Steady as They Go

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 22, 2008

For the second straight week at FedEx Field, the same encouraging images were visible on offense, the same hints of what a future under Jim Zorn might be. No turnovers, unpredictable play-calling, a pass off a reverse thrown by a flanker. Long drives to run out the clock and ice a close win. The Redskins themselves aren't certain yet, but they're starting to think the switch to a new coach may not bring with it the transition blues that so many feared.

Beating the perennially irrelevant Arizona Cardinals in a tight 24-17 game yesterday isn't sufficient reason to have a parade. Even winning back-to-back home nail-bitters over decent foes isn't enough to ensure the Redskins will enjoy their trips to Dallas and Philly the next two weeks. But a team that reached the playoffs two of the last three years now acts as if it will not necessarily have to take a giant step back just because Joe Gibbs retired in January.

"After the game against the Giants, we said the next two games were must-wins," said Chris Cooley, who gave himself good exposure, for a change, with seven catches for 72 yards. "If we continue winning, we will look back and say that this was when we became a good team."

Careful, Captain Chaos. Nobody should get giddy yet. These wins were important because they give the new regime breathing room as the schedule gets tough. Instead of worrying about coming back home with a 1-4 record and manic Redskin-mania doubts surrounding everybody, the team now has an entirely different possibility on its plate. What if it should beat the Cowboys or Eagles?

Few teams have needed home cooking more than the Redskins after two dismal losses to end the preseason and an awful offensive day at Giants Stadium. And few teams have taken better advantage of it. The Redskins opened the game with an 11-play, 60-yard drive. Once in the red zone, Zorn switched from power formations to spreads on almost every down until, finally, Clinton Portis broke an almost untouched three-yard touchdown run up the gut out of a four-wide spread formation.

Then, as the Cardinals packed eight men in the box, the Redskins gained just 42 yards on their next 18 plays over four possessions. By the time Arizona tied the game at 10 on a short field goal in the third quarter, the Redskins' offense seemed stalled, its momentum lost.

"They just got real stout against the running game," Zorn said. "So we had to change the pace."

For the past four seasons, Gibbs's teams were often unable to switch styles mid-game. Not so Zorn. On an 80-yard drive, the Redskins ran a 16-yard reverse by rookie Devin Thomas, completed four passes to Cooley, including one on a reverse pass thrown by Antwaan Randle El, and scored on a two-yard pass from Jason Campbell to obscure Todd Yoder. That final pass was on a play Zorn scrapped in disgust from the game plan because it never worked in practice. Yet he called it to grab a 17-10 lead.

Just as they did last week against the Saints, the Redskins dominated the fourth quarter, perhaps a testament to what Portis called "the most two-a-day practices in the history of football" in sweltering August.

The afternoon's pivotal play, with the game tied at 17, was a tipped pass interception by Carlos Rogers on which the defensive back, often teased for his bad hands, made a quick-reaction diving catch inches from the turf. "When you get a reputation [for dropping interceptions], our guys can be rough on you," Zorn joked. "What was most excellent was that [Rogers] didn't lay there and bask in his glory. He got up and made a huge play," returning the ball 42 yards up the right sideline to the Arizona 15-yard line.

From there, the Redskins showed what may be a new unpredictability inside their foe's 20-yard line, calling a flanker screen to Santana Moss for a 17-yard score.

"That's just love for any receiver," said Moss, who'd seen the play disappear in recent years. "I can be a beast somewhere else on the field. I'm loving the way we are throwing the ball all around. We attack that red zone now."

For far too many years since Gibbs I, the fourth quarter has not been the Redskins' friend. A boneheaded play or a bad break seemed enough to send the team into a spiral. Not the last two weeks. This time, the Redskins seemed to lock up the victory with a 68-yard scoring pass to Thomas.

However, an unnecessary roughness penalty on Stephon Heyer, for a forearm to the head of 285-pound Darnell Dockett far from the play, nullified the score.

"That could have settled the game for us. We can't have those plays," Portis said. Then, perhaps remembering that all 314 pounds of Heyer block for him, Portis added mischievously: "But Stephon pretty much whacked him out. That guy played dirty all day. I'm glad he got him."

Had Thomas's touchdown counted, Redskins fans might have been denied their first look at the fire inside Zorn. With 3 minutes 29 seconds to play and Washington leading 24-17, Shaun Suisham missed a 52-yard field goal try, giving Arizona field position. Before the kick, holder Durant Brooks, a rookie, signaled prematurely for a snap before the official had started the play clock. Confusion followed, maybe unsettling Suisham.

When Brooks returned to the sideline, Zorn went ballistic inches from his face, yelling, pointing his finger in his chest, and, for nearly a minute, imitating a smaller version of Mike Ditka in full snap. It took a cup of water from a coach and a walk by himself for Zorn to cool down. Gibbs showed less emotion in his whole career.

"What made me so mad, it was like we iced our own kicker," Zorn said. "I was pretty bent out of shape."

Redskins fans will probably enjoy the many sides of Zorn, who's more unguarded than Steve Spurrier and even seems to extend First Amendment rights to his players.

"Coach Zorn is an intense guy," said Campbell, who was 22 for 30 for 193 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and -- thanks for asking -- seems to like the West Coast offense. "When he's coaching, it feels like he's playing."

Sometimes, Zorn talks so fast to Campbell on his headset that he gets his words jumbled. "I had the frothing of the mouth on one play," said Zorn, grinning, "and Jason just waved at me like, 'Be quiet, coach. I got it.' "

If anything has changed, in just two weeks, it has been Zorn's willingness to give not only Campbell but all his senior players on offense input into the attack. "He's trusting us," Campbell said. Perhaps equally important, the Redskins' key skill personnel have been together for a few years. Continuity -- on the Redskins -- exists!

That chemistry, and more, will be tested the next two weeks. "It doesn't get any easier," defensive end Andre Carter deadpanned.

Because of the last two weeks, every Redskin smiled as he mentioned Dallas week. "I believe we're confident because we've won two games," Zorn said. "But I know the next big headline: 'Can they win on the road?' "

Actually, because of the last two impressive weeks, the Redskins don't have to head out on the road fearful of headlines. Instead, they can try to make some.

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