By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
DETROIT, Oct. 26 -- Jim Zorn looked frustrated on Sunday. He squinted and pursed his lips. He snapped at his star running back, Clinton Portis, during the game. And he pounded the lectern during his news conference afterward, using the phrase that might be the most profane in his vocabulary -- "I'm getting ticked off" -- over a misunderstanding with a reporter.
It was a face many around the Redskins had not seen of the coach who has been the picture of wondrous enthusiasm the first two months of the season; forever preaching a mental state neither too high nor too low, one that he calls "medium." But as the season rolled to its halfway point and staying "medium" has pushed the Redskins toward a surprising 6-2 start, the stakes have risen. Simply winning is no longer enough. The Redskins are piling up victories, but they don't feel they are playing well enough to deserve them.
On Sunday they struggled to a 25-17 victory over the Detroit Lions, who might be the worst team in the NFL. In the Lions' previous six games this season, they had fallen behind by a combined score of 110-0. It was the kind of team Washington's players believed they should have beaten by 20 points. Instead, the Redskins trailed 10-6 at halftime and had to rely on a punt return for a touchdown by wide receiver Santana Moss and a late tackle by linebacker London Fletcher to win the game.
"I would love to be relaxing at the end of the fourth quarter in just one of these games," Fletcher joked of a season in which every Redskins game has not been decided until the very end.
Often football players and coaches celebrate every win, forever repeating a tired mantra that it is never easy to win in the NFL no matter how meager the opponent. But Washington has found itself in the position of having to survive each week, even losing recently to the St. Louis Rams, who were winless at the time. Yet no afternoon was more agonizing to the Redskins' players and coaches than Sunday's. Statistically the game wasn't close: The Redskins had 165 more yards than the Lions, held onto the ball for 11 minutes 30 seconds longer, ran 13 more plays and still had to fight until the very end for the victory.
Which is why Zorn seemed so agitated after the game.
The players "are frustrated and I'm frustrated, too," he said. "It's knowing what we can do. When we have a chance to score 30, I'd like to score 30."
The Redskins probably should have scored more than 30 points against the Lions. Ten times Washington had the ball on Sunday and on nine of those occasions it pushed into Detroit territory, but had only had two touchdowns and four field goals to show for the effort. The culprit was penalties -- eight of them -- and sloppy mistakes that seemed to come at "critical times," Zorn said. Such things will drive a coach mad. And Zorn certainly was more annoyed than usual.
"I take it personally because I call the plays," he said.
It is perplexing to the Redskins how every game has become a fight for survival. They have beaten the Cowboys and the Eagles on the road and pulled out wins over potential playoff teams Arizona and New Orleans at home. Yet they lost to the Rams and in subsequent weeks have scrambled to beat Cleveland and Detroit, teams with three victories among them.
"We want to win, but we want to win the right way," Fletcher said. "You will never play a perfect game, but you want to get better."
Maybe it is hard to measure the Redskins against Detroit. While Zorn insisted his players came with the right amount of enthusiasm to Ford Field on Sunday, it was hard to feel much excitement. The Lions' season has been so dreadful that a feeling of abandonment lingered in the air. For the first time in the stadium's six-year history, a Lions game was not sold out, which -- by NFL rules -- meant it could not be shown on local television. The crowd, listed as 54,312 in the 64,500-seat arena, was listless. Even as the Redskins self-destructed in the first half and the Lions built a lead, the reaction was less of euphoria and more of wariness, as if the fans sensed something bad would soon happen.
When the game ended, Lions Coach Rod Marinelli walked into another joyless news conference in which reporters asked how his team has now lost 14 of 15 games. At one point, a Detroit writer asked why anyone should believe his team is getting any better.
"Because that's who I am. You are you, you're negative," Marinelli replied.
When the reporter said that asking about 14 loses in 15 games was simply factual, Marinelli retorted, "Because I believe in what we're doing and I'm just going to keep doing it."
Down the hall Zorn's day was not nearly as gloomy. After all, the Redskins had won even if it didn't feel like it. He quickly made up with the reporter who had briefly drawn his ire and seemingly had done the same with Portis, with whom he was angry for putting himself back into the game at one point in the first half. But nonetheless, he wore the frustration of the afternoon.
As did his players.
"We still haven't played mistake-free football. It's kind of scary," said Moss who scored both of the Redskins' touchdowns. "When we clean up some of that stuff in the second half [of the season], the sky's the limit."