Pupil Zorn Defeats Teacher Holmgren

Redskins Coach Jim Zorn earned a win in his return to Seattle, where he coached for seven seasons after a playing career as a quarterback for the Seahawks.
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn earned a win in his return to Seattle, where he coached for seven seasons after a playing career as a quarterback for the Seahawks. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Monday, November 24, 2008

SEATTLE Jim Zorn's new pupil in the pocket lined up in the shotgun with less than four minutes left. An empty backfield meant no Clinton Portis or Mike Sellers to block for him, so it was pretty much pass or bust for Jason Campbell.

Babying a field goal lead, he backpedaled about three steps on third and six from his own 48 and drilled a laser into the hands of Santana Moss for a 13-yard gain, a crisscross route with equal parts movement, deception and execution.

Of course, it happened on the West Coast, where Zorn learned quick-drop-and-fire football from the same man who mentored Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre.

But now Mike Holmgren, the master, had to concede to his former assistant and the team he had sent packing here in the playoffs after the 2005 and 2007 seasons. Zorn came back to his playing and coaching stomping grounds and won a game the Redskins absolutely had to have Sunday, beating his once-beloved Seahawks with the combination of Holmgren's guile and Joe Gibbs's grit.

"I think the game meant a lot to him because this is the place where he played at for many years and he has a great relationship with a lot of guys," Campbell said. "Those guys over there competed very hard today. A lot of that had to do with Coach Zorn being back in town. They wanted to beat us, and we wanted to beat them for Coach Zorn."

Memo to Paul Allen: The guy who did more to send Matt Hasselbeck to three Pro Bowls than anyone, including Holmgren? The quarterbacks coach you had no problem losing to the nation's capital? He hasn't been half-bad as a head coach.

Other than bear-hugging Shaun Alexander, a less-wanted commodity in Seattle than Zorn himself, and telling the Redskins' reserve running back, "Hey, we got 'em here," Zorn said nothing to his players about the extra pride, if any, he took in outlasting his former employer's team.

In his high-road comments and dignified mannerisms, he made the day more about NFL survival than sappy homecomings. If his team hadn't won this game, he knew, they probably wouldn't make the playoffs in the NFC, where Washington (7-4), Dallas (7-4) and two teams among the NFC South trio of Carolina (8-3), Tampa Bay (8-3) and Atlanta (7-4) will scrap for two wild-card berths.

Yet Zorn has to feel a bit of vindication after Sunday.

The Seahawks might have been the franchise that gave him his playing and coaching start; they were also the franchise where former coach Chuck Knox and former GM Tom Flores told him to start in high school or college when he thought he could immediately coach in the NFL, and the team that thought so much of the job he did preparing Hasselbeck for stardom that they went and hired Bill Lazor, the Redskins' quarterbacks coach last season, after Zorn was originally offered the offensive coordinator position in Washington.

It might be too early to say Allen, the owner, hired the wrong man to replace Holmgren after this season in Jim Mora. But it's not too early to say Zorn was compartmentalized in Seattle, put in a cubicle by an organization that figured he knew how to get a quarterback ready but was hardly head-coaching or even offensive-coordinator material.

When Zorn was named to replace Gibbs in Washington, shockwaves may have hit Seattle harder than Ashburn. A Seattle columnist yesterday admitted he never saw Zorn in that role, saying his quirkiness and eccentricity might light a spark at the start but that Zorn was probably not cut out for any of the prima-donna drama of the NFL or, most important, assuming command of a swaying ship.

Zorn kept saying the Redskins were "treading water," but they had been taking on water lately.

Lose to the Seahawks, and this becomes another Gibbsian, run-the-table proposition that this locker room would have major trouble pulling off. Which is why Zorn didn't give too much of himself to the people who cheered him on the field between 1976 and 1984 (his name and No. 10 are in the Seahawks' Ring of Honor). His focus was as locked in as Campbell was during his final pass to Moss, a play that nearly helped Washington close out the game with the ball.

"To come back here and to see so many friends was great," Zorn said. "It was hard before the game because I did know a lot of people. I did want to say hi to a bunch of people. I just tried to keep from making it a distraction."

He said his team wasn't in a "crisis" situation, using his fingers to form quote marks in the postgame news conference. But let's be honest: counting the bye week and losses to Pittsburgh and Dallas at home, Washington had not won a game in about a month and was feeling a major confidence loss after a 6-2 start.

Zorn needed this game more than Holmgren, who has lost a slew of wide receivers to injury, Hasselbeck for five weeks and basically has watched a shadow of his former team fall to 2-9.

And Zorn acted like it, too, employing a bunch of West Coast offensive sets early and then relying on his power-running game late to put the game away. There was movement and multiple crisscrossing of receivers, including Campbell's eight-yard touchdown throw to Antwaan Randle El with less than four minutes left in the third quarter, and the most crucial play of all, that dart to Moss.

On another play, Mike Sellers lined up like a split end on the left side on a third and five, and a pick was run for Moss, who tucked in a screen pass and raced for a first down. Draws. Slants. It was vintage Holmgren, though not overly so.

"We probably didn't run as much as we usually do just because of formation knowledge," Zorn said, adding that he didn't want to tip off Seattle defensive coordinator John Marshall, who has seen these plays before.

Bottom line, Zorn beat his mentor in the stadium where Gibbs coached his last NFL game a year ago, the place where the Redskins twice could not advance in the NFC playoffs during his second tenure. These Seahawks weren't nearly as good as those teams, but in an almost must-win affair in November, the newbie head coach outguessed his old mentor.

"I'm not real talkative with the [other] coach before the game, sometimes I don't talk to him at all," Holmgren said. "But, in Jim's case, he came over, and it was good to see him. I feel good about his success. He is wired correctly; a little different than I am, but wired correctly. He communicates well, and his players are responding. He seems to be the perfect guy for that young quarterback. When you put all that stuff together, it should work."

Before the game, Zorn's wife, Joy, and two of his daughters accepted his enshrinement into the Washington state sports hall of fame. Someone commented afterward that it was overdue, that Zorn should have been inducted a few years ago. But after the quirky guy in that shock of a Johnny U. haircut returned victorious, it seemed fitting for Seattle, now a dormant sports town that might not have known what it had until Jim Zorn left.

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