A Case of Call and Response
Zorn, Campbell Developing Winning Partnership in 1st Season Together

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.'

"But Jason, he might tuck, because that's the kind of guy Jason is. Jason's not a confrontational guy."

After the crowd had thinned and Campbell stepped off the stair, leaving the six cameras trained on Portis, he shuffled through a pair of swinging doors into the locker room, where his stall sits immediately on the right, a prime position he inherited just before the season. He offered a thought that belonged, perhaps at that moment, only to him.

"I'm comfortable," he said quietly. "I've been in this position before. I've seen things like this. I've just got to stay patient."

That week, Campbell placed a call to a house in Auburn, Ala. At the other end of the line was a 52-year-old career offensive coach. "It kind of feels like it did when we started out, doesn't it?" Al Borges asked Campbell.

Borges was Campbell's offensive coordinator his senior year at Auburn, the man brought in by Coach Tommy Tuberville to install a West Coast offense for the preposterously talented Tigers. Over the phone, Campbell and Borges talked about the similarities of both the systems and the situation. Zorn's West Coast offense is more sophisticated, and NFL competition trumps that in the Southeastern Conference, ferocious as it may be. But that season, 2004, Campbell quarterbacked an offense that did not lose a game.

Borges, who was let go by Auburn after the 2007 season, isn't coaching for the first time in 23 seasons. So he has time to watch the Redskins on television. After he hung up the phone with Campbell, one point seemed more salient than any other.

"He believed it was going to come," Borges said a week later. "One thing that's cool is he believes in the coaching staff. Not that he didn't believe in the last one, but he's convinced that this coaching staff can win football games, and that he can be a big part of that happening.

"Jason's not one of those guys that's going to start talking, 'What we should've done here . . .,' or anything like that. But still, I was struck by it."

Campbell's first week in Borges's system came four years to the day before his debut in Zorn's scheme. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 110 yards, an interception and two touchdowns. The opponent was Louisiana-Monroe. The assessment in the Alabama press the next day: "Bland." "Workmanlike." "Methodical." "Vanilla."

"I know that's not the NFL," Campbell said, back at his locker at Redskins Park. "But it also shows me that you can take steps in this offense. That's what I need to do, what we need to do."

In the cubbyhole in his locker, above where Campbell hangs the clothes he wears when he arrives at work around 8 a.m. and again when he drives his white Mercedes the seven miles home around 6, sits a small sculpture of a mountain. He got it in 2005, his rookie year, the year the Redskins traded up to take him in the first round of the draft, the year he did not play a snap, left in anonymity. Printed near the peak of the mountain is an acronym: "F.A.I.T.H." Below that, a saying:

Even the tiniest seed of faith Can move a mountain tall, So keep the faith, love your faith And share your faith with all

And at the base of the mountain, which greets Campbell as he dresses every day, it is written: "For Anything Impossible, Trust Him." In the week after the Giants game, with his television off at home and the bright lights of the public on him at work, Campbell said, "I pray on it."

One Voice Worth Hearing

That same day at practice, Campbell went through drills with the other quarterbacks, veteran Todd Collins and rookie Colt Brennan, just one bead in the string of monotony that makes up a football season. As the three labored over their footwork, Zorn bent at the waist, put his hands on his knees and stood over an equipment manager who served as the center, snapping balls. "Push!" Zorn shouted as Campbell dropped back. This kind of interaction was repeated at each practice in the ensuing weeks. Zorn oversees 53 members of the active roster, an eight-player practice squad, a 17-man coaching staff. In practice, even as he watches the special teams units work out or talks to defensive coordinator Greg Blache, he spends more time with Campbell than with any other person.

"I hear only one voice," Campbell said. "It's Coach Zorn."

Nine months ago, when he still was with the Seattle Seahawks, that was Zorn's lone job, to be the voice for the quarterbacks, the only position he coached. Now, in a situation in which he is responsible for everyone who takes to the four practice fields that sit in the low-lying area down a slope behind his office, Zorn still revels in dissecting and discussing the position. One recent afternoon, he was troubled by a reporter to turn a wide-ranging conversation back to Campbell and what is expected of him. "That's okay," Zorn said quickly. "I love talking about QBs."

"In games," said offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, Zorn's former teammate in Seattle, "he's thinking like a quarterback."

Maybe that's inevitable, because as much as Zorn is a multifaceted person -- mountain biker, husband, devout Christian, father, coach, hiker -- he was first defined to the public as a quarterback, back in the 1970s in Seattle. The quarterback gene is still so prevalent in Zorn that prior to the Redskins' game in Dallas, he joked with Campbell that he should be taking to the Texas Stadium turf, scrambling away from pressure. In the hours before that game, he stood in the sun at the 50-yard line, picked up a football and played with it on his left arm, allowing it to dance up and under and over as if it were alive, showing his familiarity with and affection for the object he used to sling around.

While his credentials for calling plays and running a team were picked apart after the loss to the Giants, Zorn said he had little doubt improvement would come. "The hard part of that game," Zorn said, "was having to examine -- so deeply and richly -- all the errors."

Like Campbell, Zorn had conversations in the week following his debut as an NFL head coach that were measured, leaving the panic to others. When he was hired to take over the Redskins, he inherited a defense led by Blache, a veteran of 20 NFL seasons. Special teams coach Danny Smith, entering his 14th year in the NFL, was on the staff in Detroit when Zorn coached quarterbacks there at the turn of the century. If Zorn had to help Campbell progress so the team could do the same, he felt like he had coaches around him who would allow him to do just that.

"It's not even a 60-20-20" split, Zorn said, trying to break down responsibilities by percentages. "It's a 40-30-30. There is some balance there."

Whatever the percentages, Zorn has an overriding quality when it comes to interacting with his staff. "Jim listens," Meidt said. So while Blache tried to shore up a defense that was, for at least one half, picked apart by quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and Danny Smith focused on rookie punter Durant Brooks, who had been shaky, Zorn, Sherman Smith and Meidt went to work on Campbell and the offense. They needed Campbell to improve physically, progressing from one receiver to the next more quickly and delivering the ball with the same speed. And they needed him to improve mentally. The latter had been a problem in the preseason, when Campbell frequently would return to the bench -- to his office, where Zorn always appeared -- and lament plays that had come one or two possessions earlier.

"That happened four plays ago, man," Zorn said he would say to Campbell. "That thing's over. . . . Where is all this coming from? Let's not worry about that stuff."

"The guy wasn't sure yet," Sherman Smith said of Campbell. "It's like driving in a new town. You just don't know your way around. But after you been there a while, you can zip around."

By the Wednesday practice after the loss to the Giants, the first true day of on-field work before the second game of the season, the home opener against New Orleans, Zorn noticed a difference. "The speed picked up," Zorn said that Friday. By that day, Vinny Cerrato, the club's executive vice president for football operations, started to get a better feeling. Only five of Campbell's passes in the three practice sessions all week had hit the ground.

"You know," Cerrato said, "that teaching is taking place."

The difference, players said, was striking. "He's spitting that ball out of there," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said of Campbell that same day. "He looks different, more comfortable."

Trusting Each Other

When Campbell stood in the oppressive heat at FedEx Field, late in the afternoon of Sept. 14, there was little telling what questions were to come in his future. The Redskins trailed New Orleans by nine points. It was the fourth quarter. He had just been sacked. He huddled his team in his own end zone. An 0-2 start appeared imminent. Neither was thinking about it at the time, what with another play to call and execute, but at that moment, Zorn and Campbell faced another long, difficult week of public doubt and private introspection.

There was disarray, too. The Redskins faced a second and 22 from their 6, and fullback Mike Sellers and Randle El, one of the receivers, mixed up signals about who was supposed to come in and who was to stay on the sideline. Zorn and the coaches, they said later, had confused the personnel group. "It should have been a penalty," tight end Chris Cooley said, because the Redskins broke the huddle with 12 players.

Finally, Sellers sprinted off. Still, the play call included the word "double," which means both potential receivers to Campbell's right were to run straight downfield, parallel to each other. The problem: Cooley, Randle El and another receiver all lined up on that side. Given the play called in the huddle, Randle El was supposed to be on the left. But it was a play called for a different formation.

"We called double," Cooley said, "and we had a triple formation."

The play clock was running down. "I'm going, 'What's going on?' " Zorn said. But Campbell handled it. He kept Randle El to his right, because moving him would have taken too much time. Given that formation, Randle El should have run a crossing pattern, designed to take defenders away from Cooley and the outside receiver. Instead, he ran a "go" route, straight downfield, parallel to Cooley, who was inside him, but not by much. "How I got open is an unbelievable question," Cooley said. "The safety should have been all over both of us."

How Campbell found him is something, come Monday's film session, Zorn wanted to know, too. Campbell, straddling his own goal line and taking the snap as the play clock read "2," threw the ball precisely where Cooley wanted it, over his inside shoulder. A dire situation became a first down. The play turned around that drive, that game and maybe the season. "He helped me out of a bind," Zorn said the next day. Even three weeks and three wins later, Zorn called the play "a huge lift" for Campbell.

Six plays later, the Redskins scored. On the ensuing possession, Campbell threw the winning touchdown pass, a bomb on which Campbell ducked his right shoulder underneath oncoming tackle Kendrick Clancy, reset his feet and heaved a spiral on a perfect arc into the waiting arms of Santana Moss. That play, too, offered a significant connection between Campbell and Zorn, because when the coach began offseason practices, he did so by having blocking bags hurled at his quarterbacks, synthetic pass rushers pursuing Campbell long before the season started.

"That's all I could think of," linebacker London Fletcher said in the locker room. "Those are the drills I saw them doing early in the offseason, dipping the shoulder to avoid the pressure. That says a lot about Jason and Coach Zorn."

Yet the situation was incredibly fragile. If any in a series of things had gone in the other direction, even on that one play in which Campbell and the Redskins faced second and 22 -- a penalty was called for too many men on the field, the Redskins had used a timeout, Cooley hadn't carried out his route because Randle El was nearby -- the Redskins could have lost.

"In reality, it's one play," Zorn said weeks later. But in Campbell's mind, it went back to something he had asked for in the week before that game: Trust. Zorn did not call a timeout. "I didn't help him," he said. " We didn't help him." Campbell, rather, helped himself.

"I need to trust him," Campbell said. "But he needs to trust me, too."

New Set of Questions

Last Wednesday at Redskins Park, Campbell stood on the same step on the same staircase he had occupied three weeks earlier. He faced the same six cameras, the same two dozen media members. The questions were completely different. He was asked about Philadelphia's defense, then about Philadelphia's defensive ends. (He has respect for both.) He was asked about potentially breaking Joe Theismann's franchise record for consecutive passes without an interception. (He never really thought of it, even if he needs just 16 more throws.) He was asked about the atmosphere in Philadelphia. (Last year, the Redskins' bus was egged.) Eventually, he was asked, "Is there a sense you guys could be starting to build something special?"

So at one point early in the session, Jason Campbell, who has made all of 24 NFL starts, reminded everyone assembled, "We really haven't accomplished anything yet." Later in the afternoon, Jim Zorn, who has served as head coach in four regular season NFL games, provided another gentle reminder.

"There's some tough roads ahead, and we've got to go down them," Zorn said. "I just want to make sure I don't create this," and with that, he stood straight and tall, puffed up his chest and stuck out his chin, "this how-do-you-like-me-now type of attitude."

Early in practice, the players broke into their position groups. Zorn, Sherman Smith and Meidt remained with the quarterbacks. And as they began to go over their footwork, Zorn bent at the waist, put his hands on his knees and stood over the equipment manager who served as the center. Campbell dropped back, threw a pass, and Zorn rose for a word with his quarterback. They stood, for yet another moment, together, two men whose development will go a long way toward determining the success of both a season, and their careers.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company