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Zorn's Balanced Game Plan
Redskins' Rookie Coach Blends Contrasting Qualities With a Veteran's Poise

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."

When Zorn was hired, he did what football coaches do: He acted like the man in charge. Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said Zorn drew up his rules, said, "I don't want to fine you, but I will," and made sure players knew they had to be on time, all the time. Still, the Redskins have a veteran locker room. They did not, players said, need a heavy-handed coach who had to prove who's the boss. Once Zorn laid out his schedule and his expectations, he has not deviated, players said. Because players grow accustomed to the rhythms and routines of a work week, it is a small measure by which Zorn has earned enormous appreciation.

"He's been extremely disciplined in keeping the exact schedule that we've talked about," tight end Chris Cooley said. "And for a guy that people assume is quirky or laid-back, he's strict. He's been exact in what we've done throughout."

Zorn, too, has shown his players respect both on the field -- where he has, at various times, listened to Kendall or running back Clinton Portis with suggestions about plays -- and off it. After the Redskins secured Zorn's first victory, a collage appeared on the wall of a hallway directly outside the locker room at Redskins Park. Campbell, Portis, linemen, special teams players -- snapshots from the victory over the New Orleans Saints. There are no collages after losses, but when one win is replaced by the next, the old photos are shrunken, framed and placed on an opposite wall.

"It keeps the morale up," Zorn said.

That same week, in the days of practice after the victory over New Orleans, Zorn bounded down the stairs at Redskins Park and said to a team employee, "Did you get that picture back?" The two spoke, and Zorn pointed at another wall, this one bare. The next day, a generous, stately portrait of the Redskins' six captains -- Campbell and tackle Chris Samuels on offense, tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebacker London Fletcher on defense, Khary Campbell and Rock Cartwright on special teams -- appeared in the spot, the players dressed in dark suits, serious expressions on their faces.

"I wanted these guys to look like men," Zorn said. "And you know what? I've seen other guys walk by it, look at it, and they get this look like, 'I want to be a captain some day.' That's good."

Frequently on Wednesdays, Zorn gathers those captains on the practice fields at Redskins Park. As the rest of the team heads back to the locker room to shower and prepare for meetings, the captains listen to Zorn. More importantly, though, he listens to them. "I want to know if there are any issues I need to know about," he said. The conversations, several captains said, reveal a coach who wants to remain plugged in with his players, yet not intrusive.

"Sometimes you can get a new job and try to become something that you think that position calls for you to be," Fletcher said. "All of a sudden, now you can't communicate with your players, you can't joke around, you have to act like you know everything, all the answers. He hasn't been like that."

A Curiosity for Other Views

In the bags Zorn takes from the team hotel to FedEx Field tonight will likely be one of three books -- "Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West," "Lincoln and the American Manifesto," or one in the series of thrillers by Daniel Silva, featuring the fictional Israeli spy-disguised-as-art-restorer, Gabriel Allon. It is likely that, in the hours before the game in his hotel room, the television will go off, and Zorn will crack a book.

"To not read, just to go trough the whole season and not be stimulated in other ways, I think is kind of foolish," Zorn said last week. "We can get ourselves so wrapped up into one thing, it's crazy."

Yet Zorn is wrapped up in this one thing. "When I'm here," he said at Redskins Park, "there's nothing more important."

Football coaches have long tried to out-perform each other simply by outworking each other, arriving at the office before dawn and, in the case of Zorn's predecessor, Joe Gibbs, occasionally sleeping there. In that tradition, Zorn pulls into the parking lot by 5:15 a.m., and he departs, as he said, "when I'm done," usually around 9 or 9:30 p.m. Stay past 10, he said, "and I'm useless."

He is careful, though, about the hours he keeps and the manner in which he keeps them. He does not scribble down plays at home as he brushes his teeth. Rather, he steers himself away from football. He pulls out one of his books -- "I'm trying to make it a priority, even during the season," he said -- and reads. Even if it's for 15 minutes, he said it refreshes him.

Zorn wants his staff to stay refreshed, too, so he is careful about mandating hours. He knows the culture of football. In some ways, it bothers him.

"I think we feel guilty," Zorn said. "There's sort of a guilt feeling about paying the right kind of attention to the job [so] that the owner feels comfortable, the assistant coaches feel comfortable, or you feel comfortable about your assistant coaches. Sometimes the assistant coaches, I'll walk by, and they might feel that -- 'Oh, my gosh!' -- they better turn on the video.

"I try not to hold that over them like that. I try to make sure that they do what they have to do, and then they're gone. I don't try to corral them into my schedule."

Zorn's schedule has to do mostly with offense. Though Sherman Smith holds the title of offensive coordinator, Zorn is the play-caller, the true architect. He leaves the defense to Blache, the special teams to Danny Smith. He meets with each of them on Wednesdays to get a feel for what's to come, then again on Sunday mornings, going over everything. In those meetings, Zorn has two objectives: Listen, and ask questions.

"He's going to listen to what I say, and he's going to tell me yes or no, based on what he really believes," Blache said. "He's not going to kind of let you do it and then blame you if it doesn't work out."

During games, Zorn is in contact with Blache about major decisions -- whether to kick an extra point or go for two, whether to punt or try a long field goal, asking whether his defense is up to stopping the opponent, even on a short field, should an aggressive call backfire. But occasionally, an odd sound will crackle into Blache's headset. "I'm sorry," Zorn will say. "We shouldn't have put you in that position."

"Most guys in that top position, they'll kind of be the last man standing," Blache said. "If a bear charges, they're going to put you in front of the bear. I honestly believe that, having been around Jim and having watched him, if a bear charges, he's going to step between me and the bear."

Tonight, Zorn will take to the field, watch his players warm up, exchange pleasantries with whomever he might find in the crowd, and wait for the bear to charge. After half a season, he has built a belief in his players and his coaches that when it does, he will handle it his way.

"I'm not going to change," he said. "Win or lose, I believe in what I'm doing, what we're doing. That's what matters."

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