On Football

Reality's Just Colder This Year for the Redskins

Jason Campbell has little time to throw in a loss to the Ravens in which he had two interceptions. He was 21 of 37 for 218 yards.
Jason Campbell has little time to throw in a loss to the Ravens in which he had two interceptions. He was 21 of 37 for 218 yards. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Les Carpenter
Monday, December 8, 2008

BALTIMORE Under the lights in the swirling, arctic gale it was easy to see how much has changed. Even if nothing really has.

It was on a night just like this at the end of last season when December brought a miraculous run to the playoffs for the Redskins, not this autumn's plunge into the abyss. Ice gathered in the Giants Stadium parking lots, an early winter wind howled across the turf and Washington declared it would claw its way into the postseason, pulling out any gimmick, any test of human will to make the playoffs happen. On that night the Redskins did, beating a New York Giants team that would win the Super Bowl two months later.

Sunday, on a similar prime-time night, with essentially the same team, on an equally frigid, windswept field, against a Baltimore Ravens defense just as fierce, this Washington team served notice it would do no such thing.

The end of this season cannot be about now. The way last season ended in a frenzy of wins that made you believe anything was possible, which makes this new notion hard for fans and players and perhaps even impatient owners to fathom. Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who all but begged his severely sprained foot to heal enough to play last week against the Giants, later limped around the locker room in his uniform pants shaking his head, his brow furrowed, his gaze perplexed.

"I don't get it," he said. "We're a better team than last year, we added more talent than last year."

The difference is in the sense of desperation. Last year's team was built and developed for a Joe Gibbs playoff run. Sean Taylor's death only heightened the drive. The push became the postseason. Nothing else mattered.

But at what cost? A fourth-quarter, first-round playoff decimation in Seattle did little to move the franchise closer to a Super Bowl. All it did was freeze the Redskins in the same suspended state of the previous five seasons: good enough to be competitive but with no foundation and none of the patience needed to build a champion.

Now the Redskins have a dynamic new coach with fresh ideas and a vision of the future. Eventually, Jim Zorn will install his offense here and it will undoubtedly be something that more resembles the wide-open, West Coast attack he helped Mike Holmgren perfect when they were together with the Seattle Seahawks. It won't be a hybrid of the old Gibbs runs mixed with the new passes imported from Seattle. In time, Jason Campbell will have more than a fraction of a second to throw and there will be more than one receiver upon which he can rely. In time, the Redskins will have a base to build on. Someday they will have an identity. That day is not now.

There is a method to the way Zorn works. He is deliberate, patient, sometimes spending hours on the same techniques; running the same plays, the same patterns endlessly until they are right.

Perhaps his most telling comment came this past week in response to a question as to why he won't run trick plays the way first-year Ravens coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have used them this season on their way to a 9-4 start.

Zorn said he wants to perfect the regular plays the Redskins have now. Only when his players do that, he will consider adding gimmicks.

In his first year as a quarterbacks coach in Seattle, Zorn was given a quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck who already knew the basic principles of the Seahawks' offense, having learned them for three years as a reserve in Green Bay. What Hasselbeck didn't grasp was the right way to play the position. For days he drew plays on the boards in Zorn's office, describing in detail all of the West Coast offense's fantastic options. Zorn nodded and then spent the next year and a half tearing apart Hasselbeck's mechanics, imploring his quarterback to keep from forcing passes. He simplified Hasselbeck's responsibilities, even oversaw the player's benching. The process was slow, the Seahawks lost games as Hasselbeck and the team's other young offensive players struggled to understand what Zorn and Holmgren were teaching.

Then four years later, Seattle was in the Super Bowl.

Already Zorn has wrung potential from Campbell, eliminating the quarterback's long, looping windup and teaching him to make wise choices on the field. In nine months he has Campbell far ahead of where Hasselbeck was at the same point. Campbell has just six interceptions this year -- an amazing number given the lack of protection an aging offensive line has provided. When the rest of the offense catches up, Campbell has a chance to be a serious threat in this league.

So last night the tricks came from the Ravens. Baltimore's rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, faked a run and tossed the ball back to his running back on fourth down. It resulted in a first down.

The Redskins ran the same plays they have run all year, most with little success against one of the NFL's most ferocious defenses. And unlike that frigid night in New Jersey last December when last year's group found the gritty identity that would take it to the playoffs, this team learned another set of lessons and set another stone for another Sunday in a future season.

With Zorn, the Redskins have their first long-term plan in years if everyone will just see it through.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company