Catching Everyone Off Guard

By Mike Wise
Monday, October 6, 2008


Did anyone see this coming, this runaway, freight train of a football team unhinging itself from the Armageddon Express that rolled out of Giants Stadium, oh, four weeks ago?

Raise your hand if you guessed its inexperienced, wide-eyed conductor, who on Sept. 4 looked like Forrest Gump with a challenge flag in his back pocket, would call a conniving draw play on fourth down and a long one yard -- with the lead, on the road and barely more than two minutes to play.

As Fred Smoot said, in a matter of words after yet another implausible NFC East road victory, Jim Zorn has some gumption.

And against Andy Reid, of all people, who only wrote the book on how to make the gargantuan jump from anonymous position coach to guru of a West Coast offense along the Eastern Seaboard.

Reid once was Zorn, before anyone believed a quarterback coach from Seattle could move into Joe Gibbs's old office and win at Dallas and at Philadelphia, lead a cornball cheer of "hip, hip, hooray!" and get his 20-something players to buy into that postgame chant the way they have bought into everything about Jim Zorn.

Did we mention the Redskins, barring a major injury, are going back to the playoffs? They are, and I don't want to hear anything to the contrary after this surreal 4-1 start. Not the tired, old, "Don't jinx them," or, "Norv Turner reeled off seven straight after losing his first game in 1996, and he didn't make the playoffs after finishing 2-6."

Immaterial. Norv in '96 did not have the luxury of St. Louis coming to FedEx Field next week, followed by Cleveland at home and Detroit on the road. Between them, that sorry NFL lot has one victory.

With that lineup, even conservative chalk puts Washington at 6-2 on Nov. 3, when Pittsburgh comes to town for the Redskins' lone Monday night appearance. Like everything left on the schedule -- including Nov. 23 at Seattle, which got spanked by the Giants yesterday -- the Steelers are now a very winnable game.

It's premature yet to talk of Tampa in February, but it is time for the last detractor to leave the thoughts of that malodorous opener against the Giants. There is no road to oblivion here; just a nice, healthy team with a good mix of kids and old heads, who are being led by an ultra-intense guy who didn't turn out to be Lane Kiffin, after all.

In virtual anonymity, as a Mike Holmgren assistant in the Pacific Northwest, Zorn was building a large bank of football knowledge -- patterns and possibilities that might not have ever been committed to an NFL playbook had owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of operations, not taken a monstrous gamble on such an unproven commodity like Zorn.

He resembled a naive figurehead at his introductory news conference, and it was easy almost to feel sorry for Zorn, taking over for a Washington icon like Gibbs, less than three months after Sean Taylor was slain in his Miami home, and barely after the abrupt dismissal of Gregg Williams -- everybody but Snyder and Cerrato's choice to be the next coach who went from the No. 1 candidate to handing out his résumé -- subsided.

Nine months later, hold the pity.

Zorn is not the new superintendent entrusted with the impossible task of fixing a crumbling and dilapidated school district. He's the coach of an offense helping to send a rejuvenated Clinton Portis back to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2002, who's giving Jason Campbell (now 2-0 as a starter here in the city of Bountiful Venom) the tools and trust to ascend to that elite level of quarterbacking Zorn experienced as a player with the Seahawks, who is secure enough to let Greg Blache, Joe Bugel and his other trusted assistants coach the elements of the game Zorn cannot.

When asked how he compared the memory of a Seattle teammate who was stung by a pellet fired from a pellet gun in the old Veteran Stadium stands to yesterday, out came the Zen of Zorn.

"Gosh, that was 1976," Zorn said. "I can't really say or compare to that today, which was awesome. I'm in the present moment. I'm in the now."

Mindful coaching. Conscious play-calling. Or, the spirit of the franchise's times, which now should be referred to as, "Zorngeist."

Approachable, likable, open and quotable, he's the anti-Belichick. His only drawback may be his unfiltered approach, the worry by management Zorn actually may diagram a play for the NFL Network before he uses it that weekend.

But so what? They won't know when yesterday's option pass from Antwaan Randle El to Chris Cooley for a touchdown is coming, just as they will have no idea when Portis looks as if he's ready to drop back in pass protection a second before Campbell tucks the ball into his stomach for a three-yard gain to send almost 70,000 people in green home angry and distraught.

"I'm not so sure he always knows what's coming -- and I'm not saying that to be insubordinate," said veteran guard Pete Kendall, who actually suggested a bootleg play to Zorn a few weeks ago his coach used. "He's definitely unpredictable right now. We've used a lot of different things to get us over the hump. Hey, he's a new play-caller. It's five games. At some point the computer algorithms are going to find some trend."

Meantime, hope and possibility grows for the legions of Washington fans worried sick about their team on opening night five weeks ago.

Snyder, who has to feel his risk of promoting an under-the-radar assistant such as Zorn has paid dividends, bellowed loudly as he came off the field before his team yesterday.

"Yeah, four and one!" the owner yelled, like the young fan he once was. "In Philly! In Dallas! Yeah Redskins!"

He slapped guys on the tush as they came through the doors of the locker room as if he were Gene Hackman about to take the floor for the finals of the Indiana state high school basketball championship -- albeit with black-tinted shades and a little more expensive suit.

The Eagles had earlier propped up Mark Wahlberg in a luxury box, hoping the actor who played Philly's own Invincible Eagle Vince Papale would channel the grit and perseverance needed to spark victory.

But, really, the only sappy sports movie that came to mind yesterday was "The Natural," when Robert Redford's character was asked what took him so long to reach the big leagues.

In hindsight, Jim Zorn, the 55-year-old rookie head coach who walked off the field victorious again, had a lot more Roy Hobbs in him than we figured.

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