Jason La Canfora on Football: Jim Zorn's Mixed Redskins Offense
Perhaps only a Wisconsin-raised, Big Ten-influenced, smash-mouth-loving center could come up with the perfect name for the Washington Redskins' hybrid offense, a system that mixes a heavy dose of Joe Gibbs's power football and a smattering of Jim Zorn's West Coast concepts.
The Midwest Coast offense.
At the moment, Casey Rabach's label has yet to spread much farther than his close pal, tackle Jon Jansen, a fellow Midwesterner and Big Ten product (Michigan), but it very well could, particularly if the Redskins continue to win. To build a 6-2 record, Washington has used a mode of attack that has been a throwback to the Gibbs coaching philosophy, with Zorn emphasizing the run even more than his predecessor and tailoring his scheme and play-calling to the preexisting talent base.
The telltale signs of a prototypical West Coast offense -- as invented by Bill Walsh and funneled to Zorn through his coaching mentor and former boss, Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren -- are rarely present. Zorn has reined in his desire for a varied and robust passing game in favor of an approach that required a minimal learning curve for his players. The Redskins are the league's most proficient running team and while it's not the aerial attack Zorn eventually wants, the Midwest Coast offense will certainly do for now.
"I had an epiphany," Rabach said, describing the day roughly four weeks ago when the name popped into his head. "I was just thinking about how every West Coast coach has his own spin on it, and we're running the ball so damn well and we kind of have this Midwest attitude on offense -- working hard, keeping it simple. So it's the Midwest Coast offense."
There are no Midwest Coast T-shirts in the locker room yet, the surest sign that a nickname or phrase has stuck, but the players are embracing Zorn's willingness to tailor his tactics to his personnel and limit the scope of his offense.
"Coach Zorn came in and said, 'This is what they did well last year, let's not change that, and maybe we'll add some of this,' " said Jansen, who, as the longest-serving Redskins player, is playing for his sixth coach since 1999. "He didn't come in and say, 'We're going to take our lumps this year and learn my offense and this is how we're going to do it because this is my way.' "
Zorn has been a more aggressive play-caller than his predecessors, more inclined to go for it on fourth down, to throw late in games. He uses more four-receiver sets and certainly has empowered quarterback Jason Campbell to a greater degree, with Campbell calling more audibles and setting protection at the line. There is far less shifting and motion and the pace is much faster.
It took the Seahawks three years to master the West Coast offense during Zorn's time under Holmgren, and Zorn sought to minimize that here by retaining Gibbs's run game and sprinkling in just enough of the West Coast passing principles to allow Campbell to blossom.
"The only thing we need to do if we're going to make it into what my idea [of the West Coast] would be, would be to rev up the passing game as far as being able to go faster, being able to be more multiple on some of the things we're doing," Zorn said. "But we're inching our way there."
Normally in a West Coast offense, teams use the pass to set up the run, making defenses adjust to dropping more players into pass coverage, then hitting them with the ground game. Quick passes serve as de facto runs, with quarterbacks taking short three-step drops (often in four-receiver spread formations), making immediate decisions on who will get the ball and then dinking and dunking throws down the field. There are occasional deep passes. Often teams throw the ball more than 60 percent of the time.
The Redskins are employing virtually none of that. They are running the ball 33.4 times a game -- most in the NFL and two carries more per game than under Gibbs last season. Last year, with Zorn in Seattle, the Seahawks ran the ball 42 percent of the time; the Redskins are at 54 percent. Running back Clinton Portis leads the league in carries and rushing yards.