Redskins' Zorn Strives for Balance on Field and Off

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

The sun shone through the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium last month, and Jim Zorn strode out onto the artificial turf, which reflected the heat directly back at the first-year head coach. That morning, he had already sat in a small room in the stadium and, one by one, met with the men who are responsible for running the Washington Redskins' offense, the team's defense, the special teams. In the hours to come, he would unveil a game plan that would beat the Dallas Cowboys, and he would gather his players in a sweltering locker room, where they would, to the surprise of an entire league, thrice yell, "Hip, hip, hooray!"

At this moment, though, impromptu, unorthodox -- corny? -- celebrations were impossible to predict. It was not yet 11 a.m., and Zorn needed to pass the time, so he looked into the front row of the stands. He headed straight for a woman old enough to be his mother. The two embraced. He pulled a Redskins cap from behind him and handed it to a boy who accompanied the woman. Sue Largent was touched by the gesture from Zorn, the quarterback who decades earlier slung passes to her son Steve, leading the latter to the Hall of Fame.

"He's such a nice, nice man," Sue Largent said.

The week leading up to an NFL game is an intense crescendo, and Zorn treats it as such. "I'm kind of building up," he said of those moments before a game. The buildup, though, reflects a coach whose confidence far outweighs his accomplishments over half an NFL season, whose serenity belies the vein-popping, throat-grating moments in a game that lead Jason Campbell, his quarterback, to call him a "wild man."

"He does some things," said Greg Blache, his defensive coordinator, "where you go, 'Whoa. Okay. I've been in this game a long time, and I've never seen it done that way.' "

In the first two months of his first season as an NFL head coach, Zorn has been a fascinating mix of counterculture, existential thinker and old-school, play-no-favorites football man. He has upbraided both a rookie punter and a star running back on the sideline, in full view of television cameras. He has quietly allowed players to skip midweek practices to tend to family matters. He has admitted, even last week, that "I'm still learning."

More than anything, though, he seems extraordinarily comfortable in his own leathery skin. Tonight he will lead the Redskins against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FedEx Field with the rest of the NFL watching to find out if this 55-year-old and his team are, indeed, serious contenders for a deep playoff run. But watch him on the field before the game starts. It could be cocktail hour.

"I'm pretty relaxed," Zorn said.

So prior to kickoff against the Cowboys, when his team was 2-1 and still very much in the developmental stages, Zorn not only talked with Largent's mom, but he pulled out another cap for the teenage son of an old coaching buddy, a boy whom Zorn had never met. He chatted with the chaplain of the football team at Utah State, where Zorn had coached 15 years before. He leaned in with jersey-wearing Redskins supporters who swarmed to the front row of the stands, and the faithful captured the moment that no doubt adorns Facebook pages throughout the fan base now, cellphone camera after cellphone camera filled with the image of the smiling head coach, just hanging out in the hours before beating Dallas.

"I think I'm well prepared," Zorn said, "and I think our coaches and players are well prepared, and we can go about our business. I'm relaxed. I think I can talk to people. That's what I want to show our players. There's not an extra emotion that I have to put on my shoulders for us to go out and just play at that violent, competitive level that we want."

A Coach's Love of Discipline

Zorn uses that word -- "violent" -- often, almost always with emphasis, clearly as a compliment, as if he is relishing the mere thought of two men running into a high-speed collision. It takes a true football man to embrace the notion that inflicting and enduring pain is one trait by which a player is measured. That thought would seem best-suited for Vince Lombardi, for Mike Ditka, for Bill Parcells -- the coaches who best embody old-school. Yet Zorn, too, can talk in those terms. For all the quirkiness, the postgame cheers and the off-field pursuits -- mountain biking or metal sculpture or just reading -- Zorn is a football coach.

"I wouldn't say he's two standard deviations outside the norm," said veteran guard Pete Kendall, who has played for seven head coaches in his 13-year career. "I think sometimes people want to make him out like that. But every coach has their own way."

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