By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Matt Hasselbeck sat in the boarding area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a cellphone in his hand and his stomach a tangle of regret, certain he had just disappointed Jim Zorn. It was spring 2001, his first minicamp as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback was over and he was flying home to his pregnant wife. But his mind could not let go of three passes in the last practice earlier that day. Three passes that were mistakes. Three passes young quarterbacks will sometimes make.
The practice wasn't even a real practice. The season was still months away. And yet as he sat in the airport terminal that day, Hasselbeck felt compelled to call Zorn, the team's new quarterbacks coach. He needed to apologize.
"I felt bad, like I let him down, because he wanted to help me," Hasselbeck recalled. "Jim cares so much, you just don't want to let him down."
In the following months, Hasselbeck would disappoint Zorn many more times. So many, in fact, that he would lose his standing as the Seahawks' anointed quarterback in the winter of 2002, a decision that left him sullen and heartbroken. And yet it was Zorn who brought him back, who rebuilt him, remolded him and made him believe again until he became one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, a three-time Pro Bowl player.
Zorn returns to Seattle today as the head coach of the Washington Redskins. And earlier this week, Hasselbeck sat at his locker in the Seahawks' new practice facility here and fondly remembered the tiny meeting room at the team's old headquarters, where Zorn spent hours making him the quarterback he has become.
"Jim was phenomenal," he said. "If not for that room, I wouldn't have made it through. I would have gone and done something stupid."
A few minutes before, his backup, Seneca Wallace, had smiled at the mention of Zorn's name.
"I never had coaching like I had with him," Wallace said.
That is why the two men Zorn left behind were delighted when someone from Washington appeared here asking about their old coach. It is why Wallace pulled the visitor into a side room, away from the boom of a nearby stereo so that his words could easily be heard and why Hasselbeck cut short a conversation and made extra time before a meeting just so he could express a sentiment that gathered little attention as Hasselbeck became an NFL star.
"I never felt Jim got any credit," he said of his career resurgence late in 2002, something for which head coach Mike Holmgren has been widely praised. "He was buried around these big-name coaches and good coaches. We had some coaches who had Super Bowl rings and he was the new guy, the guy who put in weird stuff and rode his bike to work."
When Holmgren was looking for a quarterbacks coach at the end of a discouraging 2000 season, he mulled a list of candidates of supposedly elite passing coaches. As something of a quarterback guru himself, having molded Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre, he tended to consider the job to be the most important on his staff. He conducted many interviews and yet it was Zorn, then with the Detroit Lions, who seemed the most insightful and best prepared. The coach was further intrigued that Zorn had been a star quarterback for the Seahawks in their early years, his name on the team's Ring of Honor. Holmgren liked the idea of having an assistant who was working in "his place," his city.
Among Zorn's first charges in Seattle was finding the Seahawks' quarterback of the future. He and Holmgren pored over tapes of available prospects, always coming back to the film of Hasselbeck, who had been a practice-squad player in Green Bay the last year Holmgren was a coach there. What they loved was his accuracy, a trait Zorn says Hasselbeck shares with Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, and his ability to move away from pass rushers. They traded a first- and third-round draft pick to get him.
Almost immediately things started to go wrong.
Hasselbeck, familiar with Holmgren's West Coast offense and emboldened by playing behind Favre for three seasons, arrived enthusiastic -- perhaps too much so. "He knew what we wanted even before we said it," Zorn said. "Even before we coached him, he already knew.
"But here's what happened. He was so wild about what he was doing, he couldn't do one thing well. It was just way out of control. He tried to think too much about a play, do too much in a play."
The quarterback struggled. He was booed midway though the home opener and was stung as the fans chanted for his backup, Trent Dilfer. When he went down with a groin injury shortly thereafter, Dilfer thrived in his place, choosing as Zorn said, "the simple explanation" for how plays worked.
At the time, Hasselbeck and his wife lived in a townhouse apartment next to a fire station. They knew no one. Their first child was born that fall and the cries of the baby and the screams of the fire engines brought little solace.
He bought a house after that season and on the day he moved in, he got a call from Zorn saying Holmgren was going to phone him later that day and tell him Dilfer was the new starter. Hasselbeck's world collapsed. He was angry. He sulked.
Zorn recognized this and arranged early morning workouts at a small gym at Northwest College (now Northwest University), next to the Seahawks' facility. He ran drills along the basketball lines on the court, asking Hasselbeck to slide down the sideline to the baseline, where he would cut right or left. He threw exercise balls at him to simulate pass rushers and tried to find ways to give him the best balance. After those sessions, on the walk back to the headquarters, they talked -- about family, about children, about playing quarterback.
"I think the way to bring a quarterback back emotionally is to make the game important while he's there," Zorn said. "Don't disregard the player now that he's the backup. 'Okay, here's where you sit, here's why you sit, let's now work on those things that made this a reality in your life.' "
Still, Hasselbeck smarted about his demotion. The low point came at a spring 2002 minicamp when he finally drew the ire of Zorn, who began shouting at him in the middle of practice. Everyone stopped. Holmgren beckoned the quarterback over.
"I don't know what you did to make him so angry," Hasselbeck recalled Holmgren saying, "but he might be the only man in this building who is your fan right now. And he's a good man, so go work it out."
They did. But it wasn't until a meeting early that fall when everything finally made sense to Hasselbeck. Zorn was showing the quarterbacks film of a recent game. Since the room was dark, he held a laser pointer. At one moment the laser fell on a particular player who had been trouble in recent weeks. Dilfer immediately said, "He's the problem."
Zorn shook his head.
"No, he's part of the problem," he told the players. "But he has a lot of potential to be great. You have to remember that."
Hasselbeck sat up.
"That's me," he thought. "I'm not the whole problem, I'm part of the problem."
Suddenly, everything Zorn had been talking about for months made sense. Hasselbeck's confidence grew. His attitude changed. He stopped trying to make every play so complicated, executing the safe and easy pass. Then in an October game at Dallas, Dilfer went down with an Achilles' tendon injury, Hasselbeck came in and led the Seahawks to a victory. Then came another and three more in a row to cap the season. The next year he went to the Pro Bowl.
"He just got it," Zorn said. "He complied. He played in a disciplined fashion."
Wallace arrived in Seattle in 2003 as an unlikely prospect. A Heisman Trophy hopeful at Iowa State, he was considered too small at 5 feet 11 to be an NFL quarterback. When the Seahawks drafted him in the fourth round that year, it was a surprise. Many teams wondered if he might make a better wide receiver or kick returner.
Holmgren and Zorn saw Wallace's potential as a quarterback, and Zorn immediately pushed him to get better. Wallace had never met anyone like Zorn, with his eccentricities and unconventional drills. Unlike Hasselbeck, Wallace knew nothing about the offense and knew little really about playing quarterback. Zorn realized that and challenged Wallace in meetings, forcing him to expand upon vague answers. Wallace balked.
Several times, Zorn remembered, he had to stop film reviews, flip on the lights and say: "Seneca, oh, by the way, I'm for you. I'm not against you."
It seemed to Zorn that Wallace had tremendous mistrust. "He had this idea of what a coach of the past was and how it should be or could be," Zorn said. And that coach was not someone who demanded complex answers to an offense Wallace still wasn't sure he completely knew.
Zorn took him to the same early-morning workouts he ran for Hasselbeck at the Northwest College gym back in 2002. And just like with Hasselbeck, he used those walks back to talk to Wallace about the things he needed to learn, to practice, to understand.
The breakthrough came two years later when, on a whim, Zorn suggested Wallace take a class to learn how to study. He told the quarterback he had done something similar as a player and found it helpful. Wallace agreed, took the class and found it a better idea than he could have imagined. His grasp of the offense improved.
This year, when Hasselbeck went down with a back injury, Wallace got the first significant playing time of his career. The results were mixed. Since the Seahawks were beset with injuries to their wide receivers, Wallace didn't have many players to whom he could throw. He lost three of the four games he started despite being intercepted only once.
On a recent morning, Zorn leaned back in his chair at the Redskins' headquarters and wistfully gazed out the window.
"I really wish I could have been there when Seneca got serious time on the field," he said. "I kind of feel like all of our time was spent preparing him for play, but now there are a lot of things to learn when you finally get on the field and you see what it's like. You can improve a guy when he absolutely has playing time, when he's not getting pulled for nobody -- it's his game."
Told this, Wallace smiled.
"That's the guy he is," he said. "We had a good bond. After all is said and done, I can't wait to see him."
They probably will have a few minutes to talk today, Zorn and the quarterbacks he left behind. Quarterbacks usually work out by themselves on the field two hours before the game starts. Often the coaches are there, too. Undoubtedly, Hasselbeck and Wallace will stop to say hello to Zorn, to ask him about the Redskins, to tell him about their season here in Seattle.
And as they do, the old lessons will come flooding back. In those early days back in 2001, Zorn would demand simplicity from Hasselbeck. The quarterback would fight him.
"You're confining me!" Hasselbeck would scream.
"That's great! That's what I want!" Zorn always replied.
Thinking about those exchanges earlier this week, Hasselbeck grinned.
"I still hate that feeling," he said.