By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 4:49 PM
The Washington Redskins begin the second half of their astounding 2008 regular season Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers with the third best record in the NFL, the league's No. 1 rusher and a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception all year.
Seriously now, is there a seasoned football scribe or even the most loyal Redskins fanatic who could have predicted this team would achieve such lofty status by the Halloween halfway mark? Could anyone have foreseen that a rookie head coach who had never even held an offensive coordinator position in college or the pros would have been able to make himself, along with Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, among the leading candidates for NFL coach of the year?
Not me, and probably not you, either.
The day Daniel Snyder and Vinnie Cerrato announced that they had decided to elevate a man they initially hired as the team's offensive coordinator to a job recently vacated by Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, I saw 6-10 in this team's immediate future.
Admittedly, it was based mostly on the premise that Snyder once again had made yet another serious blunder in his nine-year reign of error, with his yes-man sidekick Cerrato nodding in lock-step approval just the way he always had as long as those big checks kept being directly deposited into his bank account. Their track record did not exactly inspire great optimism, or enthusiasm.
In essence though, the owner and his part-time radio host/raquetball partner pal truly had very little choice. The man they really wanted, N.Y. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, had already withdrawn his name from consideration, preferring the stability of a rock-solid Super Bowl championship team over The Danny's Wacky World in Ashburn.
And when the name of Jim Fassel, a veteran and unemployed head coach somewhat desperate to get back in, had been floated as the next leading candidate, the hue and cry of despair from Redskins Nation clearly rattled the owner into moving in another direction.
Truth be told, Snyder had few options. No big-name head coach with an ounce of sense wanted any part of this frequently dysfunctional franchise, just the same as available men like Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher or Brian Billick would never even think about taking a job these days in Oakland or Detroit, among other organizations in perpetual disarray.
Still, it's time to at least give credit where some credit is due.
Cerrato has been saying for months the more he got to know Zorn in those first few weeks last January, the more he liked what he saw and what he was hearing about his plans for the offense. So on that score, we'll take him at his word. Cerrato became Zorn's biggest cheerleader inside the halls of Redskins Park, and for a nice change, he actually seems to have gotten it right.
Of course it also helped that Zorn, presented with the opportunity of his lifetime at the age of 55, apparently was more than willing to accept the fact that he'd have virtually no say on the rest of his coaching staff, most of them Gibbs' holdovers.
And of course, he also came cheap, reportedly $3 million a year for three seasons, with options on two more to be exercised at the club's discretion, not his. At the moment, Zorn is among the lowest paid head coaches in the league. But if Snyder really wanted to show some savvy smarts, during the bye week following the Pittsburgh game, he'd announce that he'd torn up the original deal, given Zorn a pay raise and locked him up for as long as possible. What a timely boost of super-charged rocket fuel that would inject to a team that now seems right on track for the playoffs, perhaps a home game or two in the postseason and yes, with a longshot chance of a Super Bowl in a conference with no truly dominant team.
By the way, I was hardly the only serious skeptic out there. Sports Illustrated, among many respected national publications, picked the Redskins to finish last in the division, and my old pal Dr. Z, otherwise known as Paul Zimmerman, the magazine's long-time brilliant football specialist, had them at 7-9.
In SI's preview issue, it was written that, "just how long Zorn sticks around depends on how well his quarterback responds to instruction. Given the Redskins limited commitment and simmering interest in another brand name coach (namely the currently retired Bill Cowher), it's possible anything less than the playoffs could mean one and done for Zorn."
Going into this season, there were many other question marks. The offensive line was thought to be aging and too injury prone, with not much depth. But for the most part, the unit has clearly held up far beyond expectations, and remains a great strength.
Mike Lombardi, a long-time NFL personnel man, offered grades and comments on all the Redskins units for SI, and gave the offensive line a grade of C, the wide receivers a C, the quarterbacking a C-plus and the secondary a C-plus, writing of that unit that "(Carlos) Rogers play at corner will make or break the secondary."
Well, at least Lombardi (clearly no relation to Vince) got that last item right, along with his mostly positive assessment of a defense that included a grade of B for the linebackers and the dead-on assessment of "solid and smart all-around, starting with 10-year vet (London) Fletcher."
Rogers and Fletcher are both playing at a Pro Bowl level, arguably the best football of their lives, and give Cerrato a little more credit for his pick of starting rookie strong safety Chris Horton in the seventh round. Portis and receiver Santana Moss are also having career years, along with Campbell, a quarterback you could arguably make a strong case for being the NFC starter in Honolulu in February.
And yet, going into this season, how could you not have reservations about Campbell, a man who's had to learn six different offensive systems dating back to his freshman year at Auburn because of turnover in the offensive coordinator and head coaching ranks in college and the pros. Until this season, he had demonstrated an alarming propensity to throw into coverage, rarely take his eyes off his primary receiver and had never led his team to a fourth-quarter comeback victory.
On top of all that, he had to overcome a serious knee injury and essentially start from scratch in learning the somewhat complicated West Coast offense Zorn installed. But again, much to his credit, Campbell has blossomed under Zorn's tutelage, and obviously benefited from the remnants of Gibbs' smash-mouth, pound-it-out-with-Portis running game, making the transition that much easier.
So the Redskins are 6-2, with victories on the road in the bank against two of their toughest NFC East foes, a home game against the Giants on Nov. 30 and facing a second-half schedule that also includes away games against three pitiful teams -- Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco, now a combined 4-19. They also get to play the Cowboys and the Eagles in the friendly confines of FedEx Field, where they're two-point favorites over the visiting Steelers on Monday night. (I'd still take the Steelers, but I digress.)
Finishing the regular season at 4-4 gets them to 10-6 and at very least a wild-card berth unless they can catch the talented and very resourceful Giants for the division title.
All of that being said, the same good fortune that finally began to smile on this franchise with Zorn's unlikely selection, has to continue over the next two months. This is an attrition-based league where superior talent, skilled coaching and extremely good luck in avoiding serious injuries to key players usually goes a long way in determining a Super Bowl champion. Just ask the Tom Brady-less Patriots, a mediocre team fighting for its postseason life without him.
It's been so far, so good for a Redskins team that also has been very fortunate in so many ways, starting with a personable, yet strong-willed head coach who has exceeded all expectations, particularly as a fearless, inspired and innovative play caller.
Good for him, his staff and the players, good for the fan-boy owner and his yakkety-yak talk radio GM, and best of all good for the club's faithful followers now finally seeing a football team they can truly embrace for the first time in a long time.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.