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Keep in Mind, Zorn, Redskins Are a Work in Progress

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 11, 2008; 5:02 PM

One of the more telling quotes of the Washington Redskins unraveling 2008 season came during a postgame news conference a few minutes after the team's loss to the N.Y. Giants two weeks ago.

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"I just started whining about everything, believe me," Jim Zorn said that day of his grumpy, grousing demeanor on the sidelines. "I was even on myself. I probably need not get so mad."

In essence, the team's rookie head coach admitted that (with apologies to Dan Jenkins) he, his own self had been a major problem that day, and definitely wasn't helping his reeling team, now losers of four of its last five games. Good for Zorn being so candid, just as he's been virtually since the day he was named to replace Joe Gibbs. But bad for his football team that his emotions got the best of him that afternoon.

Zorn has been preaching to his players all year to stay "medium," as in not too high after big wins, not too low after devastating losses. The only problem lately has been that he's hardly been practicing what he's been preaching.

Certainly there have been highly successful NFL head coaches who have ranted on the sidelines before. "What the hell is going on here," Vince Lombardi famously once said, with a camera crew from NFL Films nearby to record that signature outburst for posterity.

But you also can be virtually certain that Lombardi knew exactly what he was doing with his sideline rant that day, and you also can bet he quickly went back to medium, the better to show his Green Bay team he was fully in control of his emotions and eminently capable of making all the right moves to assure a victory, as well.

Zorn calls the offensive signals for his team, a job that has to be the main focus of his attention, no matter what distractions might pop up. If he wants to rage at the ball boys, as he said he did that afternoon against the Giants, or call out Clinton Portis or even a lowly rookie punter, then perhaps he might be wise to let someone else on his staff call the plays.

Football players usually follow the lead of the man in charge. If you see your head coach looking discombobulated and out of control on the sidelines, that can hardly be a reassuring, confidence-inducing sight. Maybe Tom Landry was a jumble of swirling emotions on the inside, but that stoic front on the outside surely also had a calming effect on his team, knowing their leader seemed to be in complete control, no matter what the situation.

It's no coincidence that once Tom Coughlin purposely toned down his raving maniac gameday routine a year ago, the N.Y. Giants began soaring to a Super Bowl title and now must be considered a favorite to earn back-to-back titles.

Don't get me wrong. Though I was among many skeptical about the decision to name Zorn the team's head coach last January, he's been a breath of fresh air, a seemingly congenial and cooperative fellow who says what's on his mind instead of the typical coach-speak we've become so accustomed to hearing all around the NFL over so many years.

At the moment, Zorn is simply in the process of learning how to be a head coach. And just as you'd expect a beginner in any profession to occasionally stumble and fall in his first year of intense on the job training, that's exactly what Zorn has been doing over the second half of the season.

Zorn never before had to worry about how to handle his players in the midst of a losing streak. That was always Mike Holmgren's job in Seattle, not the responsibility of his quarterback coach. Now Zorn has to figure out a way to stop the bleeding, no easy task for any head coach by any means and probably a lost cause for this season. But surely he'll learn from his mistakes and do better the next time, if there is a next time.

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