George Solomon: The Zorn Saga Could Still Have a Happy Ending -- or Not

Jim Zorn, above, is the sixth head coach employed by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. The Redskins have lost four of the last five games and face the 1-11-1 Cincinnati Bengals today.
Jim Zorn, above, is the sixth head coach employed by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. The Redskins have lost four of the last five games and face the 1-11-1 Cincinnati Bengals today. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By George Solomon
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tevye, the main character in the venerable Broadway musical "Fiddler on the Roof" who is described in Wikipedia as the "pious Jewish milkman," said life for Jewish people in czarist Russia was as precarious as the perch of a fiddler on the roof.

More than 100 years later, the same characterization can be made for head coaches of the Washington Redskins.

It is the plight of such well-paid men as Jim Zorn that, in the span of seven weeks and four defeats in five games, you can slide from candidate for coach of the year with a 6-2 record to a place on the slippery slope of Daniel Snyder's Redskins Park chalet.

It's a perch so precarious that a loss by the 7-6 Redskins today to the 1-11-1 Cincinnati Bengals could, by the end of the year, put Zorn in the same place as thousands of other Americans: out of work.

The 55-year-old Zorn, who was the surprise choice of Snyder last winter to succeed Joe Gibbs as the Redskins' head coach only weeks after he was hired from Seattle to be the Redskins' offensive coordinator, must know his employer's history. The five-year, approximately $15 million contract Zorn signed in February carries for him only the substantial weight of a healthy severance.

In the 10 years since buying the Redskins and FedEx Field from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke, Snyder has employed six coaches: Norv Turner (two years, 17-12), Terry Robiskie (three games, 1-2), Marty Schottenheimer (one year, 8-8), Steve Spurrier (two years, 12-20), Gibbs (four years, 30-34) and Zorn.

Snyder, while turning the franchise into one of the most profitable in professional sports with aggressive marketing and blanket media saturation, as well as drawing about 90,000 fans a game to FedEx Field, has not seen the same results on the field. The team's regular season record under his stewardship is 75-82, with three playoff appearances (2-3).

His willingness to spend money on players in the free agent market and go after high-profile coaches (Schottenheimer, Spurrier and Gibbs) has been offset by erratic personnel decisions, including the disaster of the most recent college draft.

Zorn and the fans should know this much as the season winds down: Snyder is a man of little patience or tact. He kept Turner waiting for hours in a cold hallway at FedEx Field after a 9-7 loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 3, 2000, before firing him that night. The Redskins were 7-6 at the time -- and still in playoff contention.

A year later, he unceremoniously dumped Schottenheimer after he lured the famously successful Spurrier from the University of Florida to coach, with Bobby Beathard set to be the general manager. The Beathard deal fell apart and a dispirited Spurrier was discarded two years later when Gibbs drove to the rescue in his NASCAR speedster.

Now, who knows what Snyder has up the sleeve of that white Armani shirt? Or who he and his buddies Clinton Portis and My Cousin Vinny have lined up, just in case? Could it be former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who looks happy doing TV for CBS? Or Brian Billick, who is tall and also does TV and won a Super Bowl in Baltimore? Or Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive genius for the Giants who said no to Snyder last January but spent this autumn with Plaxico Burress? Or Jim "I'm still here" Fassel?

But count on this: Daniel Snyder is prepared to laud Zorn if the Redskins win their final three games -- or maybe fire him if things get uglier this month. The only person who won't be surprised by what happens is Snyder.

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