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Truth, Consequences

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

For NFL coaches, honesty is the worst policy. Their rule of thumb, almost to a man, is: Try everything else first. The truth is always a Hail Mary.

But every rule has its exception. Meet Jim Zorn. From the day he arrived to coach the Redskins, he's said what's on his mind, in detail, with footnotes. He loves analysis and nuance. He's a perfectionist, even when it comes to his own opinions. Somewhere, he went wrong. Maybe a blitzing linebacker broke the fib button on his lips long ago.

Even about his best player, superstar running back Clinton Portis, Zorn has always told the truth, the whole truth and, maybe, quite a bit more of the truth than circumstances required.

Now, he's paying the price. Or, maybe not. Maybe he's in the process of proving that candor can work.

Either way, we're going to get an answer in the last three weeks of this season about the blunt-spoken approach to dealing with egocentric 1,500-yard rushers. Preliminary results from the blast sight look catastrophic.

By now, you've heard the casualty report from Portis's eruption yesterday on John Thompson's radio show. How often does the transcript of a star ripping his coach run 800 words? How do I cut the legs out from under thee, dear coach, let me count the ways? But there's background here.

Zorn has, inadvertently or to show his authority, been getting Portis's goat since training camp. Instead of simply praising Portis for staying in town for offseason workouts, Zorn pointed out that Portis had an "extrinsic motivation" for his nobility; he was negotiating a new contract with $16 million up front. So the workouts helped Portis get ready for a superior season, but they also made C.P. a whole lot richer. Was that last point too much information?

In October, when Portis took himself out of a game in Detroit with an equipment problem, then put himself back in -- something Joe Gibbs allowed the last four years -- Zorn blew up at Portis on the sideline in a face-to-face yelling match. Rookie coach vs. eventual 10,000-yard rusher? Or former pretty-good NFL quarterback who never got, or expected, special treatment vs. all-NFL diva?

Then, two weeks ago, Portis mentioned, self-servingly but accurately, that he'd almost been knocked unconscious in a game and had "blood running down both my arms and my legs." A day later, Zorn quipped, "Was it gushing?"

The last cut was the deepest. With the Redskins down 17-0 in the second half in Baltimore on Sunday night, Zorn benched Portis for the rest of the game. Afterward, most coaches, if not all, would cover the back of their star. Okay, they'd lie. They'd invent a minor injury. Or they'd point out the 17-point deficit dictated that Ledell Betts, the best pass catcher out of the backfield, was needed.

Instead, Zorn came dangerously close to his view of the truth. Portis had missed lots of practices and wasn't as prepared to identify and pick up blitzes, or run precise and often-practiced pass routes as Betts. So the coach benched his star.

Zorn didn't use exactly those words. But that's what Portis, and his teammates, heard. When the team watched films on Monday, Zorn didn't seek out Portis for a kiss-and-make-up chat as many coaches would have. So, by yesterday, the fuse reached the ego dynamite. The various bits and pieces of coach and player are still coming back to earth.

But what no one in this town has seen is the best Redskins player undermine a rookie head coach from top to bottom. To do it with the team in a 1-4 tailspin, and barely on the edge of playoff contention, is double damage.

Zorn didn't ask for Portis, he inherited him from Gibbs. Zorn didn't ask for a flamboyant prima donna who pops off about his offensive line's play or wears outrageous postgame outfits to celebrate himself. But that's what he got. The job is to coach 'em, not change 'em.

Gibbs knew exactly how to coach Portis. The template, over four years, including two Portis-led trips to the playoffs, was there for Zorn to copy or ignore. He tore it up.

Gibbs praised Portis in public because he deserved it and because, being insecure, Portis needed it. Gibbs stroked him regularly. A man who wears gold shoes on the field and gives himself exotic nicknames craves attention.

As for practice, Gibbs praised Portis when he came and emphasized that nobody accused him of goldbricking when he didn't. Is that really what Gibbs thought? Close enough for NFL coaching.

Above all, Gibbs grasped that, if you ever have to take Portis to the woodshed, you better do it in private. You don't yell at him on the sideline for the world to see. You don't make light of his bleeding or discuss his contract. If you bench him with John Madden in the booth, you better seek him out for a chat, pronto. Players earn respect, each in their own amount. C.P. has earned a ton.

Gibbs knew that Portis is a player who ticks. On the field, he explodes for scores. Off it, he can blow up directly on you. If Gibbs, the Hall of Famer, knew Portis's potential for combustion, yet worked around him just as he always did with John Riggins, shouldn't Zorn have sensed the danger?

There's a world of difference between a coach who never tells a lie (Gibbs) and a coach who gives himself the prerogative to tell the truth (Zorn). The first illustrates character. The second borders on being foolhardy.

Ever since he arrived, Zorn has obsessed, as he should, about installing his West Coast offense, adapting his scheme to Gibbs's old personnel and micro-managing the attack like an offensive coordinator. That's fine. But limited.

The powerful lesson of both Gibbs tenures -- one as a great coach, the other as a merely good one -- was that coaching is about dealing with people more than anything else. Motivating them, understanding them deeply, melding them and, in many cases, accommodating their quirks and needs.

Long ago, Walter Lippmann wrote, "The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully."

When he left, Gibbs thought he had met that standard, especially in the unified character of the Redskins' locker room that he had carefully built. Now that room is in danger of splintering.

A little more common sense, and a little less self-indulgent honesty, might have prevented it.

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