Smith, Mitchell Provide Key Assistance to Redskins

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Perhaps the play Coach Jim Zorn initially called would have worked well for the Washington Redskins late in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Detroit Lions. But running backs coach Stump Mitchell felt strongly about his suggestion, and offensive coordinator Sherman Smith supported Mitchell, so Zorn adjusted.

He trusted his top lieutenants on offense and instructed quarterback Jason Campbell to run the play Mitchell preferred, which resulted in a 31-yard gain for running back Clinton Portis -- his longest rush in the game -- on a possession place kicker Shaun Suisham capped with a 42-yard field goal. Suisham's fourth field goal provided the final margin in a 25-17 victory at Ford Field, and Portis's big play helped extend the lead. Apparently, Zorn's belief in his assistants was significant, too.

"We were joking about that right before" the play, Smith said. "Z-man said, 'Okay, Stump, you're putting your signature on this play.' Then when it worked, we're all laughing about it, saying, 'Great call, Stump.' That's just the way things work with our staff. Guys know you can make a suggestion, and it's going to be heard. And even if your suggestion isn't taken, no one gets offended because we know we're all in this together."

In their first season with Washington, Smith and Mitchell have quickly made an impact, providing Zorn with the support he has required in his rookie season as an NFL head coach. Zorn has given Smith and Mitchell significant responsibility and sought their counsel, relying on them to help him succeed in his new role.

The smooth transition of Smith and Mitchell, longtime running backs coaches in the league, has been among the keys to Washington's 6-2 start despite the staff makeover that occurred after former coach Joe Gibbs retired. Smith and Mitchell have been good additions, coaches and players said.

"It's not surprising to me how well the staff has worked together, or the type of jobs coach Sherman Smith and Coach Stump have done," Campbell said. "Once you get to know those guys, and see how hard they work and how much they care about helping you as players, you knew it would be a good staff. The only surprising part is how fast the continuity came together."

Portis leads the NFL in rushing with 944 yards, and the Redskins are second in the league with an average of 155.2 yards per game. Campbell has been outstanding in exceeding expectations during the first half of Washington's schedule, and the offense is ranked seventh overall.

"It all starts with Coach Zorn," Mitchell said. "All the assistants, we know we have responsibilities, and we're responsible for the way our players play. Coach Zorn, I would say, makes everyone feel pretty comfortable around him. We want to do the best that we can in our jobs, and we don't feel intimidated."

Zorn, formerly the Seattle Seahawks' quarterbacks coach, had never been a head coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL before the Redskins hired him to run the offense on Jan. 25. He was promoted to head coach on Feb. 9, making a huge jump after owner Daniel Snyder rejected other candidates to replace Gibbs.

Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice president of football operations, let go former top assistants Gregg Williams and Al Saunders, the team's defensive and offensive play-callers, respectively, as well as running backs coach Earnest Byner and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor.

Former defensive line coach Greg Blache replaced Williams as defensive coordinator, John Palermo was hired to coach the line, and all the other position coaches on defense were retained. On offense, Zorn had several openings and moved aggressively to hire Mitchell, with whom he worked closely on the Seahawks' staff, and Smith, his former teammate with the Seahawks and longtime friend.

"They are marvelous and are great working companions," offensive line coach Joe Bugel, in his 14th season with the Redskins, said of Zorn, Smith and Mitchell. "There are no egos. We talk through everything. I couldn't be with a better group, and I mean that sincerely. From Day One, it seems like we have been coaching eight, 10 years together.

"They have been excellent NFL football players and coaches all of their life. They have blended in admirably. We enjoy exchanging ideas and have a great relationship. They have very good football minds. A lot of the reason that we are 6-2 is not only because of the players, but because of these coaches."

Mitchell also has the title of assistant head coach because Seattle initially denied permission for the Redskins to interview him, prompting Washington to include a higher title with the position. Smith was the Tennessee Titans' running backs coach for the previous 13 seasons, the last two as assistant head coach. Byner -- a standout running back for the Redskins in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- replaced Smith in Tennessee.

Zorn also brought in Chris Meidt, for the past six seasons the head coach of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, to be an offensive assistant. Zorn has known Meidt, who primarily works with quarterbacks, since he was quarterbacks coach at the University of Minnesota in the 1995-96 season, when Meidt was offensive coordinator at Bethel University in nearby St. Paul.

With three new assistants on offense joining the holdovers from Gibbs's last staff, Zorn figured he needed newcomers who could put aside their egos and help everyone in the blended group work together.

"Sherman has got a great temperament," Zorn said. "He's a man that can express a lot with very little words. He's well respected because he lives up to what he's trying to get from what he's asking everybody else to do. He and Stump, they both have the kind of temperaments where nobody really has an ego.

"Nobody is saying, 'Hey, I know how to coach running backs. No, no, no. I know how to coach running backs.' They just work together."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company