By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
With his team in a free fall that has all but eliminated it from playoff contention, Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn turned introspective yesterday, saying that any evaluation of the Redskins' collapse -- five losses in their last six games, including a debacle Sunday in Cincinnati -- must start with Zorn himself.
Zorn, in his first year as a head coach at any level, said he had not spoken with team owner Daniel Snyder or Executive Vice President for Football Operations Vinny Cerrato about his immediate future with the team, but said both had offered "tremendous support." He gave his players yesterday off, he said, so he could turn the attention to himself, an evaluation that he indicated might be scathing.
"I always ask the players to be very honest when they look at the game, and be very self-critical," Zorn said. "And so that's what I'm going to be to myself, just criticize my overall coaching [of] this football team. Where do I need to improve, not only on Sunday, but on Wednesday, on . . . all the game-planning, all the paying attention to the detail?
"Those are things that I need to make good use of this time, and I will, because it hurts. I feel -- I just feel like the worst coach in America to have to lose the way we're losing."
Such public self-flagellation marks a departure from Zorn's recent Monday news conferences during this skid, which reached a nadir with Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Bengals, who had just one previous win. After the Redskins lost to potentially playoff-bound Pittsburgh, Dallas, the New York Giants and Baltimore, Zorn spoke most frequently about his players' lack of execution, even as he praised their effort and commitment. Yesterday, in a 21-minute address to two dozen media members at Redskins Park, Zorn again said he appreciated the players' work ethic both in practice and in games, but did not once mention the word "execution."
"To me, it's all about me," Zorn said. "And I need to check my plan of attack -- and all of our staff. And then we need to reevaluate what we're doing to see if we're going in the right direction. I really believe we're building a great foundation, but certainly, when these things get strung across the board, I certainly take -- have to take, and do take -- the responsibility for some of these games that just are not turning out like we have planned."
Snyder and Cerrato were in the Redskins' locker room at Paul Brown Stadium following Sunday's loss, but, through a team spokesman, both declined to comment on Zorn's future yesterday. Cerrato normally hosts a two-hour radio show on Mondays on ESPN 980, and he often addresses organizational situations in that forum. But his appearance was canceled yesterday because he was out of town attending league meetings, according to Bruce Gilbert, the chief executive of Red Zebra Broadcasting, the media conglomerate owned by Snyder.
"We knew on Friday," Gilbert said. "As suspicious as it may seem to many cynical fans, that was the game plan."
Zorn said that though he had not specifically addressed his future with Snyder and Cerrato, who hired him first as the offensive coordinator and then as the head coach last February, he has regular exchanges with both his bosses.
"It's not like I'm getting the silent treatment," Zorn said. "That part of it's not dysfunctional. We're all trying to work to win. Those things we're working out internally, not externally. We're trying to move along. . . .
"I feel we have tremendous support from both those guys," he added. "I really do. They are very passionate about this football team and want the best for it. I can say that emphatically. I can tell you that honestly."
With few players at Redskins Park yesterday, and with the league-mandated day off for players today, the Redskins won't reassemble until tomorrow, when they begin preparations for Sunday's home game against Philadelphia. Zorn said he would take that time to consider as many aspects of his own performance as he can, from why the team has gotten off to slow starts -- Washington has been outscored 38-0 in the first quarter during this three-game losing streak -- to how the coaches communicate with their players. He said he is prepared for whatever the results of such an inward-looking examination might yield.
"I think it's not responding to the specific coaching, and we need to be more specific," Zorn said. "We need to notch our game up as coaches, because we're not getting the win."
Until this year, Zorn had never been more than a quarterbacks coach in the NFL. Thus, previous self-critiques have dealt primarily with his performance in relation to one, two or three players. He acknowledged yesterday that he now must evaluate how he deals with 53 players and an entire coaching staff.
"I think that's all a part of me being the major part of this decline is just making sure that I take responsibility for being the head football coach," Zorn said. "I think a lot does fall on my shoulders, and I feel sick to my stomach even thinking about having to go and do this evaluation."
Despite Washington's 6-2 start, five teams -- Dallas, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago -- are ahead of the Redskins in the race for two NFC wild-card playoff spots. To sneak in, the Redskins would not only have to win their remaining two games -- home against Philadelphia and at San Francisco -- but have a slew of other teams lose out.
Given that outlook, both Zorn and players were realistic about the situation. "Basically, all of our goals are gone," tight end Chris Cooley said. Thus, Zorn said he must consider how he addresses the players when they return to work.
"I think they need to hear from me, and they need to know how I feel," he said. "And then, I hope I can have a sense of how they feel, and then we need to get ready.
"Some of life, and I really believe this, is just about making decisions. You make a decision about something, and you got to go hard and play it, regardless of how you feel sometimes. And that's kind of the tough part of life in a lot of situations, and this is one of those for us. We have to decide. . . . We got to make a very objective decision and go."
In a despondent locker room Sunday night, most veterans said they had little choice but to decide to play hard.
"We got to find a way to finish," running back Clinton Portis said.
"It's your job," special teams captain Rock Cartwright said. "You got to go to work."
Less than 24 hours after the most difficult loss of his 14-game career as an NFL head coach, Zorn said he believed his players would do just that. But the thrust of his remarks yesterday seemed to indicate that how he responds is just as, if not more, important.
"I'm deeply concerned, and I want to look internally," Zorn said. "I want to look inside of our coaches. It starts with me. It truly just starts with me. I've got enough to look at myself for the next couple of days to make sure that we can make some moves here to help get this team on the right track."