A Case of Call and Response

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Jim Zorn does not swear, so he must devise a term to describe those moments in a Washington Redskins game when quarterback Jason Campbell comes to the sideline, the situation gone awry. "I get kind of 'grindy,' " Zorn said one day last month. He kept his teeth nearly clenched, his jaw tense and moving slightly front to back. Continue, and he might need dentures by season's end, his teeth withered to nothing.

There still are too many of those moments, Zorn believes, too many times when he has called the perfect play, one drawn up months earlier, repeated ad nauseam in practice, to be used at this precise time in this very game because the defense is suspecting something else. Those moments have happened in each of four games this season, too many to count, and as Zorn knows from his 10 years as an NFL player and 11 as a coach, "You never get the situation back."

Campbell and Zorn never will have this situation back, either. Each is afforded, in the other, the opportunity to build a successful career. One month and one day after they endured an unsightly debut together off the New Jersey Turnpike against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, they have authored three straight victories. Though none of those wins has come by more than a touchdown, the quarterback and the coach carry with them reasonable hopes of beating the Eagles this afternoon in Philadelphia. Campbell has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Zorn has called far more plays that have worked than those that haven't.

Yet Zorn still gets grindy. After every offensive series, Zorn meets with Campbell on the sideline. It is their office, yet there is no closing the door to the dozens of teammates or tens of thousands of fans. There, still, they discuss what each sees. Zorn often waves his hands. Campbell usually looks past his coach, making eye contact only occasionally.

"We're still learning each other," Campbell said. Each knows there is no more important relationship than the one that develops between Campbell, the small-town Mississippian who rarely raises his voice, and Zorn, whose days as an NFL quarterback were more than halfway over by the time Campbell was born.

At First, the Blame Game

The cacophony after the Redskins' opening game, after Zorn and Campbell tested themselves in the first meaningful way, was inescapable. In the days after the 16-7 loss, Campbell turned off televisions in his Leesburg house, tucked in a development off Route 7. The son of a high school football coach, Campbell stood in the midst of a hurricane that had no eye. "People say some mean things," Campbell said. But he shrugged, talking about thick skin and the nature of playing quarterback in the NFL.

"You know when stuff like that is going on," special teams captain Rock Cartwright said, "even if you say you're not paying attention."

Zorn, too, heard it. In the first NFL game in which he called plays and managed the clock, he did neither particularly well. He talked the next day about how he "didn't quite punch myself in the face," but came close. "It was our first time working together," said offensive assistant Chris Meidt, coaching his first NFL game, the man who sits above the field in the booth and is charged with helping Zorn manage down, distance and the clock. "Everyone had to improve."

The reality, though, is that two men would take the brunt of those gale-force winds. "When things don't go right, the first two people that get blamed is the head coach and the quarterback," Campbell said weeks later. "That's just how it is. That's just the nature of the business."

Part of that business, for both head coach and quarterback, is answering unrelenting lines of questions about how it all happened. Each Wednesday afternoon, Campbell takes his position at Redskins Park on the second step of crisscrossing staircases that connect the two floors of the utilitarian facility. It is his version of "Meet the Press," held before a collection of chairs and small ladders assembled in the minutes before this weekly summit. The ladders serve as perches for cameramen to stand on while allowing the crowd to fill in below them. On the first Wednesday after Washington's disorganized, disheartening loss to the Giants, six television cameras and two dozen media members began the interrogation.

"What," asked one microphone-wielding participant with the tone of a congressman at a committee hearing, "is it going to take to turn this around?" Campbell answered each question calmly, taking blame while emphasizing that "it's all of us." Just more than five minutes into the session, running back Clinton Portis appeared at Campbell's side. Portis was scheduled to answer questions later about the loss. The tension broke. He and Campbell joked and smiled.

"Jason, taking that much heat, I think could drive him crazy, you know?" Portis said later, after his own session with reporters. "I don't know if Jason is really made to take punishment like that. For me, on the other hand, that kind of heat [is] going to bring the best out of me. It's going to make me decide to say, 'The hell with y'all, kiss my [rear], and I'll show you.'

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