By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008
On the morning of Jan. 2, 2000, disaster had seemingly struck the Detroit Lions as they prepared for their game against the Minnesota Vikings.
The night before, their offensive coordinator, Sylvester Croom, had fallen so ill he had been taken to a Minneapolis hospital. Though he returned before kickoff and was asking to coach, it was clear to everyone in the room that he was too sick to work. Only a half-hour remained before the start of the game and the Lions had no one to call the plays.
Running out of time and needing someone to perform the team's most important function of the day, Detroit Coach Bobby Ross walked up to his quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn, and asked, "Do you think you could call the game?"
"Absolutely!" Zorn replied.
When the Washington Redskins hired Zorn as their head coach in February, it seemed such a dangerous move in large part because Zorn assumed the role of play-caller despite never having done so full-time as an NFL assistant. The worry was that he would be woefully overmatched. And yet all anyone needed to do was go back to the time the play sheet landed in his hand -- with time running down and the game about to start -- to know it would not be a problem.
"It was a very critical situation and he never got rattled," said Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, who was the Lions' tight ends coach that season.
Detroit would lose that game, 24-17, to a superior team in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums. But the defeat had little to do with Zorn's play-calling. When pressed to identify a critical mistake or penalty committed by the offense, no one could remember anything. The Lions lost for other reasons. Mainly because they lost their starting quarterback, Charlie Batch, halfway through the game and because they allowed Minnesota to build a two-touchdown lead.
"I was hoping it would work out well and we would end up beating them," said Zorn, who returns to Detroit on Sunday for the Redskins' game with the Lions.
It had been a horrible week for Croom. On Christmas day, his father, Sylvester Croom Sr., the chaplain for the University of Alabama football team, had suffered a stroke that would turn out to be fatal. Immediately Sylvester Jr. flew to Alabama to be with his father, returning to Detroit on Thursday to finish preparations for the Minnesota game.
On Saturday night, according to news accounts, Croom began to feel pains in his chest. Some team officials feared he might be having a heart attack, which is why they sent him to the hospital. Doctors later told reporters that Croom had a virus which was likely brought on by stress. When Croom arrived at the stadium he was besieged by migraine headaches. Smith remembers Croom, drained from the ordeal, retreating to a dark room where he sprawled across a table hoping the migraines would disappear.
When it was clear Croom could not coach, Ross called the offensive assistants together and announced that Zorn would call the plays. This made the most sense to the men in the room. Zorn worked daily with Batch. He also, as quarterbacks coach, had the best feel for what each offensive player was supposed to do.
After the meeting, Zorn sat down at a small row of tables set up behind the lockers and began to rewrite Croom's playlist. Each coach makes such sheets to his own personal tastes, since the most critical element is finding the desired play as quickly as possible. Since Zorn's system was different from Croom's, he pulled out a sheet of paper and patiently copied down every play by hand, making sure each was right where he wanted it. This impressed Smith, who was awed by the calm Zorn showed as he pieced his list together.
When Zorn was done he went to each offensive assistant and ranked the 15 or so plays dedicated to each situation -- first and 10, second and long, second and short and so on. While it is normal for offensive coaches to have these discussions, they are not usually done in the last few minutes before a game actually starts, with a new play-caller who had just spent 20 minutes carefully rewriting the entire playlist.
And yet this was Zorn.
"He's got a quiet confidence about himself," Smith said. "He doesn't get too high. He doesn't get too low. We didn't miss a beat."
Ross remembers feeling confident in Zorn's ability to call plays based on his experience as a starting quarterback for eight seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Still, it was a risk. This was Zorn's first job as an NFL position coach. He had been the offensive coordinator at Utah State for three seasons in the early 1990s, but that had been years before and in college. Could he really handle the offense by himself?
Ross, understandably, had concerns. Zorn recalls the coach approaching him every few minutes, each time with the same worried questions:
"Are you sure? Are you good?"
Zorn nodded assuredly.
"Yes," he said. He was sure.
Though Croom normally called games from the coaches' box in the stands, like most offensive coordinators, Zorn chose to stay on the field, which was his custom as the quarterback coach. This allowed him to go over plays with Batch before the quarterback ran onto the field. He also had the ability to speak to Batch through the helmet radio, allowing him to offer encouragement seconds before the quarterback took the snap from center.
Then Batch, who had his best NFL season that year, went down with 3 minutes 46 seconds left in the first half while throwing a pass to wide receiver Johnnie Morton. His hand hit the helmet of center Eric Beverly, re-injuring a thumb he had broken two months before. This forced former Redskin Gus Frerotte into the game. Zorn did not panic, said those who were there. He adapted the game plan to accommodate Frerotte and went on. Frerotte played well, completing 14 of 22 passes for 180 yards with an interception and a touchdown, but it wouldn't be enough.
The reviews on Zorn that day were strong. The coaches remember him being poised and confident. And Ross only questioned one call: a play when Zorn thought he could get away with a long pass downfield. The play fell apart and the quarterback was sacked.
"I wouldn't have called that play," Ross gently told Zorn.
Still, Ross thought enough of Zorn's performance to bring it up to Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren when Zorn interviewed for the quarterbacks coach job in Seattle two years later. He even urged Holmgren to consider making Zorn an offensive coordinator should the job become available.
Smith has such positive memories of Zorn from that day that for years he was sure the Lions won the game. It wasn't until he looked it up this week while talking to a reporter that he realized they did not.
Zorn did not change the plays Croom prepared. He didn't see the need. He never saw the game as an audition, his one chance to show the rest of the NFL that he should be an offensive coordinator somewhere. That was never the point to him.
"I didn't look at it as 'I can't wait to do the [media] interview after the game,' " Zorn said. "I knew we had a play-caller, Sly, and he was good. I was trying to do my duty."
Still he said the experience was "fun" and he treated it the way Zorn tends to treat a lot of things he does: as another great adventure.
Then he patiently waited eight years for the opportunity to call plays again.
"I think after playing, some football players are trying to duplicate the kind of intensity that you had as a player," he said. "I have found it in several sports like mountain biking. The intensity level is high in white water rafting. Even rock climbing, the concentration level and thrill of being on the rocks is exhilarating.
"Play-calling is very close for me."