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Zorn Establishes Himself

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 29, 2008

IRVING, Tex. Among the litmus tests passed down through generations of Redskins fans is the ability of new coaches to travel to hated Dallas and beat the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. For many, the first trip to Irving has been brutal, setting a tone that never changed. The last Redskins coach to win his first game in Dallas was George Allen in '71. Even Vince Lombardi lost his only game here for Washington. And Joe Gibbs lost his first time here in both his regimes.

Jim Zorn may not be a made man quite yet in this town. Seasons are long, much less entire coaching careers. But he's moving up the ladder awfully fast after a 26-24 victory over a Dallas team that's touted as one of the Cowboys' best and a Super Bowl contender. His offense controlled the ball for 38 minutes 9 seconds, outgained Dallas in yardage, 381-344, and did not commit a turnover. Perhaps most important, his attack had such balance between passing and rushing, while the Cowboys threw 47 times out of desperation, that the Redskins actually dominated this game by more than the final margin.

"I don't know whether I have a headache from calling plays or watching the clock at the end, wanting it to get down [to 0:00]," said Zorn, who sweated out the last 3:22 after a 29-yard Shaun Suisham field goal gave underdog Washington a 26-17 lead that hushed the huge crowd. "It's good to see that everybody is responding to this style of leadership. We're heading in the right direction. What does it mean as a [rookie] NFL coach? I mean, we just beat Dallas in Dallas."

With that, Zorn just stopped and grinned at the thought. Not bad for a guy who, nine months ago when he was introduced as coach, thought the team's colors were "maroon and black."

Can we officially and forever forgive that one now? This win stamped Zorn as part of burgundy-and-gold lore.

Seldom does an NFL underdog win on the road when it has rotten luck and, thus, ample excuse to fold. But the Redskins did it. On one third-quarter drive they had two touchdowns called back on penalties by center Casey Rabach and settled for a field goal. Such lost points have haunted plenty of Redskins teams since their last title after the '91 season. Instead, as they have for three straight weeks, the Redskins played with confidence, Zorn's core quality.

For the Redskins themselves, perhaps nothing matches the emotional explosion that follows a victory in this stadium, where so many bad memories are so fresh after a horrid 1-11 streak that is now dead. "That's big time there, baby," bellowed huge veteran tackle Chris Samuels as he went up the tunnel into the jubilant Redskins locker room. "Nobody thought we could do it."

Zorn called this a rare three-pronged win -- combining "players, coaches and the trainers who kept us going" as several players battled to stay on the field on a sweltering afternoon. The Redskins' head trainer, bulldog Bubba Tyer, now in his 37th year, yelled as he walked off the field, "I love it. That's the last game the Redskins will ever play in this [expletive] stadium. How about that!"

How about that, indeed? Even Zorn finds his team's rapid improvement remarkable. "The way we looked at the end of exhibition season and the opening game [against the Giants] -- actually more the way our offense looked, there's no way anybody could say, 'They're going to come into Dallas and just rip'em.' "

Then Zorn added: "Let me make clear that we didn't do that. This was a real close tough game. We're not going to the Super Bowl next week. We have to get better. I hope I get better. I hope you haven't seen my best yet."

Zorn still imagines his West Coast offense as faster paced and crisper than what the Cowboys could not stop. That is a bit scary since Jason Campbell outplayed glamour boy Tony Romo, completed 20 of 31 passes for 231 yards, two touchdowns and, for the fourth straight game, no offensive turnovers. How good is he supposed to get?

In part, Campbell is flourishing because Zorn has found way to feature his two most spectacular playmakers -- Moss and Clinton Portis -- far more than Gibbs could the past two seasons. "What did you get?" Zorn asked Moss as they passed in a hallway, much as he might have asked Steve Largent back in the day. "Eight [catches] for 145 [yards]. Keep 'em coming," said Moss. "You're the one who's doing it," said Zorn.

Portis is lit up large these days, too. Like Moss, he's in complete health, his legs back under him, as players say. In the third quarter, Zorn told him, "I've got to work you a little bit now." So Portis ended with 121 yards on 21 carries.

Has Zorn helped reinvent the Moss and Portis who, in '05, had 1,483 and 1,516 yards, respectively, with their receiving and rushing? Apparently so. At the season's one-quarter mark, Moss is on pace for 1,684 receiving yards and Portis 1,476 rushing. Chris Cooley and Antwaan Randle El are fine complementary weapons. But Portis and Moss, the breath-taking players from "the U," need to be central.

After this win, the temptation will arrive in Washington -- well before the Redskins team plane lands -- to anoint a team that is still evolving. At least Zorn appreciates how perilous this season seemed just three weeks ago and how vital it is that his team not be distracted by sudden praise. "After the Giants game, my hope inside myself was not to flinch," said Zorn, imitating a cringe that a quarterback under a tough rough might give. "I didn't want to act like, 'Oh, my gosh, now we have to redo everything.' "

Now, in 15 days, Zorn has bought himself time and credibility in his own locker room. A win in Dallas produces weeks' worth of faith, even if your next game takes you to Philly. "That will be tougher than this," said Zorn.

Regardless of what the Eagles bring, Zorn already has begun to show his sideline style, his demeanor as a coach. Where some leaders are icy or sublimate emotions like Gibbs, Zorn slams his play list to the ground when a third down play fails.

But the 55-year-old rookie also has a sense of himself during the game that many NFL coaches never master. Norv Turner couldn't hide his nervousness. Marty Schottenheimer looked grim, bordering on gloomy, in crisis. Steve Spurrier was often out of his league.

Perhaps because he spent so many years as a quarterback, Zorn seems comfortable stalking the sideline in his headset. He's on top of the play, or ahead of it, not a beat behind, as Gibbs sometimes was in recent years.

"I haven't felt out of control during games or out of touch with what's going on [around him]. I really messed up on a minute of the [opening] game," said Zorn, referring to the Redskins' inability to switch to a hurry-up offense late in the game. "I just have to keep trying to get better."

No doubt he, and his team, have much room for polish. But it is unlikely that any game in Zorn's time in town will be more vital to establishing him -- in the minds of his mammoth but sometimes fickle fan base and in the estimation of his players -- than what transpired this day in Dallas.

"How good do our players feel? They're exhausted. That was a brawl," said Zorn.

Many have come here for such a brawl. But it's been 37 years since any rookie Redskins coach walked out with a win. After all that the Redskins have endured for the last 16 years, anybody who doesn't want to call it an omen is just a spoilsport.

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