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False Start? Don't Panic

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On the eve of the 2008 NFL season, if someone had said the Washington Redskins, with their rookie head coach and still unproven quarterback, would be 7-7 with two games remaining, with victories already in Dallas and Philly, the general reaction would have been fairly favorable, perhaps even hopeful.

But a 6-2 start sent people, even men associated with the team, way past hopeful and straight to expectant. The talk midway through the season was whether Jason Campbell or Clinton Portis would get more votes for league MVP; whether Zorn was doing better than rookie coaches Mike Smith, John Harbaugh and Tony Sparano; whether the Redskins would make the playoffs as a wild-card or division winner. There was no end to the giddiness after eight games.

Except now, approaching the final two games of the season, 7-7 seems disastrous, like the first half was little more than a cruel tease. The same folks who were so in love with Campbell and Zorn want the former benched and the latter fired. Most of the opinions lean in the favor of something dramatic, something bold. People are angry because once again, the Washington Redskins are about to get an early jump on the offseason.

While the Steelers, Colts and Giants make their usual pilgrimage to the playoffs, the Redskins can begin what they do with regularity:

They can zero in on free agents and figure out what receivers are worth multiple picks in the upcoming draft. I don't mean to be insulting, but remember that the Redskins are Kings of the Offseason. The Yankees and Red Sox dominate the hot-stove league winter news, right? Well, the Redskins can own the cold-fridge league winter-spring news.

They're off to a good start already. Jim Zorn spent the afternoon essentially in apology mode for the 1-5 record over the last six games.

"I have to look at myself," he said yesterday at Redskins Park in the wake of the most embarrassing loss of the season, to the awful Bengals of Cincinnati. "It's all about me. I need to check my plan of attack -- and all of our staff. And then we need to reevaluate. . . . 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. . . .

"I'm not sure I could ask any more out of the players. These last six games we've asked a lot of them and they've responded well. . . .

"I just feel like the worst coach in America. . . .

"[The players] put out tremendous effort, tremendous emotion to go out and play. We can win some of these games. I have a hard time looking at the talent and just saying, 'That's the problem,' and just moving on."

Oh, there's plenty for Zorn to feel bad about. The Redskins' one victory the last six games came over the sorry, no-account Seahawks in Seattle. And two of their losses this season are to the Rams and Bengals, arguably the second- and third-worst teams in the NFL behind Detroit. Nearly as bad as the losing, Zorn completely and totally botched the Clinton Portis episode of a week ago, pushing all the wrong buttons at absolutely the wrong time on the best player on his team.

Still, the notion that Dan Snyder should fire Zorn if the Redskins lose their final two games of the season (here vs. Philly and at San Francisco) is insane. And yes, they very easily could lose both. But even at 7-9 the Redskins should retain Zorn, and there's no sense here that Snyder will fire him.

I'd never say never . . . not with Bill Cowher sitting in a TV studio every weekend. If Cowher gets the itch to return to the sideline after two years away, all bets are off, though the Redskins would have some stiff competition from Cleveland, where Cowher once played and where there will almost certainly be a vacancy after the disappointing season the Browns have had, one that's much more disappointing than the Redskins' season.

Anyway, it's highly doubtful Zorn is going anywhere just yet, and what would be the advantage if the Redskins went on another coaching search? Suppose Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel isn't the star in the making many think he is?

Steve Spurrier stayed two years. Marty Schottenheimer was here for only one. Now, people want Zorn out after one season? The biggest problem the Redskins have had, other than not having a boss of football operations before Vinny Cerrato was elevated, is too much change at the top. An 8-8 season would be a disappointment after the promise of 6-2, but it isn't a disaster. And what would a new head coach do with Campbell? Start him on another new offensive system? How far would that set the quarterback back, and how far would it set the team back?

Part of Zorn's problem is he's in a rookie coaching class that has done extraordinary work. Smith and the Falcons are my bet to take the second wild-card spot in the NFC. The Dolphins were as bad last season as the Lions are now, but Sparano and recycled quarterback Chad Pennington have Miami within reach of a spot in the playoffs. Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco could have been hosed out of a victory and a playoff spot Sunday by that inappropriate replay reversal.

It's catching lightning, though. Matt Ryan is a rare bird and running back Michael Turner was also a find. Harbaugh and Flacco, don't forget, have the world's meanest defense backing them up. Do the Redskins have that?

It's a good sign that Zorn, these last two weeks, after taking his lumps in a dispute with a star player and losing a game his team should never lose, took responsibility himself. He's not the worst coach in America, though it's good he staked out that ground himself before others could come after him. What Zorn appears to be is a young head coach who needs more good players, especially through the draft, and time to coach them. If the Redskins, out of frustration or pique, start the building process all over again they could be looking at a whole lot worse than 7-7 this time next year.

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