Zorn's Play-Calling Style Has Substance
Rookie Head Coach's Aggressive Mix Keeps the Redskins Out in Front

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.

"When we hit game days, no one's guessing," offensive assistant Chris Meidt said. "It's really well organized. It's not up to chance."

Typically, between possessions, Zorn will consult with his assistant coaches. Smith is in charge of the running game, and he sits in the press box, available to Zorn over the headset that runs through a box clipped to Zorn's belt. Zorn, on the sideline, will flip the switch that allows him to toggle between the offensive and defensive coaches. "Can I get some runs?" he'll ask Smith, and the coach will come up with his three best running plays as possibilities for the next possession. Zorn will file them away. Meidt, who works with Zorn in the passing game, might chime in as well. Zorn is left to look at his card, to consult with Campbell, to figure it out.

"You don't want to be talking to him all the time," Smith said. "That could mess things up. We give him input when he wants it. But you know, we got it down on paper, so a lot of it is just, 'Hey, there it is right there.' "

There are plenty of times when the play that's right there isn't one that works. So Zorn said that as he considers the flow of the drive, he first thinks about what happens if his call backfires, or if the players don't execute.

"It's the worst-case scenario," he said. "That's the play I'm really working on."

Thus, his mind contains divergent paths. What if this doesn't work? What if it does?

It's easier, Zorn said, if the play is executed perfectly, because then the offense flows, the defense is backing up, and the man with the microphone and the box attached to his belt can stand on the sideline calmly and do what he likes to do best, dictate to the opponent.

"I'll have a track that I want to go if it does work," he said. "I already know. I've already got four or five plays in that drive in my brain. I've talked it through. I know where I'm headed. I know where I'm going."

Unconventional Approach

Events, though, won't always follow. Last week against Philadelphia, the Redskins trailed 14-3 in the second quarter and had a first down on their 38-yard line. Zorn called a play-action pass. "But I couldn't predict that they were going to blitz," Zorn said, "and I couldn't predict that it would be from that side."

A crush of Eagles, led by safety Brian Dawkins, flew in. Campbell was sacked easily, a nine-yard loss. Yet, Zorn reached for the box on his hip and pressed the "QB Mash" button, which pipes his voice directly into a speaker in Campbell's helmet. "Great job," he said. Zorn's play blew up, but Campbell secured the ball. It's a message Campbell heard in minicamp, in training camp, throughout the preseason. "I got a play," Zorn said he would tell Campbell. "I already know what I'm going to call, so just give me another chance."

"A lot of coaches, they harp on you, they fuss at you not to take a sack when there's nothing you can do about it," Campbell said. "He's the opposite."

Given another chance against Philadelphia, Zorn called a pass to tight end Chris Cooley, followed by another that ended up in the arms of wide receiver Devin Thomas. Second and 19 turned into a first down. The Redskins were off on a drive that ended in a field goal.

Against Arizona, Rogers's interception gave Zorn a chance to call the plays that might secure a win. On first and 10 from the Cardinals 15, Zorn went with a run to the right side, one suggested by Smith. It went nowhere. Clinton Portis was dropped for a two-yard loss. Second and 12 at the 17. Worst-case scenario.

Zorn looked at his sheet, and Campbell awaited the call. "You never know what might happen," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "Sometimes we get in the huddle, and Jason calls the play, and we're like, 'Dang.' "

Zorn defines his play-calling philosophy most frequently with one word: attack. He believes in that even in those situations when the previous play failed. He did it against the Eagles, closing the third quarter by consecutively calling the same run play, albeit out of different formations. Portis was stuffed for no gain the first time. Zorn said he thought to himself: "Okay. They couldn't possibly think we would do that again." Portis gained nine yards.

Zorn, then, occasionally makes some unconventional choices. He said he ran that play to Portis in part to show his offensive linemen he still believed in them. Over the course of these four straight wins, Zorn has helped the Redskins seal victories with stomach-roiling calls on their final possession.

Against New Orleans, he selected a pass to Moss on fourth and one, knowing an incompletion would have given the Saints the ball. Against Arizona, he called for Campbell to roll out on second and seven and look for Cooley, risking the Cardinals sniffing it out. Against the Eagles, he allowed Portis a chance to convert a fourth-and-nearly-two situation on a draw, even though, as guard Pete Kendall said, "Conventional wisdom probably says you take a delay of game penalty, give your punter some more room, and let the defense take over."

In all three instances, the Redskins converted. The opponent never got the ball back. For an offense, there is no better feeling. Asked to describe Zorn's play-calling style, Campbell responded enthusiastically.

"Relentless," he said. "Not playing to keep the game tight. Not playing to not lose. Playing to win, and just letting it all hang out."

The Right Stuff

The Cardinals game was still tied when Zorn and the Redskins faced second and 12 from the 17, the clock ticking toward 12 minutes left. Zorn looked again at the red zone section of his play sheet, specifically at plays the staff selected to run between the 15- and 20-yard lines. There it was, staring straight back at him. The perfect fit.

Portis said there are moments in practice when Zorn's brash confidence in his ability to pick a winning play comes out. On Thursdays, when the red zone package is installed, the Redskins will get maybe six plays into the script when Zorn will chime in, "This is our touchdown play." It happens, too, in games. The highlight reel of the first five games of Zorn's career is already full of moments when he rips the headset from his graying hair, when he bounces up and down in frustration, when he waves that white card frantically. But for his players, the moments that define Zorn as a play-caller come more with a sly grin.

"When somebody calls a play and starts smiling like, 'This is it. This is the play right here. I'm telling you, this is going to happen, and this is where we're going,' " Portis said, "it's like, he really knows his stuff. It's exciting."

Here, then, on second and long against the Cardinals, Zorn figured Arizona would play press-man coverage against Washington's receivers, putting pressure on them immediately at the line of scrimmage. Zorn sent in a personnel group that included two tight ends, a single back and two wide receivers. The play was designed for Moss, lined up on Campbell's right. Just before the snap, Moss turned and took a couple of steps toward the ball, a touch of motion.

"We just knew if they're playing press coverage," Smith said, "the motion we had with it, he's going to get freed up. We'll get a block, and we'll get him one-on-one."

When the ball was snapped, Campbell turned to immediately fire it to Moss. Cooley, the tight end on that side, and right tackle Stephon Heyer instantly released downfield, their objective to get ahead of Moss, to throw a block that might spring him. "He just needs to make one man miss," Smith said. Cooley sealed off cornerback Roderick Hood. Heyer blocked linebacker Karlos Dansby, forcing him outside.

From behind the line of scrimmage, Campbell watched. "You could see it opening up," he said. "I could see, right after Santana caught it, that it was the right play." Moss was off, a foot race with defensive end Travis LaBoy.

"There's not something that he won't call," Moss said weeks later. "Before, there was stuff that we had in the book, but we just wouldn't do it. For some reason, it was like that. Now, if we have it, we're going to call it. We're not going to hold anything back."

LaBoy had no chance of catching Moss. The play ended with Moss lunging into the end zone, the tiebreaking touchdown. On the sideline, Zorn pumped his left fist. Joe Bugel, the veteran offensive line coach who served so long under Gibbs, turned to his new boss. From yards away, Bugel pointed, an acknowledgment between coaches that, at precisely the right moment, Zorn had selected the right play. He was, indeed, not afraid.

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