First-Class at Coach

By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Anyone who has seen the Redskins play six games this season has seen enough -- enough to know that they aren't over-hyped, enough to know the evidence suggests they can travel high and wide, and enough to know the reason is Coach Jim Zorn. At the risk of shocking Dan Snyder, your heroine would like to make an announcement: I'm jumping on the Redskins bandwagon -- and doing it coming off a loss.

That's how much I like the new guy, and everyone knows I haven't liked much about the Redskins the last few years, especially the management of Snyder. But he deserves praise, in elegant and intelligent language, for a smart hire in Zorn, who in the space of six games has proven as credible as he is likable. He's astute, tactically exciting, and he makes people believe. Under another coach it would be tempting to write the Redskins off as inevitably mediocre after a loss like last Sunday's to the previously winless Rams, 19-17. But Zorn has done something that didn't seem possible, which is to get the organization working together in a coherent, functional way. Whatever the problem is, you get the feeling that he'll fix it.

The whole of the Redskins' performance over a half-dozen games suggests that the Rams loss was the fluke, and not the other way around. The Redskins would have been happy to split their road games with Dallas and Philadelphia to wind up 4-2. But they got there in a much more interesting if confusing way: They won both, and then lost to one of the worst teams on the schedule. Which results more accurately reflect who they are? The positive ones. Without being too wildly optimistic, this is a substantive team.

Every important cumulative statistical category says so. Starting with time of possession, which is essentially a measure of their physical control: The Redskins have held the ball for more than five minutes longer per game than their opponents. They've gained 123 first downs to 99, and converted on four out of five fourth-down attempts, a testament to Zorn's calculation. Their 13 touchdowns have come with a near ideal balance of run and pass, six on the ground and seven in the air.

Above all, the Redskins do two things that signify a quality team. First, they run the ball down the opposition's throat -- better, in fact, than they ever did under the determinedly grinding Joe Gibbs, thanks to Clinton Portis's league-leading efforts. Second, they checkmate prolific offenses: They've beaten four of the five top passers, by yardage, in the league in Drew Brees of New Orleans, Kurt Warner of Arizona, Tony Romo of Dallas and Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia.

The Rams loss was a setback, but the fact is that some teams are more desperate than others from week to week in the NFL, and the close games are decided by emotional edge. The Redskins were due for a letdown upset after getting through the toughest-seeming part of their schedule 4-1, especially when they decided that 4-1 was actually 7-1. Meanwhile, the Rams were starved for a victory.

Apparently Zorn saw danger signs in a couple of practice sessions late last week, and so did Portis, who shares his coach's habitual emotional honesty. "The headlines got good, and guys started high-fivin'," Portis said. "Maybe we were thinking we have three games here that we can win. We hadn't thought ahead like that until this week."

Something similar happened to the Giants on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns. The Giants were unbeaten, the Browns were clawing for their existence, and guess who got walloped. "You can't go out and play at that level every week," injured Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said on ESPN. "Every once in a while there's going to be a lapse. They just ran into a team that was a little bit more determined to get a win."

After several seasons of fighting to get above .500, it's dangerous to label anything the Redskins do a mere "lapse" as opposed to a trend. The Redskins still have weaknesses that will take more than a single season to cure, chiefly a lack of depth, and they have a dangerous opponent this week in the Browns, who are on a two-game run.

But this much we know: how Zorn and the Redskins behaved the last time they suffered a sky-is-falling loss. After their dreadful opener against the Giants, a mortifying occasion for Zorn, I wrote them off prematurely, and was wrong. What I didn't reckon on was Zorn's combination of guts and flexibility: He absorbed the pressure without imploding, made strategic adjustments to help his young quarterback, Jason Campbell, with whom he's been unrelentingly demanding yet never downbeat, worked seamlessly and blamelessly with defensive coordinator Greg Blache, and maintained the confidence of his team.

There's something incurably frank about Zorn. He thinks aloud and wears his emotions on his sleeve. But as guileless as he is off the field, that's how guileful he is with a headset on. If the Redskins are a better team than in recent years, it's because they've hit on an infectious leader and absolutely superb play-caller who is shielding their deficiencies while showcasing their strengths. It's a fascinating thing to watch: Other teams know they should be able to attack the offensive line, pressure Campbell, and bottle up Portis, but they can't, because Zorn keeps them guessing so much.

Zorn makes everything easier, and everybody more confident, which is the surest sign of a good coach. Yes, it's perilous to make long-term predictions about the Redskins, whether positive or negative. As my friend Mike Wilbon warns, it's silly to make the "grandest of declarations after each football Sunday." I've done it before, and been boldly wrong. But I'm comfortable making this one about Zorn: It looks like the man who can get it done is finally in the house.

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