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

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.

"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.

Zorn has never had to deal with a prima donna running back pouting over being benched (and shame on me-first Clinton Portis for spewing to John Thompson on the radio instead of airing his grievances to Zorn in the privacy of the coach's office). We'll know soon enough if Zorn can do enough damage control to get the best out of Portis over the last three weeks of the season, but again, don't hold your breath.

There's a reason that no rookie NFL head coach has ever taken a team to a Super Bowl championship in his first year, and lately we've been seeing why up close and personal with Zorn on a regular basis. By the way, Tony Sparano in Miami and Mike Smith in Atlanta have done magnificent jobs in their first seasons large and in charge, but don't think for a minute either one of their teams will be playing for a title in Tampa on Feb. 1.

Despite Zorn's shortcomings, the hope here is that historically impatient team owner Daniel Snyder and his yes-man executive vice president, Vinny Cerrato, knew there would be growing pains for the man they initially hired as the team's offensive coordinator. You'd like to think they're now prepared to stay the course with Zorn, at least for another year or two.

Still, Snyder's petulant past would suggest he'll cut and run away from Zorn if he believes he can convince a big-time, big name to coach his team. But why would a Bill Cowher even think about coming to the Nation's Capital to work for one of the league's least-respected owners after years of working for Dan Rooney, a Hall of Famer who happens to be the most enlightened and revered team owner in the NFL?

What a mistake it would be to jettison Zorn in the first place, and what a disaster it would be in the development of quarterback Jason Campbell, who hardly would be well-served by having to learn yet another offense.

And by no means is Zorn the man totally responsible for the Redskins current swoon. Despite their stunning start, the Redskins he inherited remain a fundamentally flawed football team. Their aging, now crippled offensive line can't protect their young quarterback against a good defense. Their defensive line can't rush the opposing passer. Campbell has shown flashes, but holds on to the football too long and still hasn't shown the consistent ability to rally his team from behind in the fourth quarter.

Opposing defensive coordinators obviously now have a book on Zorn's tendencies as a play-caller, clearly evidenced by the team's dramatic drop in offensive production over the second half of the season, especially against the elite defenses they've seen the last month.

Compounding the problem, their wide receivers are mostly average at best and the three rookies Cerrato drafted in the second rounds to upgrade the passing game so far have contributed almost nothing to the cause. Throw in the lowest percentage field goal kicker in the league and a wildly inconsistent punter, and the Redskins, to paraphrase former Vikings head coach Dennis Green, "are what we thought they were" at the start of the season, an 8-8 team still missing some very important pieces.

"No one thinks of them as the team to beat," one NFC general manager told me when the Redskins were 6-2, adding that Zorn seemed to doing a fine job to that point, but should not yet be mentioned in the same sentence, or paragraph with Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick or Tom Coughlin.

Given time, that still could happen, but for now, the Redskins' thoroughly likeable rookie head coach is very much a work in progress. Here's hoping he gets a fighting chance to ultimately grow into the job.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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