Sally Jenkins: Redskins' Power Structure Is Out of Whack

The Washington Post's Jason Reid weighs-in on the growing rift between Clinton Portis and Jim Zorn following Portis's public statements on the radio Tuesday. Video by
By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Clinton Portis is laughing off his public criticism of Coach Jim Zorn, and offering to buy beers all around. It's tempting to forget the whole affair as one of his amusing scrapes. "I'm gonna speak my mind, so it's gonna cause trouble every now and then," he says.

The trouble is, Portis's tirade against Zorn belongs in a larger narrative: The Redskins are an organization in which authority has been so chronically undermined that the franchise player thinks it's okay to rip his rookie coach publicly and sow division on a team struggling to get out of a 1-4 slump.

"This has been something that I think, 'Has he not done this in the past?' " Zorn asked rhetorically yesterday, after sorting things out with his star running back.

Portis's diatribe against Zorn on "The John Thompson Show" begs the question of who is really going to run the Redskins. Is there such a thing as a coaching prerogative with this franchise? Zorn believed there was. Big rookie mistake.

Zorn is beginning to learn exactly why other coaches have found it so tough to turn the Redskins into consistent winners these last few years. The realities of the organization are setting in: the decade of bad drafts and free agent bingeing that have left them dependent on a handful of highly paid playmakers like Portis; the lack of a professional general manager to develop coherent team depth; and, above all, the faulty command structure that has undermined every head coach except Joe Gibbs.

For a few games, it looked as if Zorn was the guy who could finally overcome all of it. Lately, it's looking like he's the one getting overcome.

The funhouse mirror is in effect on the Redskins. The person who is in trouble in this situation is apparently not Portis, but Zorn. There are whispers that the first-year coach may have done himself harm by benching Portis, and that his job could be in jeopardy if the Redskins don't finish strong in their last three games. This would be a real pity if it's true, because Zorn is one of the few good decisions the Redskins have made in years, his inexperienced mistakes and recent losses notwithstanding.

Let's review: It's been obvious since the preseason that the Redskins have several problems that are beyond the immediate cure of any head coach. Yet Zorn got them off to a 6-2 start and has imbued them with new energy. One admirer is Fox Sports analyst and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who said: "I've been impressed. Really, overall, for that football team. They've played pretty well."

Zorn is struggling to transform a team that has been dismal offensively for the better part of a decade. In five of the previous seven seasons, the Redskins ranked 15th or worse in the NFL in total offense. This year, they are 16th in the league.

He is desperate to break the paralysis, and so trailing in the second half against Baltimore last weekend he decided to use Ladell Betts and to sideline Portis, who has been hurting and hasn't practiced much in weeks. You could quarrel with the wisdom of the move -- leaving one of the league's best rushers on the sideline of a must-win game -- but what no one should quarrel with was Zorn's right to make the decision.

Zorn has been heading toward this reckoning with Portis since a sloppy victory over the Detroit Lions on Oct. 26, when he had heated words with Portis on the sideline. The running back had pulled himself out of the game to get his helmet adjusted without telling the coach. Later, Zorn explained that he was concerned by the Redskins' pattern of nagging mistakes, that he could see that their 6-2 record was precarious and that there was not much margin for error. He was worried by "the little things that make a difference between a good team and one that's just fighting to keep its head above water."

There you have it: Zorn could see what was coming. His critics can argue about his play-calling, but no one can argue the acuity of his analysis. And no one should blame him for trying to change a pattern of costly mistakes.

None of this is to say Zorn hasn't made plenty of mistakes himself -- he's still getting a grip on sideline management, and managing player personalities is another issue. He's not faultless in the situation with Portis, a player who is charm incarnate and a rampant talent, but who is also a bundle of fragile ego and sensitivities.

"What's difficult for a first-year head coach is not knowing the temperament of each individual player," Johnson said. "You try to treat everyone the same, and you really can't do that." Some players can be dressed down in front of the team without a problem, others need lengthy "counseling sessions" if they're spoken to sharply. Portis is one of the latter. "That's not the right button to push for everybody," Johnson said. "Different ones get a different reaction. There are a lot of different personalities that make up a 53-man roster. As years go by and you know players and they know you, a lot of these first-year problems are alleviated."

Even after a team meeting and a sit-down with Zorn yesterday, it was unclear whether Portis was truly remorseful. His main issue seemed to be his pride of place in the organization, and he appeared mollified by the assurance that he remains a pet of the team owner, Daniel Snyder, who apparently told Zorn with a verbal shrug, "That's Clinton." Portis said, "I love Mr. Snyder, Mr. Snyder love me, that's my man." His hurt feelings soothed, he pronounced himself "cool with everything."

As for Zorn, he was cool, too -- decidedly so. One of Zorn's strengths has been his imperturbable self-possession, and it's serving him well under pressure. Asked if he worried for his job, he simply said, "It won't be up to me." Zorn is clearly going to manage the Redskins his way, and accept the consequences. If they are going to become a better team and organization, he has to be sure of his coaching prerogative. The Redskins under Zorn will be a team that operates on winning principles, even when the specifics are debatable. Otherwise, it's not a job worth having.

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