his typically fast pace, when a reporter tracked him down. The questions centered on Zorn's play-calling script -- the first 15 plays he takes into every game -- and certain personnel groupings and formations he planned to use in that week's preseason game at Carolina.
The topic was the core of Zorn's offensive identity, the questions concerned his vision for the Washington Redskins. His eyes grew large, his natural inclination to delve into the possibilities of offensive football kicked in and he considered sharing some of his innermost thoughts about his version of the West Coast offense.
"I shouldn't tell you this," Zorn said, pausing for a few seconds, rocking back ever so slightly, his innate candor and honesty being balanced by every coach's protective instinct. He apologized, but some topics were simply off limits. The rookie coach may be the embodiment of openness in the world of NFL coaches, but a bumpkin he is not.
Zorn's frank and sometimes blunt appraisals of his players and team have been a departure from anything seen at Redskins Park in quite some time. Willing to reveal his thoughts about many intricacies of the game, he speaks almost exclusively in specifics. Seemingly unacquainted with coachspeak, he has been the antithesis of his predecessor, Joe Gibbs -- from the difference in their experience to their offensive philosophies.
Zorn's willingness to be himself has resulted in a more laid-back and relaxed culture around the team, players and coaches say, and never is he more opposite to Gibbs than in his public assessments of the Redskins. Whether critiquing the nuances of quarterback Jason Campbell's delivery; detailing why he called certain plays; explaining why he benched tackle Jon Jansen, the longest-serving player on the team; or skewering his own performance in his NFL debut, Zorn is Zorn.
"I try not to give up too much, I try not to expose everything," Zorn said. "But I just want to be honest about plays, and our players. I don't know if we've got too much to hide from that standpoint. I don't want to talk about schemes. I don't want to talk about how we design things and all of that kind of stuff. But when players play well, I want to talk about that, and when players don't play well, there's no shame in that."
There has been no pandering to the fans, no griping about the schedule, the officiating and injuries, no pleas for the greater Washington area to pray for a linebacker's hamstring or a receiver's bone bruise. Opponents are not reverentially praised. Conservatism has been replaced by a more aggressive swagger, with Zorn's call for a pass on fourth and two to kill the game late in Sunday's 29-24 win over New Orleans striking many as the polar opposite of Gibbs's approach.
Zorn, whose straightforward outlook grew when he played for Jack Patera, his first coach in Seattle, knows that if he fails, some will say it's "because I'm too honest, I don't say enough curse words." Nor can he be one person at Redskins Park and another away from it, not as a Christian, he says.
"One of the greatest things Christ ever said was, 'I came to set you free,' " Zorn said, delving into his spirituality only when prodded. "There's a freedom in Christ. That's why I can be honest and upfront, because I don't have this secret life. I don't go home and try to do something differently. I'm not mean to my kids or people who come over, friends, or someone doing work at my house."
After an ugly 16-7 loss to the New York Giants on opening night, his players were watching and listening. Zorn had botched some calls and failed to manage the clock adequately in the fourth quarter, and the next day he was quick to speak of wanting to punch himself in the face for making some poor decisions.
"As a professional we all have a sense of responsibility and accountability," linebacker London Fletcher said. "You want players to be accountable for the things they do, and you also want coaches to be accountable for the things they do as well. For him to point out the things he wishes he would have done differently, that says a lot.
"I know guys really appreciate the fact that he is very open and honest with you as far as things you need to do better, and the things that you're doing good. And that's all you can ask for."
It's not all touchy-feely, though. Zorn gets heated and animated with his players on the sideline. His first training camp was more rigorous than any since Marty Schottenheimer departed. While his style doesn't have the trappings of many of his counterparts in coaching, he is anything but soft.
"I want to win for many reasons," Zorn said. "For the franchise, for the Washington Redskins nation. I don't take that lightly at all. My intensity level to win, I couldn't muster any more intensity towards that. So I don't think anybody ever has to worry about how I view winning just because I'm upfront and honest.
"But the second thing with that is I want to have fun. Wouldn't it be a pain for [reporters] if you had to try to grind out of me what you're looking for for a story? That's no fun every day. Or me being dishonest and you guys have to try to go around me? If I can't answer a certain question, then I may say that I just can't answer that. But I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes."
A longtime quarterbacks coach far removed from the head-coaching radar, Zorn never adopted a pose just to gain attention. Going from relative assistant-coaching obscurity to joining President Bush on bike rides has not changed him.
Those who know him well say he is not far removed from the player who first quarterbacked the Seahawks 32 years ago.
"I don't think you can separate the coach from the man," said offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, Zorn's teammate in Seattle and close friend. "You are who you are, and so you do what you do. He's honest, so he's going to be honest. He can't put on his coach's hat and say, 'Well, I'm not going to be honest in this situation.' That's what you love about him: He's going to be himself."