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Jason La Canfora on Football: Jim Zorn's Mixed Redskins Offense
By the end of training camp Zorn figured he was going to have to run more than he expected to help the passing game, but never quite to this extent. "I wouldn't have predicted that we'd be leading the league in rushing," he conceded.
Washington is on pace for 534 rushes this season, most by the franchise since 1991, the last Super Bowl season, when Gibbs rode a three-headed rushing monster (Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and Ricky Ervins) to 540 carries and a 14-2 season. Campbell could recall just two three-step drops he executed in the victory over Detroit last week.
"It certainly looks like the Gibbs offense to me," said one NFL executive who has scouted the Redskins several times this season. "It's the old Gibbs concepts -- protecting the quarterback, trying not to expose him to turnovers, using the run to set up the pass, play-action, then taking the deep shots. You have to give Zorn a lot of credit for adapting to his personnel."
As the season evolved, Zorn has given the players a larger stake in the offense. Campbell preferred deeper drops and going to the shotgun more; Zorn has some philosophical aversion to that formation but granted Campbell the freedom to use it any time. The Redskins have thrown from the shotgun 53 times this season; Seattle did it just 69 times all of last season. Campbell has already attempted five passes on which the ball traveled 41 yards or more; Seattle attempted just six such passes all of last season.
"With Coach Zorn, it's about the best of what the receivers can do, and what I can do," Campbell said. "When it comes to me, is it always going to be a three-step drop, or are we going to let him utilize his arm to make throws to the whole field? I think that's Coach's whole mind-set."
Tight end Chris Cooley asked that he be able to move more before the snap, rather than take the stationary three-point stance of most tight ends in the West Coast system. Zorn has actually taken to using Cooley more as an H-back in recent weeks -- a position that was a staple of Gibbs's offense but does not exist in the West Coast offense.
"Zorn said when he came in that I haven't ever had a tight end who can do what you do, and I have to learn," Cooley said. "And I think if you go back and watch our offense over the last eight weeks you'll see that every week more and more I'm in different places and moving around, and it's become a lot more like what I've done in the past. I can't believe how much lead blocking I'm doing, but I'm having a blast."
Portis requested more draw plays -- including one that clinched a win at Philadelphia -- and more pitches to the outside when the Redskins run "gut" plays, which have resulted in some big gains. "It's not like, 'We do the coaching; you do the playing,' " offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said. "If they suggest stuff, we'll listen."
The Redskins are relying on an abundance of outside plays in a zone-blocking scheme, much like in their playoff run in 2005, creating creases outside the tackles, a tactic the Seahawks almost never used. "The scheme is solid and not that complicated," backup quarterback Todd Collins said, pointing across an imaginary line of scrimmage. "It's really just moving the line, like Coach Gibbs would say, that way."
Tailback Shaun Alexander, who spent eight seasons in Seattle before signing with Washington a few weeks ago, hit the wrong hole on his first three carries with the Redskins. He was used to more traps and counters in Seattle and didn't at that point understand just how different things are on this side of the country.
"I was going where the ball would have gone back in the day in Seattle, but this offense and this line is different," Alexander said. "We got away from the outside zone stuff for about six years there, but now I see it here and it's like, 'This is going to be great.' This line blocks it well and Clinton runs it well."
Gibbs's longtime lieutenant, offensive line coach Joe Bugel, remains on the staff, a vital link between the old and new, his presence alone signaling to the linemen that they won't stray too far from those hardnosed running principles. "Buges is the Boss Hog," Smith said. "He sets the blocking assignments. It all goes through him."
All of which raises the questions: Are the Redskins really a West Coast team at all? Do they resemble Seattle or Philadelphia or Denver? Should we just call it Ground Zorn or the Midwest Coast until further notice?
"Of course, we're a West Coast team," one veteran said, all sly smiles. "Of course."
He gave a slow, exaggerated wink. Then he winked again.