Sally Jenkins: Casual Display Wears Thin on Redskins' Zorn

Santana Moss scores a pair of touchdowns, including an 80-yard score off a punt return, and Clinton Portis eclipses 100 yards agains as the Redskins upend the Lions to make it through the season's first half with a 6-2 mark.
By Sally Jenkins
Monday, October 27, 2008

DETROIT The two strongest personalities on the Washington Redskins belong to Clinton Portis, he of the kingly garb and brazen statements, and Jim Zorn, the head coach with the unpredictable flare and a steel trap for a jaw when he gets angry. Each of them is a vital actor on this team, which only made their tempest on the sideline against the Detroit Lions more conspicuous. It was a piece of public theater, and a view inside this team's developing drama, why it is 6-2, and liable to get better, maybe a lot better, unless it blows up first.

Afterward Portis stood before his locker clad in so many rich textiles he seemed upholstered, from his red cashmere V-neck to his gleaming red square-toed, soft crocodile shoes. He was the image of surfeit, after his fifth straight game with over 120 yards (126 on 24 carries), and he kicked up an exquisite loafer to show it off. "Feel it," he said. "Bend it. It feels fabulous." But what didn't feel so fabulous was the face chewing he got from Zorn while sitting on the bench in the second quarter. What exactly did Zorn say to him, anyway?

"You're digging too deep into things," Portis said.

What happened was this: On the first series of the second quarter, Portis took a couple of plays off to get his helmet adjusted, and sent his new backup, Shaun Alexander, on the field in his stead. Then he trotted back out without letting Zorn know why he had been absent. Zorn was livid. The Redskins were backed up on their 11, and trailing a winless team 7-3, and things seemed entirely too casual to him. When Portis returned to the bench Zorn stalked over and launched into a ferocious tirade. Portis snapped back a reply. Zorn delivered a few more choice phrases.

"We had a sweet exchange of words," Zorn said.

Portis bent his head under a towel and sat, motionless. Gradually, teammates leaned over and said comforting words. Ladell Betts spoke to him, then Chris Cooley. Santana Moss wandered over.

"You single-handedly get called out?" Portis said. "I got pride just like Coach Zorn got pride."

It was a small mistake, not having his headgear in order and not communicating. It could have been committed by anybody. But that was the whole point: Zorn lit into the league's leading rusher and the highest-paid player on the team for committing an apparently minor misstep. The last time something like this happened, it was the lowest man on the Redskins' totem poll, the rookie punter, whom Zorn bit into. Zorn's statement was clear: His organization will be the kind in which the smallest errors aren't tolerated, whether you are first or last on the roster.

The Redskins' penchant for misfiring is obviously beginning to eat at Zorn, the tiny miscues, penalties (eight for 67 yards against the Lions) and missed assignments that are holding them back. The Redskins are piling up yards -- 439 in total offense against the Lions -- and not getting nearly enough points out of them, and their 25-17 victory over the Lions was closer than it should have been. If a team with a 6-2 record can be called an underachiever, then that's what the Redskins are as far as Zorn is concerned.

"It's the underachieving in concentration, in situations of being careless," Zorn said. "If you have a letdown, the other team cannot only make it close, they can beat you. This game was close. Those are the little things that make a difference between a good team and one that's just fighting to keep its head above water."

It was probably inevitable that Zorn and Portis would have a confrontation. Portis is a great self-sacrificing runner, he scuttles, he bangs, he practically crawls for more yards. But there is a bit of a lingering question as to whether Portis is a great locker-room leader. He's a bundle of sensitivities, a walking dose of sodium pentathol, his innermost thoughts come babbling out of his mouth, and sometimes the result is delightful, and sometimes he can sound selfish and petulant, as when he complained earlier this season, "I get a lot of touches with nowhere to run."

Portis had an excellent relationship with Joe Gibbs, who gave him his way. When he wanted a lighter practice load in order to feel fresh, Gibbs granted it and then joked that Portis just wanted "to be in pajamas all week and show up and draw some stuff on the ground." Gibbs spoiled Portis a little, because he always appreciated how Portis sacrificed his body, and loved the fact that he not only didn't mind contact, he initiated it.

But Zorn is a different personality. He has a temper and is capable of fearsome explosions -- he had another in the media room after the game when he slammed his hand on the lectern in response to what he felt was rudeness from a reporter. He's an overtly frank, demanding coach and he doesn't coddle anyone, not even league-leading rushers with a touch of diva in them. Zorn's brutal frankness and Portis's exquisite sensitivity met squarely on the sideline.

It had never happened to Portis before: "Not with a head coach," he said. What wounded him was that Zorn acted like he was goldbricking -- like he wasn't there when his team needed him most -- and laid into him without asking for an explanation. "If there is some miscommunication, just come ask me," Portis said. "Don't point your finger."

If Portis and Zorn have one quality in common, it's emotional honesty. It's not a bad trait to have -- it's one often found on championship teams -- if it results in accountability. That's what Zorn is seeking. While it's great the Redskins are 6-2, it's the next six or eight games that will be far more defining. "It's very fragile, to keep a team going in one direction," Zorn said. "Very fragile."

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