By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Everything about the play ran counter to Jim Zorn's offensive identity. It was based on pre-snap motion -- a diversionary tactic opposite Zorn's preference for a rapid-fire tempo -- and involved a single receiving option in a scheme predicated on diversity.
But the rookie head coach had a hunch that by changing his approach on second down, with the ball at the 3-yard line, he might exploit the Dallas defense. So with a stacked offensive line, he sent veteran wide receiver James Thrash in prolonged motion, having him stop quickly, cut back left -- a stutter-step move the Redskins call "disco" -- before breaking into his pass pattern.
Dallas star cornerback Terence Newman fell down trying to keep up, and Thrash galloped free into the end zone early in the second quarter before catching a pass from Jason Campbell to tie Sunday's game at 7.
"That was not necessarily philosophically aligning with what I think should be a successful play," Zorn said.
Yet the Redskins' offense never looked back in a 26-24 victory.
The play could have been from the Joe Gibbs playbook -- it had all the hallmarks of his offense and little of the look of Zorn's West Coast scheme. But the play revealed Zorn's adaptability, which has been at the core of Washington's 3-1 start and stunning reversal of offensive fortune.
"For me, I took the risk because when you have a one-man route you just take the risk," Zorn said. "That guy, if he doesn't win, you want to make sure you can leave yourself with the necessary call on the next down. . . . With that call I was saying: 'Okay, we're going for it. It's all or nothing here.' And it was successful."
Washington has produced goal line touchdowns on passing plays relying on motion each of the past two games, though Zorn bristles at the notion of those pre-snap machinations. He craves speed, wanting his decisive play-calling and quick offense to keep defenses off balance. Asking his offensive line to stay in a three-point stance so long, waiting for all of the shifting to conclude, causes him consternation.
"I don't like to be in motion that much, I really don't," Zorn said. "It's something we did this week. It doesn't mean it will be our new forte. . . . It's just got to be in the mix, if you will. Not a staple."
For four years, under Gibbs and offensive coordinator Al Saunders, pre-snap motion was the norm, and many Redskins players had the same reaction to that tactic then that Zorn does now.
With so much energy focused on running and cutting before the ball was in the quarterback's hands, players sometimes tired. Trying to master all of those theatrics, on top of Saunders's epic 700-page playbook, proved too tall a task. The volume and motion was suffocating; the Redskins were plagued by procedural penalties -- false start, delay of game -- huddles could be confusing and substitution issues were not uncommon.
Now, the goal is to break the huddle with haste, get set into position immediately and attack.
A sampling of player reaction to Zorn's motion-free ethos:
Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley: "The nice thing for me is that we don't shift in motion every play. I felt like last year I was running a play before every play. With all the shifts and motions, I was really tired. So that's nice -- we go up to the line and snap the ball."
Former Pro Bowl wide receiver Santana Moss: "Now we have a different offense, and there's going to be things we do a little different that will make us who we are. Me, personally, I hate the motion. A lot last year, and the year before, I probably ran more yards in motion than I did downfield. But when it comes [in this offense] I take advantage of it if it's going to benefit us."
Starting wide receiver Antwaan Randle El: "All the motion, that's something we didn't really like."
Quarterback Jason Campbell said he believes all of the motion in years past had a chilling effect on the offense. He prefers to get a quick read on a more stationary defense. Opposing defenses, rather than try to keep pace with the shifting or alter their approach to stay aligned with the movement, often just sit back with two deep safeties.
"Sometimes it's beneficial, like the pass to James Thrash," Campbell said. "Putting him in motion down there, I think was a smart idea. You've got to make sure you've got man or zone [coverage], and when you move down the field sometimes, and teams see you do a whole lot of moving around on offense, they just tend to play cover-2. They won't even move, and then you're just moving for no reason."
Thus far, save for some uncertainty in the opener at Giants Stadium and a botched drive late in that contest, Zorn is guiding this offense with aplomb. "He's doing an outstanding job right now keeping us balanced on offense," Campbell said.
Zorn is calling for passes to help cement games, not trying simply to run out the clock on the ground in the second half, and trusting his quarterback to make plays at crucial points in the game.
Where Saunders tended to dig into the far reaches of his playbook, sometimes dialing up a play that had not been practiced in weeks, Zorn is staying within the framework of the weekly prep work. "I've stayed true to calling the plan we have," he said.
Where once there was chaos, there now is, at times, certainty. "I'm not really hesitant in knowing what I want," Zorn said.
It's awful early for sweeping conclusions, but his players said they believe the play-caller's swagger is rubbing off on them.
"We play to win the game. We're not playing to keep it close," Campbell said. "We just keep attacking. We're not settling."