Mike Wise on the Future of Jim Zorn

By Mike Wise
Monday, December 15, 2008


We can talk about why 280-pound Mike Sellers, a fullback whose vertical leap is probably measured with a Metro card, was allowed to go airborne on third and goal with the game-tying touchdown less than a couple of yards away. Why, for heaven's sake, wasn't Clinton Portis given the ball?

We can even dissect how a reeling team allegedly playing for its season can inexplicably be penalized nine times for 75 yards, including the 15 yards their best receiver cost them for pulling a towel from his uniform to dust off his cleats after a touchdown. On the home turf of a diva wideout who changed his name to his number, why in the world did Santana Moss have to do his personal version of Ocho Nueve?

But all of it misses the point of a meltdown, ignores the elephant in the room, the only real issue left in the season with two games left: whether Jim Zorn keeps his job beyond 2008.

Portis and Zorn coexisting is now immaterial. Arguing whether Jason Campbell can marshal an offense with a shell of an offensive line is a waste of dead trees and oxygen.

It's near unfathomable after how this Redskins' season began with so much unexpected promise and success. But as of 4:07 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Zorn's ability to retain his job is the lone issue of substance remaining, whether a first-year, unorthodox coach who began 6-2 can hang on and at least finish 2-6 or 3-5.

In this dank, gray stadium, home lately to some of America's most depressing football, Zorn's team came out unprepared to play the paramount game of their season.

Zorn didn't fumble the ball like Sellers did at the goal line, and he certainly didn't kick the ball out of bounds on a kickoff like Shaun Suisham. But this utter unraveling against a deplorable Cincinnati team, a team that came in with one victory, one tie and no hope, comes back to the coach.

Now the larger question: Is Zorn's Norv-esque finish to a Redskins season bad enough to warrant against bringing him back?

Neither Daniel Snyder nor Vinny Cerrato seemed immediately interested in touching the vote-of-confidence issue after Sunday's loss, and who can blame them? Even if the owner or executive vice president for football operations sound off in support of the newbie position coach they gambled on last February to replace Joe Gibbs, they give the issue credence and drive the story.

Saying "Jim is our guy" means they had doubt in the first place. And the truth is, they have no intention of looking for another coach after last offseason.

Suppose Zorn wins one of his last two games, or both. How to explain firing a man who installed a new offense, had the machine clicking early in the season and possibly finished with the same record as Joe Gibbs did in 2007 without a single game of head-coaching experience to start the season?

Unless the wheels completely come off and the Redskins look dreadful in their final home game next week against the Eagles and on Dec. 28 at San Francisco, Zorn is probably going nowhere. If he goes 8-8 or 9-7, he finishes with a better record than most observers probably believed possible when he first took over for Gibbs.

He essentially created a monster at 4-1 and 6-2. Because of injuries, mostly better competition and -- let's be honest -- his sudden conservative values as a play-caller, Zorn and the Redskins have basically found their level -- .500.

I said this in training camp and I'll say it again: Not giving Zorn at least two years to make this work flies in the face of everything the organization said it wants to be: less impulsive, more patient; about building for a championship future not merely trying to buy it in one offseason.

That's why Zorn should remain.

But after today, it's fair game to begin considering whether this was the right decision. It's not knee-jerk anymore to examine every one of Zorn's moves as if it were in a petri dish -- like, say, the opening kickoff.

A stiff wind blew from the south, 25-mph gusts that forced the Redskins to kick into that wind in the second half. This was their fate because, after winning the coin toss, they elected to receive the opening kickoff rather than defer. Like Sellers getting the ball in the crucible of a 17-10 game, that was the coach's call.

Whether Cerrato was worried about a loss before the game is unclear. But he informed employees of Red Zebra radio he wasn't doing his Monday radio show, meaning he would not have to be eviscerated by angry callers. It's tough, no, hosting a show called "Inside the Red Zone" when your football team can score only one out of four times from inside the 20-yard-line against the god-awful Bengals?

Besides, the harshest questions today will be asked at Zorn's news conference, questions like how a coach who seemed to be in touch with everything less than two months ago now often seems puzzled, sometimes without a clue.

Remember that contraption he invented in training camp to cool off his players, that fun story about the quirky new coach from the West Coast?

If ever someone needed a Z-shade to shelter him from the heat, it's Jim Zorn.

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