Zorn's Play-Calling Style Has Substance

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Late on a Sunday afternoon three weeks ago, Washington Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers lunged under a tipped pass at FedEx Field, cradled it into his arms, popped up and rumbled all the way to the 15-yard line of the Arizona Cardinals. The game was tied early in the fourth quarter. Head coach Jim Zorn, whose offense had come off the field just three snaps earlier, instantly changed modes. The meeting with his quarterback, Jason Campbell, had to end immediately. The chatter with his assistants, in person and over the radio, was over. There was a play to be called.

If there is one element that defines Washington's unexpected run to four victories in its first five games, it is the decision-making of the rookie head coach, the man in the headset who must determine which plays to run and when to run them. In replacing Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, whose critics often accused him of predictable and conservative play-calling, Zorn has delighted his team and confounded opponents, thus far, with an aggressive mix. His own offensive players said they often have little idea what to expect at a given moment. How, then, could defenses?

Against Arizona, after Rogers's interception, the outcome would be determined at least in part by what plays Zorn chose. He summed up his attitude about making those selections this week as he prepared his team for today's home game against the St. Louis Rams: "I'm not afraid," he said.

Never mind that his only stint doing this in the NFL was for a single game more than eight years ago with the Detroit Lions, when offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom suffered chest pains the night before a date with the Minnesota Vikings. Zorn, then the quarterbacks coach, was left with the duties for the day, and the Lions lost. Never mind that after the first week of his head coaching and play-calling career in Washington, a dreadful loss to the New York Giants, people wondered whether he was suited for either role.

Never mind any of it. Zorn said of all the aspects of his new job, play-calling is among the most comfortable. "It's natural," he said. He called plays as a quarterback in Seattle, before offenses grew more complex and coaches took that right away from players. He called them as the offensive coordinator at Utah State, and he still remembers the Aggies averaged 442 yards per game in the 1993 season. He called them in his mind as an assistant back in Seattle, even though head coach Mike Holmgren had the responsibility during Zorn's seven seasons there.

"He's playing the game," said Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, who long ago played running back behind Zorn, back when the coach quarterbacked the Seahawks. "He has a feel for it, just a sense of, 'Hey, this is the one.' "

And if he happens to select the wrong one, if the feel slips away for a moment, he has one message for his players.

"I tell our guys to take care of the football," Zorn said, "because I just want the opportunity to call the next play."

Planning Ahead

It is simply not enough to call that next play, though. The nature of the NFL forces a play-caller to think one or two downs ahead. Plays are not selected in a vacuum, for one should lead to the next and set up another, and by the fourth quarter, a tapestry has been woven. Some threads have been used, others saved for special moments. Against Arizona, with the ball turned over and the Cardinals now under duress, there came a chance to get out one of those plays Zorn had hoarded.

But which one? The Redskins typically enter a game with about 100 plays, Zorn said. There are usually between 45 and 48 passes for first or second down, plays chosen during game-planning meetings Monday and Tuesday. Add in 15 run plays in a given week, throw in all the different formations from which the same plays can be executed, and Zorn and his staff have a base offense from which to start.

But the card Zorn holds on the sideline during the game -- white, laminated, printed on both sides, large enough that he can use it to cover his mouth when speaking, lest spies from the opposition excel at lip-reading -- contains much more. There is an entire section devoted to third down, another devoted to short yardage, still another devoted to plays when the Redskins are approaching the goal line.

So after Rogers ran his interception back deep into Arizona territory, Zorn flipped to his red zone section, reserved for plays to be run inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Even that is broken down into five-yard increments, plays to be used between the 15 and the 20, between the 10 and the 15, and so on. "I don't want to be searching," Zorn said. If there is chaos, there can be no rhythm.

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